The Irish Daily Mail has published an excellent article following a lengthy investigation into the breeding of Irish greyhounds and their exclusion from the impending Irish Dog Breeding Establishments Bill.
ABANDONED and utterly exhausted, an emaciated Hope could barely muster up enough energy to lick the afterbirth from the last of her litter of ten greyhound pups before she collapsed in a deserted west Dublin field. Desperately nuzzling into their unconscious mother for milk, none of the dogs would have survived were it not for a woman who spotted the wriggling brood as she walked through fields in Clondalkin last Friday afternoon.
The woman alerted the DSPCA and inspector Liam Kinsella rushed Hope and her puppies back to the shelter in Rathfarnham for urgent veterinary attention. At seven years of age, it was a miracle that Hope — a brindle whose faded ear tattoos made it difficult to identify her — gave birth to ten strong healthy pups.
But these weren’t born to any old stray. What we know about Hope is that she was raised by a greyhound breeder to become a racing dog. Tattoos on her ears, the Irish standard for identification, prove she was once in line to become a prize racer.
It’s dogs like Hope that illustrate why there’s a growing war between welfare groups and Bord na gCon (Irish greyhound Board), which came to a head last week in the debate over the Dog Breeding Establishments Bill, passed in the Dáil by 92 votes to 50 on Thursday.
Welfare groups say that there are too many dogs being bred. Thousands are then left to die. That’s why they say greyhounds ought to have been included in the new Bill. But under pressure from the industry, the Government relented and greyhounds were taken out.
Bord na gCon says that it is very well-regulated already, that it would be unnecessarily bureaucratic to include greyhound breeders and kill the commercially viable racing industry.
The Government says it will amend existing legislation to incorporate greyhounds. However, the story of Hope and the lengthy Irish Daily Mail investigation that brought her case to light appear to suggest that this is far from the truth and that across Ireland there is a silent slaughter of greyhounds – racers and retired. Few will be spared a cruel and vile death by John Gormley’s platitudes.
Emotions have been running high since the Environment Minister announced that greyhounds would be exempt from the legislation late last week. Instead, the Greyhound Industry Act 1958 will be amended with welfare provisions.
The Green Party has promised that this legislation will be drafted in parallel with puppy breeding laws and consultations are underway. New laws are expected to be drawn up by the autumn.
A Green Party spokesman said: ‘We know welfare is not sufficient right now and we have to regulate. The regime will be of the same high standard as those in the breeding Bill.’
Under the new breeding Bill, all puppies will be micro-chipped and stringent inspection regimes will be drawn up, with strict rules on registration, kennelling, numbers, ventilation, light and food requirements, with local authorities drawing up breeding registers. The legislation aims to put an end to the practice of ‘puppy-farming’ in Ireland, known as ‘the puppy farm capital of Europe’.
But according to vets union Veterinary Ireland, ‘This act is solely about identifying and regulating greyhound racing — it does not mention welfare or breeding. The existing inspection system for greyhounds does not extend to the breeding establishments, nor does it involve the inspection of dogs that aren’t being raced, in other words, the majority of greyhounds held by breeders and the racing establishment.’
Bord na gCon insisted that it was inappropriate to term a ‘hobby’ breeder as an establishment if his single bitch had just six female puppies. Red tape would discourage such breeders and debilitate an industry providing around 11,000 jobs and generating €500million for the Exchequer.
The minister subsequently removed greyhounds. But rescue workers maintain this concession will come at a price. They claim Hope is just the tip of the iceberg. Each year the industry breeds between 20,000 and 30,000 dogs with no statutory provision for welfare. Again, this week, Limerick Animal Welfare is providing continuous care for a three-quarter greyhound, or lurcher, called Elsie who was the worst case of neglect they had ever seen.
She was found in a back garden, her emaciated body covered in gangrenous sores, some 8cms wide, and so deep you could see through to her bone. She spends most of her time cowering in her basket, trembling if anyone approaches.
Carole Shinkwin has been training and racing greyhounds for more than 20 years. She raced her greyhounds in Britain before relocating to Tipperary with her 24 dogs, many now retired, in 2006.
‘Rules and welfare here just don’t compare with the UK. I’ve never had an inspection from Bord na gCon in four years. In Britain, there’s a vet inspection every six months and random kennel inspections. There are so many rules on kennel spec – the width, light, air.
‘Breeders and racers need a kennel book and a health treatment book. In Ireland you can get a dog sleeping in a pig stye or a shed. If a dog’s abandoned, the registered owner is fined in the UK but here they can’t legally do anything as dogs change hands all the time and paperwork isn’t kept up to date’.
Another legal concession being made is greyhounds will continue to be tattooed as opposed to micro-chipped.
On the breeding issue alone, a simple inspection of figures is disturbing. According to the National Stud Book, 3,165 litters of greyhound puppies were registered in 2009. With litters between two and 11 pups, an average of seven pups per litter equates to around 22,000 puppies every year.
The industry rubbishes this and claims ‘not all dogs have seven pups’. Pups are registered and tattooed at three months. At 12 months they are named, issued with an identity card, and registered with the Irish Coursing Club. In 2009, 19,912 were registered.
They are then ready to begin performance trials to qualify for races. Racing greyhounds who make the grade are retired at the age of four, at which point they must be homed.
Marion Fitzgibbon, former president of the ISPCA, who co-founded greyhound sanctuary Avalon and heads up Limerick Animal Welfare, estimates that around 8,000 dogs ‘disappear down a black hole’ before even reaching trials.
In the U.S., greyhound ownership is strictly regulated and owners must sign contracts covering all aspects of care based on vet recommendations. Similarly, in Britain, greyhound racing is strictly regulated by the Greyhound Board of Great Britain.
Fines are dished out and greyhounds must be micro-chipped. Here, Bord na gCon, which has received €106million of taxpayers’ money since 2001, is only required to regulate betting, trainers, stadiums, on-course bookies, officials and promote the sport.
The only ‘inspections’ carried out are when control stewards tattoo the puppies and issue them with a name card at one year of age. Those who stray are picked up by local authorities, where their fate can be equally grim.
One in ten of the 35,000 dogs destroyed in pounds annually across the country are greyhounds or lurchers. This is as high as 25 per cent in Clare, where 273 were put down last year and 28 per cent in Kerry, where 259 greyhounds were put to sleep.
Bord na gCon welfare manager Barry Coleman said: ‘I’d ask if they are greyhounds? They may be three quarter greyhounds or lurchers but not one of our thoroughbred tattooed greyhounds. And, if so, they’re in pounds because their owner took them there.
Estimates suggest that 10,000 dogs retire from the sport every year so sanctuaries and centres such as Avalon, Orchard, Cottage, PAWS, Limerick Animal Welfare and the Retired Greyhound Trust are always inundated and rely almost entirely on international adoptions.
Lilian Mazzola, co-founder of GACI, an adoption centre in Italy, visits Ireland around once a month and arranges adoptions for 35 greyhounds five times a year — last year she saved 159 such animals. However cuts to the funding of the Retired Greyhound Trust in Limerick, a charity partially funded by three per cent of all dog racing winnings — a figure matched by Bord na gCon, means this avenue is closing.
The RGT previously donated €100 towards the €600 it costs to transport one greyhound to Italy. Now it’s €75. Lilian says: ‘We will not be able to pay for the transport. There is a huge amount of work to be done in Ireland to promote them not just as a racer but living on the sofa with children. I’m not anti-racing but there must be more regulation.’
INTERNATIONALLY, there has been a reduction in demand for greyhounds. Once monthly auctions now take place every two months and in recent years, major British tracks including Reading, Portsmouth, Walthamstow and Coventry have closed. In the U.S., some states have outlawed the sport. But the industry says that Irish breeders have taken steps towards addressing the oversupply of dogs.
Bord na gCon claims cases such as Hope’s and Elsie’s misrepresent the industry. Mr Coleman explains: ‘Greyhounds can get into the wrong hands. These are people outside of the industry and we can’t do anything about it.’
However, there is little data on what happens the country’s greyhounds. Mr Coleman explained: ‘Once they’re tattooed at three months, owners can sell them to who they like here or on the continent. Some dogs are injured or get ill but it’s hard to know what happens to them whether they are sold or injured or taken to the vet for euthanasia. I don’t have access to numbers of dogs euthanised.’
Mr Coleman does not accept that there is a problem with neglect, or that the current practice of tattooing animals can lead to dogs’s ears being hacked off to prevent identification. He said: ‘Greyhounds have been tattooed since the year dot. Just like cattle are ear-tagged. It’s very rare ears are chopped off but we’ve heard micro-chips can be cut out too.
‘A greyhound is a performance animal and if he’s not happy and well in himself he’s not going to perform, so I know all of our racing dogs are extremely well looked after. What’s not to believe the dog could have escaped and gone stray? He could be a great fella. The people aren’t stupid, they know the market isn’t there and are cutting back on the breeding. Litters declared in 2006 were more than 4,000 and it was 3,165 in 2009 so breeding is down 26 per cent in three years.’
For now, Bord na gCon does intend to get tough. Mr Coleman explained: ‘You can’t just give your dog away without repercussions — we are toughening up and we will fine owners severely if their dog is found wandering in bad condition and we could make them pay the vets bills.
Maybe sanctions and naming and shaming would be the best thing and we’re looking at options right now.’ But the fact remains that ultimately the Green Party have capitulated to the racing lobby on this issue. And while the electorate may respond immediately to the sight of a Labrador being mistreated, the greyhound is the runt of this particular issue.
Welfare organisations fear that this sop to the industry, coming on the cusp of the summer recess, will merely shelve the greyhound issue. Marion Fitzgibbon says: ‘If a Labrador or any other breed of dog was treated as appallingly as greyhounds are in this country, there would be complete outrage. My American, German, Italian and English friends can’t believe how we treat the greyhound. It makes me very ashamed to be Irish.’