Photographers' Blog

Racing greyhounds fall between the cracks

March 15, 2013

West Yorkshire, England

By Chris Helgren

I met Alice at a rescue center in West Yorkshire. She was skin and bones, flea-ridden, and half the weight of the dog she should have been. Alice was a greyhound bred for racing, who was picked up wandering the busy Doncaster Road, the victim of an uncaring owner who had dumped her rather than continue feeding her. She was brought to Tia Greyhound & Lurcher Rescue center, a sanctuary sited on the edge of a moor near Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.

Tia was borne of the need to house dogs which were either abandoned or whose owners or trainers could not find space at regular welfare kennels. The Retired Greyhound Trust is doing an admirable job in housing and arranging for homes for about 4,000 dogs per year through their 72 branches, but their space is limited to about 800 kennels. Also, kennels charge up to 300 pounds for a new dog to be admitted. What happens in the cases seen by Rothery in Yorkshire is that if a greyhound owner cannot place their dog in one of these kennels, the pressure is on to move it out of their care in other ways, such as by advertising via websites Gumtree or Preloved. These new onward owners are not vetted, and there is no return policy if it doesn’t work out.

Debra Rothery, who runs the Tia center, said that at any given time they house 80 dogs which would “otherwise be dead”. The animals coming into her care are from a region surrounding the center, where there are six regulated and non-regulated racetracks. She said that about 50% of her greyhounds were abandoned, the remainder brought in by owners and trainers. Rothery said that the operating costs of Tia, which run at £1000 per day, are met by donations.

I’m not a dog person, I’ve always had cats, so my motives behind pursuing this story were not sentimental. I merely sensed a story of injustice, one of the classic themes for reportage. When I saw the state of dogs that had been freshly retrieved from the streets of Yorkshire, and heard what had happened to some of them, to me it was an obvious story. Former working dogs that should be enjoying their retirement are being cast aside or killed because elements of the declining racing industry turn a blind eye to the problem. The Greyhound Board of Great Britain does not believe the dogs registered with them are being set loose on the streets in large numbers, and have a set of standards that they maintain are vigorously enforced by their welfare officers who report breaches to prosecuting authorities. The GBGB say that the greyhound is now the most protected of all canine breeds after the introduction of the 2010 Racing Greyhounds Regulations. However, despite the tough talk, Tia’s kennels continue to fill with unwanted animals.

The project started originally from a simple exercise in environmental portraits at Wimbledon Stadium for my MA course in photojournalism and documentary photography at London College of Communication. When I lived in London in the 1990s, I visited the now-derelict Walthamstow racetrack on several occasions. A friend of mine introduced me to the place, a grand palace of the sport, and I felt an affinity with the atmosphere. Later, I brought friends of mine to experience racing nights there and witnessed what appeared to be real Londoners enjoying themselves. Central London seemed to me at the time to be filled with transients, both foreigners like myself and office staff who had migrated from the rest of the United Kingdom. Real Londoners seemed to have kept themselves segregated and went off to live their lives apart from us. But here at the track in east London, this was where to find them, their stock was undiluted.

Trainers and owners are now leaving the sport in large numbers because their margins are so low they cannot continue. Blaming track closures in Reading, Walthamstow, Hull, Portsmouth, Coventry and Oxford, the GBGB say that the number of professional trainers has fallen by 129 in the last five years, from 510 in 2008 to 381 today. Those that remain must cut costs wherever possible. The vast majority will not mistreat their animals but a few, when faced with the inability to place their retiring or injured dogs with a limited number of welfare kennels, have decided to give them away to the first person they find, let them loose, put them down or sell them to research labs rather than continue housing and feeding them.

Campaigners are asking for more transparency in the record keeping of racing greyhounds, including where they are from birth to death, but opposition to this comes from people saying data protection laws would be breached. The GBGB maintains a database and say that they share their microchip information with “responsible re-homing organizations” and dog wardens. However, what happens once a dog has been passed on from its original registered owner? Surely there’s a way around it.

For further information view:
Abandoned greyhounds fill Tia rescue sanctuary in south Yorkshire
Welfare managers discuss the problems of re-homing racing greyhounds
Former Sunday Times journalist speaks of the greyhound killing field

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