My pandemic puppy is a retired racing greyhound. Zoom's gangly, genial and 3 years old. Sleek and black as an eel — and voluptuously lazy — he's among hundreds of dogs who suddenly needed homes after COVID-19's lethal spread across the country closed down race tracks along with most everything else.
Birmingham Race Course in Alabama was where Zoom sprinted a few times a week alongside seven other dogs for a breakneck quarter of a mile. The course reopened in June, offering billiards, darts and betting machines, but no more live dog racing.
"Let's see what the future holds for us and the industry," the company's vice-president of operations, Walter Russell, told NPR in a social media message.
"I think this is the end," says Michael Owens. She runs the Virginia-based greyhound adoption group Sighthound Underground, which matched me with Zoom in April. She means not just the end in Birmingham, but the end of greyhound racing across the country. "Tracks keep closing and closing. There are fewer and fewer greyhounds. When I started [the organization] 15 years ago, there were maybe 30,000 greyhounds registered every year. And last year there were 3,000."
Starting back in the late 1930s, movie stars, athletes and mobsters swanned around dog tracks in Palm Beach and Miami, Florida. The “sport of queens,” greyhound racing proliferated all over the United States, peaking in popularity in the 1980s.
For a while, dog racing was one of the most popular betting sports in the U.S. Dog and horse tracks were the only places Americans could legally gamble, outside of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, for decades.
But thanks to the rise of casinos and internet betting — and the efforts of anti-racing activists — U.S. dog tracks are now largely moribund and widely seen as seedy and unsafe for animals.
It's a safe bet that not too many NPR listeners frequent dog tracks, and that demographic applies more broadly as well. The head of the Birmingham Racing Commission admitted in an AL.com article from April that income from live greyhound racing was "embarrassingly low."
Only six dog tracks currently operate in four states. One of them, Arkansas, plans to phase out greyhound racing by 2023. Dog tracks are illegal in 41 states. And just over the past six months, live dog racing courses have shuttered in Texas, Florida and Alabama. Federal legislation banning greyhound racing was introduced in July, after activist group Grey2K USA revealed footage of dogs in Oklahoma being illegally trained with live rabbits as lures.
"The sooner they're all closed, the better," crows anti-racing activist David Wolf, who founded National Greyhound Adoption Program in 1989.
"At the end of this year, all of the tracks in Florida will be closed," he says. "There will be hardly any tracks left in the United States."
Wolf says racing dogs are routinely injured and mistreated on the tracks, although that's disputed by Jim Gartland, executive director of the National Greyhound Association. His group, founded in 1906, primarily represents owners of racing greyhounds.
"This business has turned around 100% from what it was in the '50s, '60s, maybe even the '70s," he told NPR.
Tracks are highly regulated these days, Gartland says, with staff veterinarians, trainers and owners incentivized to keep dogs in top physical shape.
"It makes no sense not to care for a greyhound. That's how these people make their livelihood," he says.
Historically, animal mistreatment was less of a problem in dog racing, Gartland explains, than the grim fate of dogs too old or slow.
"Back in the day — and I'm not condoning this at all, it was the same in horse racing — when they were done, they were done with them," he concedes.
There are terrible stories about greyhound graveyards being discovered, for example, on the property of a Florida track employee who says he was paid $10 per dog elimination, as documented in a 2019 Miami New Times article. Rescue groups date back to the late 1970s, and Gartland argues that the breed found a devoted following precisely because their racing background prepares greyhounds to be great pets.
"By the time you get them into your home, they've been handled, they've been trained, they're very socialized," he says. Greyhound puppies stay with their littermates longer than most dogs, and they spend their first years as professional athletes, fulfilling the biological destiny demanded by their lean, barrel-chested bodies.
Until recently, thousands of greyhounds entered the adoption system every year, which led to what Gartland calls "greyhound glut.” But with the widespread closure of tracks, the economics of greyhound adoption have changed.
"Nowadays," Gartland says, "I get adoption groups all over the country calling me saying, 'Look, we're out of dogs. We have 25 applications from people that want greyhounds and we can't get any.'"
Owens of Sighthound Underground related similar stories about struggling to meet the demand for these elegant, sweet-natured dogs that deliver both the snob appeal of a purebred and the righteousness of a rescue.
All this is extremely depressing to a certain kind of greyhound rescuer. Veterinarian Shelley Lake, a former dog track employee, does not want them to close.
"When greyhound racing stops, the dogs we love are going to go away," she says. "I honestly think you have three to five years before there aren't any. I'm devastated. But that's why I have fourteen dogs. I want to have greyhounds in my life as long as I possibly can."
Lake — and her 14 greyhounds — live in northeast Kansas, outside Kansas City, Missouri. She's worked with tracks and adoption groups to help nearly 1,000 racing dogs, by her estimation, find permanent homes over the years. No other kind of dog will scratch her retired racing greyhound itch.
"There's nothing like them," she explains. "But it's gotta be retired racing. If you get a puppy, it's not the same dog."
Lake likens an AKC greyhound puppy to one of those frustrated herder breeds whose instincts are stymied by apartment or suburban life.
Before the pandemic, a number of frustrated greyhound adoption groups had turned to countries with more robust dog racing industries, such as Spain and Oman, but the flailing economy and travel restrictions have complicated international adoptions.
While the absence of betting on major sports has given dog racing an unexpected boost in recent months, the bigger picture of greyhound racing — and adopting retired greyhounds — is rapidly fading to black.
If you want a retired greyhound, all three say: Adopt that dog now.
This segment aired on September 11, 2020.