Time has not been kind to Tucson Greyhound Park. Over the past half-dozen years, annual attendance at this southside race track has slid by more than 10,000, and cash bets have fallen by millions--two trends that fuel the aging park's image as a hangout for has-been hounds and penny-ante gamblers.
As if those challenges weren't enough, the track may also be battling the ballot box soon. An initiative, likely to reach South Tucson voters in November, could greatly change the way this fading institution does business.
For one, it would prohibit trainers from feeding their dogs a diet of raw meat from dead, dying or diseased animals. It would require that most dogs enjoy at least six hours a day outside of their pens, and it would forbid the dosing of female greyhounds with anabolic steroids. The steroids contain hormones which keep them from going into heat.
Although this measure would govern the entire city of South Tucson, nobody pretends that it's not aimed squarely at the race track. Susan Via is chairwoman of Tucson Dog Protection, the group behind the measure called, appropriately, the Tucson Dog Protection Act. She considers the park's arguments against this measure to be quite revealing. "They've said things like, 'It will put us out of business,' and, 'Kennel operators won't want to be here,'" Via says.
"What they're saying is that they can't afford to treat dogs humanely. But I don't think any rational person would argue that confining an animal in a small cage 23 hours a day is humane. Then they inject the females with hormones, and they feed them this disgusting meat product."
She says a drive to get the measure on the ballot now has the support of 80 Tucson veterinarians.
Tom Taylor manages Tucson Greyhound Park, and he calls Via's claims of broad support a smokescreen. "I've talked to a lot of those vets, and they regret having signed (the petition). They've said these folks are very driven, and they're very focused and pushy, so they signed it."
While Taylor declines to name any of the regretting vets, he does label Via's group "animal-rights fanatics," and questions whether they'll gather even the paltry 72 signatures needed by July 3 to place their initiative on the ballot. "Seventy-two signatures is not a lot," he says. "But with the demographics of South Tucson, I don't know if even 72 people will want to shut the track down. And that's what these people want to do. They want to make it so difficult for the trainers that they'll get out of the business."
He singles out the potential banning of anabolic-steroid injections as a prime deal-breaker. "The trainers will not work in a kennel where the females are in heat," Taylor says. "They would shut down."
But Via says those steroids are given to young dogs, which leads to malformed genitals--a charge Taylor calls ridiculous. "If it did that, we wouldn't give it to them," he says, "because most of these dog owners get paid $7,000 to breed them."
Actually, most breeders command only a distant fraction of that amount, Taylor admits. "There are ranges. But (the trainers) don't know which one is going to be a champion and be bred for $7,000. So they aren't going to take a chance. And they do this for every dog--if they have one that's going to be a $7,000 to $12,000 bred female, they still give them shots."
He also defends feeding greyhounds "4-D" meat, so called because it comes from livestock that's "dead, dying, diseased or down" at the time of slaughter. The flesh is stripped from carcasses and frozen raw, and it is fed raw to the greyhounds.
Such fare "is a standard in the industry, and it's acceptable within the industry," says Geoffrey Gonsher, director of the Arizona Department of Racing. "There are levels of acceptance, though, and we require a certain level. I believe the initiative proposes to go beyond that level."
At a recent hearing of the Arizona Racing Commission, someone noted that "dog systems are different than people systems," says Gonsher. "We, as people, would never ever consider eating this kind of meat, but it's acceptable for a dog's system. Of course, there are people who refute that."
Indeed, there are. Among the most vociferous was the late Dr. Arthur Strohbehn, a onetime track veterinarian in Iowa. In an online posting, Strohbehn noted that greyhounds consuming this unsterilized meat are also eating drugs given to the cattle, along with infectious or contagious pathogens.
"Since 4-D meat is served raw to racing greyhounds" wrote Strohbehn, "the health hazards to the dogs range from gastro-enteritis, an inflammation of the stomach and intestines, to food poisoning and death. Dogs are often unable to race due to the onset of acute vomiting and diarrhea, known in the industry as 'blow-out.'"
The upside to 4-D meat? It generally costs less than 50 cents a pound.
As this tempest builds, the Arizona Department of Racing, with its meager budgets and thin staffing, seems ill-equipped to ensure that Tucson Greyhound Park even follows the current rules. "It's a difficult job and, for my staff, a frustrating job," says Gonsher. "They wish they could be doing more; they want to be doing more, and yet there are only so many hours in the day, and only so many days in the week."
He says the Legislature took a knife to his budget several years, cutting a dozen positions from a department with only about 50 people to start with. As a result, "we have only one greyhound inspector for the entire state," Gonsher says.
Meanwhile, lurking behind the nitpicks of this brewing fight is a simple philosophical question: Should animals be exploited for sports in general, and for gambling in particular? If so, at what cost?
One obvious consequence of greyhound racing is that thousands of dogs are bred for a single, commercial purpose. And unless they're the prime breeding stock Tom Taylor describes, they can quickly transform from asset to albatross.
This fact leads to the type of outrages that have occurred at Tucson Greyhound Park in recent years, where dubious characters were assigned to distribute past-their-prime racers to adoption centers around the West. More than 150 of those dogs simply disappeared over a two-year period.
Meanwhile, Via's folks continue gathering signatures and pondering what really goes on back in those kennels, beyond all the chain-link at Tucson Greyhound Park.
"Nobody can get in there without a pass to see anything," she says.