Sunday, April 25, 2021

"If only they could talk"

Not a burning issue for many people I realise (though a matter of their livelihood for hundreds) but I thought the following two columns were a great example of contrasting opinion from two people; one a politician and one a retired vet.

Opinion: Since only the beginning of 2021, seven greyhounds have been killed and 282 injured on racetracks across Aotearoa.

Take a moment to let that sink in. This is our dog-racing industry, one of the last still in operation in the world.

These deaths and injuries aren’t a bug. They’re a design feature, and they always have been.

Fifteen years ago, former racing minister Winston Peters launched the Greyhounds As Pets adoption scheme, seeking to improve the public perception of the industry’s approach to animal welfare.

In 2017, he reflected on that moment 11 years prior, lamenting: “It is disappointing the industry is still grappling with these underlying issues”.

Those underlying issues are greyhound deaths, injuries, and the occasional meth-doping scandal.

Seven greyhounds have been killed and 282 injured on racetracks across Aotearoa so far this year.

Time and again, the industry argues that it loves these dogs. I would hope that anyone who loves their dogs would have learnt from nearly 20 years of broken legs and ankles, ruptured stomachs and trauma that, just maybe, they should stop doing the same thing over and over again.

Because we’ve been here before.

In 2013, the ‘WHK report’ made a slew of recommendations to improve animal welfare. Then in 2017, with disconcert from the broader racing industry, former High Court judge Rodney Hansen QC produced yet another report.

That report found: “The number of greyhounds reported as euthanised continues at high levels with evidence of widespread non-compliance with reporting requirements strongly suggesting the true figure is much higher”.

There were at least 1200 dogs unaccounted for in the four years since that last report.

Last week, the Government announced the third review of the industry this decade, with new Minister for Racing Grant Robertson stating he was “not satisfied the [Hansen] recommendations are being implemented in a way that is improving animal welfare”.

When the same questions keep turning up the same answers, and those answers are the mistreatment of animals, how long are we supposed to extend goodwill? How many more dogs will die or disappear in that time?

Greyhound Racing New Zealand will tell you greyhounds are athletes; they love to race! This is a sport! Research the breed, you’ll find out!

The reality is greyhounds are typically low-energy dogs with a light frame and, obviously, the ability to run fast. Because of that, these dogs have been bred and imported into New Zealand to generate income for the gambling sector.

Do they love to race? More importantly, do they have a choice? When the gun goes off and the gate goes up, the dogs run, because they’ve been trained to do so, and thousands of dollars are at stake in each race.

In an industry plagued by claims of doping, live baiting, animal welfare issues and kennel cough outbreaks, the dogs that don’t perform don’t make it.

Greyhound Racing New Zealand reported that 165 dogs alone in the last annual reporting period were killed ‘for other reasons’ – they’re too slow or too broken for the industry, and too traumatised to be a family pet.

The dogs that do make it out of the gate on race day are the ones that are still useful. This has nothing to do with ‘loving to race’, and everything to do with training and the window of opportunity the industry has to use them up.

The injuries suffered routinely are serious – horrific major bone breaks and organ rupture – painful, fatal injuries there can be no recovery from.

Athletes aren’t put down. But these dogs are, when they become a balance-sheet liability.

We’ve got plenty of other sports, and many you can gamble on if that’s really what you’re after. Those athletes have a say in what they’re doing and when they retire.

Greyhounds can pursue a love of running in plenty of other ways, like chasing a ball at the park with other dogs.

Or, they can be found nuzzled into the arm of a couch for notorious hours-long naps that come quite naturally, if you ask anyone who’s ever owned a greyhound as just a good old pet, not a bet.

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick is working on a Member’s Bill to end greyhound racing in New Zealand.

OPINION: Recent comments distributed by animal activists and the SPCA reveal it is time to change the narrative about greyhound racing. Contrary to continuing claims, the welfare of the dogs is now well managed and previous problems have largely been overcome.

Since I became the independent chairman of the Greyhound Racing New Zealand Health and Welfare Committee in 2015, the major focus has been on the development and implementation of new health and welfare standards which surpass those required by the Code of Welfare for Dogs issued in 2010 under the Animal Welfare Act.

New Zealand greyhounds are probably the most regulated and protected animals in the country throughout their racing careers until they are rehomed at the end.

As a result of valid concerns highlighted in the past greyhound racing continues to be subject to thorough scrutiny and a third review in the last decade has just been announced. Greyhound Racing New Zealand is confident that all the required management improvements have been made as a result of the first two reviews.

 Greyhound Racing New Zealand has shown no hesitation to suspend racing in the face of disease outbreaks or adverse track conditions. In such circumstances, support is always provided to ensure the welfare of the dogs and the people involved.

Greyhounds have a lovely temperament and chasing is natural behaviour which they love to do, just as much as other dogs. Watch the obvious enjoyment when two or more dogs race to get to a ball that is thrown for them on a park or at the beach.

The concerns expressed by the SPCA and SAFE indicate a lack of current knowledge as the fears they have raised are many years out of date. For instance the SPCA says it wants veterinarians to be present at all race meetings, but this has been mandatory for over 30 years.

All dogs receive a pre-race check and a number identified during and after each race are also sent immediately for veterinary examination by the race day vet. In the event of accident or injury, adequate pain relief is available within minutes, as compared to the fate of working, sporting, and hunting dogs which may wait several hours.

Mandatory collection and publication of lifecycle reports has been in operation and steadily improved upon since the first 2012-2013 inquiry into greyhound racing. Subsequent inquiries have established that most of the “missing data” previously reported had been collected but was not in an easily accessible format. Similar comments apply to injury statistics and with compulsory ear branding and now micro-chipping, greyhounds are the most easily traced breed in New Zealand.

A further SPCA complaint that more greyhounds are bred for the racing industry than will enter is inconsistent with the reality. With the establishment of the greyhound Welfare Committee, the welfare code for greyhounds was largely rewritten with considerable emphasis on all welfare aspects, including adequate socialisation as young pups, restrictions on the number of litters any one female can have, and a ban on breeding from females over eight years-old, except in very special circumstances. These circumstances must be explained, in writing, to a panel of three veterinarians who have the absolute right to grant or deny breeding permission. In recent years the numbers of pups born has remained remarkably stable with any not making it to the race track simply entering the adoption programme at a younger age.

The number of greyhounds euthanased is reported to the Government, published on the GRNZ website and in the annual report. These statistics are not able to be compared with the numbers of dogs euthanased elsewhere in New Zealand because none of the other organisations that euthanase animals in their care make their numbers available. GRNZ has minimised the numbers of greyhounds put down through measures taken to limit injuries and support treatment; and rehoming programmes. With rehoming being the priority for all Greyhounds there is no time limit preventing the rehoming of dogs as they exit the sport. They are cared for until they are matched with the right family.

As far as the claims of over exertion go, racing greyhounds are elite athletes, with the top grade dogs the equivalent of Olympic competitors and treated as such by their trainers. They make every endeavour to ensure their dogs are fit and ready for the distance they will be racing over. Trainers know their dogs and do not ask them to exceed their capabilities.

Greyhound Racing NZ accepts there will always be those who do not support the racing of animals and want it banned. They are entitled to this belief, but it is important when opposing any activity that the true picture is acknowledged and misinformation is corrected.

Retired veterinarian Jim Edwards ONZM is the independent chairman of the Greyhound Racing NZ Health and Welfare Committee. He is also a former president of the New Zealand Veterinary Association and the World Veterinary Association.

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