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East Arkansas track closing, but dogs won't go homeless

Demand high for couch-potato greyhounds entering retirement, groups say by Hunter Field | October 20, 2019 at 9:32 a.m.
Racing greyhounds sprint around a muddy track at Southland in West Memphis. Arkansas Southland Casino Racing will phase out dog racing in 2022, with more than 1,000 greyhounds going up for adoption. Demand for them is high, according to a group that finds homes for the dogs.

The greyhound racing industry and people who want it abolished agree on one thing: Greyhounds make great pets.

Well over 1,000 greyhounds will be available for adoption over the next three years in Arkansas as Southland Casino Racing phases out live dog racing.

Those speedy pooches will hit an adoption market that's flooded not only with dogs from shelters and puppy mills, but thousands of greyhounds from Florida, where dog racing will be banned by the end of 2021.

But kennel owners and adoption groups aren't worried for two reasons: There's plenty of time to find homes for the dogs and there's a big demand.

"We don't have enough [greyhounds] to go around," said Vicki Cohen, director of Mid-South Greyhound Adoption Option, which partners with Southland to find homes for retiring race dogs.

Track and industry officials said last week that Southland decided to end dog racing in West Memphis because the economics and public opinion of the sport have shifted. The track and the Arkansas Greyhound Kennel Association agreed to stop races by the end of 2022.

In addition to providing time to find homes for the dogs, they said it will allow kennel and track employees to find new jobs, including those at the newly expanded casino portion of Southland.

Arkansas is one of six states where dog racing remains active. The sport remains legal in four additional states, although no tracks are operating there now.

The decision comes almost a year after voters in Florida approved a measure to outlaw greyhound racing there, though there's a legal challenge underway questioning the constitutionality of the ban.

Racing officials have said they wanted to avoid a similar situation in Arkansas that potentially would result in a more abrupt stop to racing, forcing a higher number of dog adoptions into a shorter time period.

Robert Thorn, president of the Arkansas Greyhound Kennel Association, said that under the kennel owners' agreement with Southland, the number of races will be cut back gradually over the next three years. The association consists of 16 kennel operators with greyhounds racing at Southland -- the state's only dog track.

In 2020, he said, the dog races will be cut back to 75% of this year's numbers. The tally will drop to 60% in 2021 and 50% in 2022.

Thorn noted that some stoke fears of greyhounds leaving the track without homes, but that's not the case.

"We're in a world where everyone wants to exaggerate and make the worst out of things," Thorn said in a Friday phone interview. "There will be a home for every one of these dogs. We will make sure of that even if it goes beyond 2022 to make sure they're placed in a good home."

People like Thorn, Cohen and others who work around the greyhounds and have them as pets describe them the same way -- couch potatoes.

Content to spend a bulk of the day sleeping, greyhounds typically make an easy transition from the racing world to life in a family home, said Carey Theil, executive director of Grey2K USA Worldwide, an anti-dog-racing group based in Massachusetts. Theil owns two greyhounds.

"Most are good with cats and children," he said. "They don't require a lot of exercise, which I know some people think is counterintuitive. They're like big couch potatoes."

Theil's group was considering ballot measures in Arkansas to outlaw dog racing, and he said polling shows that such a measure would pass.

However, Theil was complimentary and supportive of Southland and the kennel association's plan to end the racing in Arkansas, which he said would benefit the dogs and employees.

Grey2K helped find new homes for dogs in Arizona when that state banned dog racing 2016, but the organization has been blacklisted by kennel owners in Florida because it backed the measure to end greyhound racing there. He said the group would be willing to help adoption efforts in Arkansas if allowed, or it would financially back adoption groups where feasible.

Like Cohen and Thorn, Theil said he wasn't concerned about dogs being left without homes at the end of 2022. There are about 1,200 greyhounds now at Southland, according to track officials.

"I'm not concerned about Arkansas at all," he said. "It's a three-year phaseout with a manageable number of dogs. The logistics are significant, and I don't want to downplay that, but that number of dogs on that timeline, the adoption community has done a lot more than that in the past."

Kennel operators in Arkansas work with about 30 adoption groups across the U.S., Thorn said. He said each kennel owner handles adoptions slightly differently, but they and adoption agencies all ensure that the dogs go to loving homes.

"They interview these people who are taking these dogs," he said. "It's not just going to be, 'come to the kennel and take one.'"

Cohen, who runs the West Memphis adoption group, said her organization mostly adopts dogs to people in Arkansas and surrounding states. She said there's a waiting list of hopeful adopters. An adoption requires a $250 adoption fee to cover a portion of her group's cost for veterinary bills -- including tests for things like heartworms and spaying or neutering.

People on both sides of the dog racing debate had concerns about finding homes for all of the greyhounds in Florida after that state voted for the racing ban.

Florida was home to 11 of the country's 17 remaining dog tracks at the time with nearly 4,000 greyhounds, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

But the fears of the supply of retiring greyhounds exceeding the demand were never realized because not all of the tracks have shuttered simultaneously. Some are phasing out; others plan to remain open until the final day.

Sharon Dippel runs an adoption group out of Naples, Fla., and said the number of adoptable greyhounds in her area since the state passed its racing ban hasn't been able to keep pace with the number of hopeful adopters.

Commercial greyhound racing was introduced in America during the early 1900s. The dogs were initially encouraged to sprint down the track with live rabbits, but tracks have since employed mechanical rabbits.

Dog racing began at Southland in 1956, and it conducts about 6,000 races annually.

Cohen, who runs the West Memphis adoption organization, encouraged anyone interested in adopting a greyhound to visit the kennel. She said people are often surprised how large they are, ranging from 65-80 pounds. They can be as tall as 30 inches at the top of the shoulder.

"We're asking people to adopt a small, indoor pony," she said.

Greyhounds don't need a lot of exercise, but they benefit from some time outside to run or walk every day, Theil said.

Cohen said greyhounds are used to spending a lot of time around people and other dogs, so new owners should keep in mind that some are prone to separation anxiety if left alone for long periods of time.

She said many who adopt greyhounds return to adopt them again.

"I'll never own another breed," she said.

Thorn, the kennel association president, agreed.

"There's a shortage of greyhounds because anybody that has had a greyhound knows they're awesome," he said.

SundayMonday on 10/20/2019


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