Going to the Dogs

Going to the Dogs“Going to the Dogs: Greyhound Racing, Animal Activism, and American Popular Culture,” by Gwyneth Anne Thayer. University Press of Kansas. $34.95.

If you’ve ever fallen in love with a former racing greyhound like me, this is must reading.

A chronology of this troubled sport, it details the multiple starts and stops of tracks nationwide while noting why it fell out of favor with the public, politicians, humane groups and horse-racing interests for a wide gamut of reasons.

This is not a one-sided hatchet job of the “Sport of Queens” but a nicely balanced traverse across what the author calls an “uncomfortable tightrope” of issues and the positions of the industry and its kaleidoscope of critics.

The author, who is employed by the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville, writes, “Perhaps no breed has sparked greater controversy in the United States than the racing greyhound,” then she details its checkered history across a broad swath of entertainment, politics, sports and the media fields.

The multi-faceted attack on greyhound racing is interpreted here as a cultural transformation the past century in the United States from the farm belt to the voting booth and from the working to the upper class.

Greyhound racing was never legalized in California, but interests found a home for it nearby in Oregon (Multnomah Greyhound Park) beginning in 1933 and closed in 2004 and numerous tracks in Arizona, several of which are still operating.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, film stars and baseball players hung out at Florida tracks, garnering much-needed favorable publicity for the sport that found itself growing slowly. At the height of its popularity in the late 1970s, Thayer notes dog racing was frequently touted as the No. 6 spectator sport in the U.S., with Florida and Massachusetts tracks pulling in the biggest crowds.

However, connections to crime, greyhound overpopulation and subsequent horrid publicity surrounding the shooting and gassing of dogs that were no longer track moneymakers for dog men turned public sentiment against the industry beginning in the 1980s.

Adoption organizations for these retired racers began forming nationwide in the 1980s, becoming what Thayer characterizes as “a mainstream phenomenon in American culture” but “opened a door that many new believe has somewhat unexpectedly contributed to the industry’s steady decline.”

For years, dog men, as they are labeled by Thayer, preferred to euthanize or shoot their castoffs that no longer earned their keep, rather than see them placed in homes “where they might live dull, sedentary lives, or worse, suffer from abuse.” But that stigma was eventually broken down and greyhound rescue received an avalanche of favorable publicity nationwide in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Adding to the fall of the industry, Thayer says, was the addition of other gambling options such as Native American casinos, state lotteries and the public’s perception of man’s best friend – particularly the retired racing greyhounds – being used for medical research.

“Americans once gambled on greyhounds, now they snuggle with them,” concludes Thayer.

In the Appendix, Thayer lists by states all greyhound tracks that have operated legally and illegally in the United States for live racing; lengthy notes and bibliography sections. Chances are you didn’t know that the Olympic Kennel Club (Seattle) conducted live greyhound racing in 1933 and 1935 and the Vancouver Kennel Club did the same from 1933 through ’35.

“Going to the Dogs” captures the combustible feel of an industry that has been on a rollercoaster of emotions with the American public for a century while maintaining a fair, thought-provoking tone in a rich, cultural context.