Heading to the finish line of Florida’s cruel greyhound racing industry

Published on 8/6/18 by Stephen Wells

The stakes couldn't be higher: This November, Floridians should have the opportunity to vote on Amendment 13, a historic ballot measure that would prohibit the cruel "sport" of greyhound racing throughout the state. ("Should" because of an ongoing legal battle — more on that below.)

Amendment 13 would phase greyhound racing out of Florida by 2020, and would bring Florida into line with nearly every state in the country while protecting thousands of animals as well as taxpayers' purses. The odds look good: A recent poll shows that 70 percent of Floridians support the proposed ban on greyhound racing in this state.

As of 2018, 40 states have banned greyhound racing in response to growing public awareness of the inherent cruelty. Florida remains one of a handful of states where greyhound racing is still legal. Only six states still have active tracks, and 11 of the 17 tracks still operating in the United States are in Florida.

And it's not because Floridians, or tourists, are eager to attend the races. While Florida was the first state to legalize greyhound racing in 1931, this hasn't been a profitable industry for decades. Florida's greyhound track owners complain that the tracks are in fact money-losing operations due to long-declining attendance.

A unique Florida law is why they don't just call the races off. Under this law, which dates to 1997, if the owners of greyhound tracks wish to offer poker or slot machines, they are required to keep holding dog races as well. Amendment 13 would "decouple" dog racing from these other more profitable activities, in addition to ending the racing itself and prohibiting the betting on live races held in the state. (Floridians could still bet on dog races that are held in other states.)

Twenty years ago, greyhound racing was an important source of revenue for the state. In 1998, state reports show that it brought in $80.59 million in taxes. But that's changed in the decades since: Florida's dog tracks lost nearly $35 million dollars on racing in 2016, the last year for which figures are available. A study commissioned by the state legislature found that Florida loses between $1 and $3.3 million every year on greyhound racing, since the regulatory costs are greater than revenues.

In other words, these days, Florida taxpayers are paying a lot of their own money to subsidize this dying industry.

And it's not just the industry that's dying, but also the dogs. Once greyhounds are released on the track, they face grave danger. More than 450 dogs have died at Florida tracks since the state began tracking greyhound deaths in 2013. That averages to one greyhound death at a Florida track every three days.

We don't know exactly how many dogs are injured during racing, because due to political pressure from the industry, Florida is one of just two states that doesn't publicly report greyhound injuries. However, one county, Seminole, began tracking injuries beginning in May 2017. More than 60 injuries have been reported since then, including three dogs who have died and 51 who have suffered broken bones. On top of that, there have been more than 400 recorded incidents of greyhounds testing positive for drugs, including cocaine, in the last decade.

Floridians love animals, and for years have been pressing for greyhound racing to be more tightly regulated in order to protect the dogs. While a few lawmakers have introduced bills to do better by greyhounds, they haven't succeeded in passing any legislation due to entrenched political interests.

Meanwhile, there are approximately 8,000 greyhounds forced to participate in the racing industry in Florida (and thousands more who are bred for this life but then must find homes — or be killed — when they prove to be poor racers). When they aren't running, putting their bodies and lives at risk, these dogs often spend 20-23 hours per day in tiny cages barely large enough to stand up in, with little room to turn around. It's not a life that anyone would wish for the animals who share our lives and our homes, as dogs do.

But greyhound breeders and others in the industry aren't going down easy. The Florida Greyhound Association, representing owners, breeders and trainers, brought a lawsuit in state court challenging the constitutionality of Amendment 13. And on August 1, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Karen Gievers issued a ruling in their favor, striking Amendment 13 from the November ballot. Attorney General Pam Bondi filed an immediate appeal.

If Judge Gievers' decision is reversed on appeal, in November Florida voters will finally get the chance to pass the protections that the industry is trying so hard to avoid, and that the state's lawmakers have been unable to enact.

We are finally racing to the finish line of this cruel industry.

Stephen Wells is the executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the nation’s preeminent legal advocacy organization for animals. He has committed himself to animal and environmental protection and over the years, in addition to his full-time work, he has continued to volunteer his time for local organizations and projects.