Monday, 21 December 2009

Misguided petition

Going ‘online’ reaches thousands of like minded individuals and there are many benefits to this including the increasing popularity of online petitions. One such petition, submitted recently by Ms Maureen Purvis, is calling for the “Prime Minister to withdraw the proposed regulations under the Animal Welfare Act which cheat racing greyhounds of protection.”

It is a petition that is likely meaningless to the majority of the public but refers to proposed regulations drafted by Defra to promote the welfare of racing greyhounds in England. Essentially, the new legislation is intended to provide minimum welfare standards across all tracks in England and largely bring the independent (flapping) tracks in line with those tracks licensed under the Greyhound Board of Great Britain.

Key detail of the proposals includes the requirement for a vet to be present at all race/trail meetings and the provision of suitable veterinary facilities, greyhounds to be examined by a vet prior to each race/trial (and withdrawn if judged not fit to run) and injuries sustained to be recorded.

Such measures are vital because of the frequency and nature of injuries greyhounds sustain in trails and races. Injuries sustained annually across all tracks in Britain total 5 figures, and about 1,000 greyhounds are put-to-sleep every year following injury. And whilst standards at licensed tracks exceed the minimum requirements under the proposed regulations, that is far from the case for the majority of flapping tracks.

Limb fractures and, in particular, hock fractures of varying severity are common. Indeed trainer Craig Hopkins has stated: “Day in, day out, racing dogs break their hocks, it’s as simple as that.” Needless to say, the pain can be excruciating but the petitioner wants the withdrawal of new measures that, if properly enforced, will ensure dogs at all tracks receive immediate treatment.

Regulations, however, cost money for both the financially strapped track operators and trainers. And whilst trainers and owners are undoubtedly passionate about the racing of greyhounds, the dogs are merely a commodity - essentially a betting medium - and have little value. As such their welfare is not a priority.

It might, therefore, be reasonable to think Ms Purvis is a promoter or perhaps a regular on the track terraces each week, a fag in one hand, a betting slip in the other and her face plastered in pound-shop make-up (solely based on observation you understand). Ms Purvis was certainly held in high regard by the late Armine Appleton - a trainer of 30 years - who enjoyed her support at a racing disciplinary hearing.

As many, however, will know Ms Purvis is of celebrity endorsed Greyhounds UK fame - a group that if nothing else has raised the profile of greyhound welfare - but is not, and I stand to be corrected, seeking the abolition of racing. With though an unquestionable passion for the welfare of greyhounds why then a petition calling for the proposals to be withdrawn?

To the right of signatories listed it states: “These regulations cheat greyhounds out of the protection they deserve for the 99% of their time spent in kennels while racing and, when they are no longer able to race, protection from abandonment or destruction. They allow greyhounds to continue to be kept away from any independent publicly accountable inspection, defeating the purpose of the Animal Welfare Act.”

Not strictly true as there will be a requirement for all dogs to be earmarked and micro-chipped before competing on the track and this will offer limited protection to ex-racing greyhounds but certainly the proposed regulations do not cover many areas of concern endemic in greyhound racing. Is that, however, reason to scrap the proposals? Better surely, to have limited protection specific to racing dogs than none at all.

Backing the petition is Greyt Exploitations (GE) that, according to the ‘group’ website is “campaigning for the abolition of betting on greyhounds.” An admirable aim indicating perhaps a desire to see an end to racing but GE has this year been very much regulation focused and is supporting the petition, not least, on the assumption the proposed regulations are “unenforceable and worthless.”

In defence, GE reference a press release by Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services (LACORS) in which it states: “The new legislation to be issued by Defra requires councils to issue licenses for greyhound tracks to operate. It does not, however, contain any offences, inviting track owners to break the law and leaving councils with no powers to prosecute them.”

The press release is, however, “not best worded” according to Defra. If flapping tracks do not comply with new regulations their licence can be revoked by the local authority and any track operating without a licence is committing an offence. The maximum penalties will be imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or a fine not exceeding £5,000 or both. Alternatively, the local authority has the power to suspend a licence until such time the track can demonstrate all licensing conditions will be met. The regulations are therefore, at least in theory, enforceable.

GE makes no mention of the above and believes a statement by Defra clarifying the powers of local authorities “serves no other purpose than to confuse readers.” On the contrary, Defra’s clarification enables the public to make an informed and qualified decision.

Of course, whether local authorities wish to use their new powers or not is another matter entirely. The RSPCA have been widely and in my view, rightly, criticised for not enforcing the Animal Welfare Act. Indeed GE is very damning of the RSPCA in a submission made as part of the consultation process on the proposed regulations. Would GE like to see the scrapping of the above Act in its entirety?

A video being used by GE to further strengthen their support for the petition is equally perplexing. Proposed regulations are specific to England and yet the video covers only flapping tracks in Scotland. Furthermore, the video highlights precisely the welfare issues that new regulations are intended to eliminate. To use words from a classic Elton John song, ‘it’s getting more and more absurd’.

All welfare groups are highly critical of the proposed regulations, none more so than the Dogs Trust, who are “appalled that the Government has decided to restrict greyhound welfare provisions to just trackside activity, thereby condemning thousands of dogs to a life of misery and in some cases an early death.”

It’s important also to note that whilst new legislation is essentially track focused it will impact little on the abhorrent scale of injuries greyhounds sustain - a point all welfare groups fail to mention and a point significantly that will never be adequately addressed through regulation.

The Dogs Trust, whilst critical of the new measures, also state in their submission to Defra: “(We do) not wish to see an end to greyhound racing in the UK, but we do wish to see an end to cruelty, exploitation and ‘light touch’ regulation.”

I’m sorry to drop this bombshell on the Dogs Trust, on also Greyhounds UK and the RSPCA who have yet to call for the abolition of racing, but the humane treatment of greyhounds and commercial greyhound racing are simply incompatible. No likely welfare regulations will cover and remedy all welfare issues from cradle to grave endemic in racing. The naivety of welfare groups leading up to Defra’s public consultation I found staggering.

I do maintain, however, the measures proposed are a significant step forward in protecting dogs running on flapping tracks in England, or will be if properly enforced. And more importantly, are likely the best protection the dogs will get. The petitioner though, backed by GE wants this protection withdrawn. Whilst no doubt driven by the best intentions, the petition I conclude is both ill-conceived and misguided.

On a more positive note, the ease in which petitions can now be compiled via the internet serves also to devalue them. Anyone can start a petition addressing any concern. Recent petitions include a call for the Prime Minister to make teachers correct errors when pupils make mistakes (5 signatures). And Jack Andrews is seeking a space flight launch pad and landing runway in England (1 signature (Jack’s)).

By 21 December 2009, 1,290 had signed the petition submitted by Ms Purvis so not a poor response but isn’t that, at least in part, due to ‘group mentality’? You know what I mean; someone says “jump” and the rest say “how high?” It is trait of human kind found amongst the majority of like minded persons but one, interestingly, few recognise within themselves.

Its worth also considering, signatories likely include members of the racing fraternity and advertising the petition on popular racing websites may double, treble, even quadruple the figure as it is the people who exploit these beautiful animals that are, in the main, apposed to any further regulation - regulation that will in fact see independent tracks closing.