Irish Daily Mail
Special Investigation by
In a scruffy suburb of a city in southern China, a group of racing dogs enjoys a few exhilarating sniffs of fresh air as they are led in groups of six around a deserted racetrack before being tied up in rows, examined and then locked away in row after row of small steel cages.
Marshalled by sombre, grey- faced keepers in a crumbling concrete compound ringed with high walls and barbed wire, the sleek graceful animals seem like prisoners on death row being given a tantalising glimpse of freedom with their daily walk around the exercise yard.
The reality for these greyhounds at China’s only legal race track, a shoddy and poorly – attended track in the gambling resort of Macau, is arguably even more bleak, because when they are released from their cages in four hours time, they will – quite literally – be running for their lives.
As they spring from the traps at breathtaking speed to chase a mechanical hare, the odds are already heavily stacked against survival; Finish in the top three and they live to race another day. Finish outside the top three just a few times and their prize is a lethal injection.
The only sure bet is that within around three years of arriving in Macau, every one of these greyhounds will be dead. Healthy, uninjured but simply not fast enough to win, the dogs on this small circuit in China die at a rate of more than one a day. Last year alone, 383 were destroyed.
The chances of being adopted as a family pet when their racing days are over, as happens with greyhounds in other countries, are precisely zero. All that waits them after their last race is death, usually at the age of no more than five – less than half their natural life span.
This is greyhound racing Chinese-style and this is the depressingly cruel industry Ireland’s greyhound racing authority, Bord na gCon, controversially wants to expand to cities across China.
This week it was revealed that the semi-state agency is to seek permission from the Government to set up a new international arm. The proposed offshoot would set about developing five dog tracks in China to be operated on 25 year contracts, with the Bord na gCon, controlling the racing, betting, sponsorship and media rights and even the catering operations. After a vehement outcry by animal welfare groups, plans to export greyhounds from Ireland to the new tracks were dropped.
Ironically, the grim fate of greyhounds in Macau cited by the welfare groups is better than the one in wait if the races are extended to other parts of China. In this former Portuguese colony with its own mini-constitution and draft animal welfare law, the dogs are at least mercifully guaranteed a painless death by lethal injection.
If Ireland brings greyhound racing to the rest of China, welfare group Animal Asia Foundation warns, greyhounds could be clubbed to death in the same way dogs died during a mass anti-rabies slaughter in 2009. They could also end up being sold into China’s mass dog meat and fur industries.
The Irish Daily Mail travelled to Macau on Thursday – one of only four weekly race nights for Asia’s only dog racing circuit, the Canidrome – to see the track that could serve as a blueprint for a new China greyhound industry under the project with Bord na gCon.
The Macau Canidrome, built in the Thirties when Macau was a Portuguese colony, is part of the empire of Stanley Ho, one of Asia’s richest men and owner of some of the resort’s lavish casino complexes that generate billions in profit every year.
While it is only a mile away from Macau’s glitzy Vegas-style casino strip, the Canidrome seems a galaxy away, tucked away between low rent housing blocks in one of the resorts poorest quarters.
An eerie cacophony of howls reverberates around the district as the 800 dogs, kept for most of their brief lives in cages stacked two high and just big enough for them to turn around inside, are released for a few precious minutes and brought out onto the track for exercise and pre-race weighing.
Each race night, there are 18 races with six dogs in each contest – watched from the stands by a pitifully small crowd of mostly elderly men who pay an entrance fee of less than €1.
Most people don’t bother to attend, instead betting on races if they choose in a handful of off-course centres around Macau where the night’s races are beamed live. ‘Hardly anyone comes here any more,’ a weary official admits. ‘They prefer to place their bets on the internet or in front of a TV set.’
Of course, it’s all about gambling. Greyhound races in Macau generated €28million in gross revenue last year, up from just €5.6million four years earlier – but still only around one percent of the vast sums raked in by Macau’s casinos.
There has been speculation that Stanley Ho, now aged 90, has kept the dog track open, partly for sentimental reasons because of its quirky place in Macau’s colonial history and that after his death his company will close the track.
In the meantime, it is the dogs rather than Ho’s gambling empire that pay the ultimate price. Imported from Australia at the rate of around 30 a month, the dogs never leave the Canidrome and live out their short lives within yards of the track, where their placing determines their ultimate lifespan.
Dr Choi U Fai, who heads the Macau government’s animal control department and oversees the import and destruction of every dog at the Canidrome, describes the plight of greyhounds as ‘terrible’ and said that every dog imported to Macau from Australia was dead within around three years.
‘They euthanise around 30 dogs each month,’ says Dr Choi, producing government records showing how the number of dogs put down rose from 322 in 2009 to 383 last year. In March this year alone, 45 dogs were given lethal injections before being sent to incinerators.
‘When they are imported, the dogs are aged around two to three years. The longest they stay in the racing centre is three years. They all die after three years,’ says Dr Choi. ‘Only a few of them are put to sleep because they are injured. For most of them, it is because they can’t run and can’t win.
The imported greyhounds are sold at auction and can fetch up to 50,000 Hong Kong dollars (€4,400). The Canidrome takes a commission on dog import and sales, giving it an incentive to keep the turnover – and the death rate – of the greyhounds high.
Owners, meanwhile, can never take the dogs outside the Canidrome and must pay kennel and training fees, leaving no room for sentiment when the animal starts to lose pace.
‘If they stay there longer, the owner has to pay for the accommodation and food and training,’ Dr Choi says. ‘The owners prefer to put them to sleep and not continue to pay. They would rather buy a new a dog. That is the problem and it is like this everywhere. But in other countries they have programmes for retired dogs – they find people who are willing to adopt them as pets. We cannot do this in Macau.
‘The dog racing centre will not allow these dogs to be given for adoption in Macau. Macau is a small place and they don’t want to have any complaints about the dogs causing problems or damage. But they have no objection to them going elsewhere and that is what we are exploring.’
The sad plight of the greyhounds in Macau raises broader concerns about what would happen to dogs in China if the Bord na gCon establishes a greyhound racing industry there.
David Neale, Britain based Animal Welfare Director for the Animals Asia Foundation, saw an unofficial greyhound racing track at a safari park in Shanghai during a working visit to China earlier this year. He describes the welfare situation for animals there as ‘horrendous’.
‘It was a park where they still did live chicken feeding for entertainment. They also had live animal performances with bears, tigers and lions with their teeth removed,’, he says. ‘The welfare of the dogs wouldn’t be a consideration at a track like that. We are against greyhound racing in principle, but for it to expand in a country which has no animal welfare legislation is something the Irish greyhound racing board should seriously consider’.
In a statement made to the Dail this week about the Bord na gCon proposal, the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Shane McEntee, stressed the commitment of both the Bord and Government to animal welfare. However, Mr Neale says the Irish legislation will have no impact on China.
‘They won’t have any control over the welfare of dogs once they’re in China and there will be nothing anyone can legally do to improve their welfare,’ he explains. People could kill the dogs in all kinds of ways. If it happens in a country where there is legislation – something can be done – but in China there isn’t any.’
During a rabies scare in China’s Shaanxi province in 2009, Mr Neale says, thousands of dogs were beaten to death in the streets by officials. ‘Something like 30,000 dogs were beaten to death,’ he says. ‘While that sort of thing is happening in China there is no reason to think greyhounds wouldn’t receive the same treatment. An industry which is basically set up for profit is hardly going to spend money importing drugs to put animals to sleep humanely.
‘There is also a huge trade in dog meat in China. If there are surplus dogs, there is no reason to suppose people wouldn’t just ship them off to the meat markets. They would be cheap and available. There could be thousands of dogs available every year which are bound to end up just going to the meat markets, and there would be no control over the way they are killed or transported. It is worrying. I think the Irish greyhound board should look at the welfare implications of what they are doing.’
Rebecca Chiu, who works in Hong Kong for pressure group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says that another potential fate for greyhounds is being sold for their fur – something that’s commonplace for other breeds of dogs.
‘They suffer immensely,’ she said. ‘They are stuffed inside sacks while being transported. Investigators have found live dogs shivering in the bitter cold in unheated rooms, surrounded by the bodies of dead dogs hanging from hooks. They are often skinned alive. And yet, this is still legal in China’.
Miss Chiu says PETA has successfully campaigned to stop greyhound racing being exported to the Philippines. ‘Given China’s already poor track record on animal welfare related issues, animals in the greyhound industry are destined to a life of misery’.
Back in Macau, the greyhounds at the Canidrome had a night off last night. Tonight, however, the venue expects its biggest crowd of the week – and its biggest gambling takings – for the Saturday night races.
‘If it keeps up last year’s average, two more greyhounds will have been destroyed since we visited on Thursday and two more will have been imported from Australia to live out brutally short lives next to the track.
Dr Choi has clearly seen too much of the deadly impact of the industry in one small part of China to want to see Ireland bring dog racing to the rest of the country.
‘Dog racing is not a sport,’ he says. ‘It is about gambling and that’s all. There is no second chance for them in life when they retire. They are all just put to sleep and it’s very sad. If the industry expands to China, the industry will just breed more and more dogs. But if the racing stopped, these poor animals wouldn’t be bred. They wouldn’t have to come into the world just to race and then to die.’
Please sign and share this important petition asking the Irish Government not to support the IGB’s proposals to develop greyhound racing in China – thank you.