HEBDEN BRIDGE, England (Reuters) - A bundle of skin and bones, Alice did not seem to be a lucky greyhound at first glance.
Alice was bred to race but was not fast enough. She was used for hare coursing but failed at that too.
So Alice was discarded outside the English city of Doncaster, abandoned like many unsuccessful greyhounds in Britain’s multi-million dollar industry that is in decline as the popularity of watching dogs race around a track wanes.
She would probably have died of starvation or been hit by a car had it not been for a volunteer who picked up the shivering dog from the streets and took her to a sanctuary in 2011.
“She weighed 14 kg (30 lb) - half (the usual) body weight, absolutely flea-ridden,” said Debra Rothery, who runs the facility. “It’s absolutely appalling.”
The treatment of racing greyhounds in Britain, a country where many pets are pampered and are cared for like children, highlights a darker side of the highly competitive business that dates back about 90 years and is often accused of cruelty.
Dog racing was once highly popular with 80 licensed greyhound tracks in Britain governed by the self-regulating Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB) but this has fallen to about 26 although there are some unregulated racetracks too.
Attendance has slumped. In 1947, 60,000 spectators were recorded at the Derby at White City, one of 21 tracks operating in London. In 2011 the Derby was held at Wimbledon Stadium — now the only dog track left in London — and attendance was 2,423.
Figures from the Gambling Commission show that off-course betting fell to 1.3 billion pounds in the year to March 2012, down 15 percent from 2008, while on-course betting dropped 21 percent to 29.8 million pounds.
Many blame the fall in attendance and betting on virtual greyhound racing, a computer-generated betting event offered by bookmakers, which is not helping the GBGB’s bid to revive the industry with a new administrative body and welfare policy.
Rothery, who manages the Tia Greyhound and Lurcher Rescue kennels, said more dogs than ever seem to be winding up on the streets despite efforts at reform in the industry.
“I started 15 years ago and it’s worse (now). I have just short of 100 dogs here at the minute and if I re-homed all these dogs here today, I could fill again tomorrow,” she said.
She blames a system of industry self-government and wants the GBGB to open its records so the whereabouts and ownership of dogs leaving the racing industry can be tracked.
The British government commissioned an inquiry into the industry in 2007 after revelations that greyhounds were being killed and dumped in a mass grave in Seaham, northern England.
The investigator, Bernard Donoughue, a Labour member of parliament’s upper house, found that an estimated 35,000 dogs were bred annually for racing but only 8,000 a year made the grade and those who did only raced until about the age of four.
His report, and figures from the All Parliamentary Group on Animal Welfare (APGAW), found that up to half the dogs that retired after racing disappeared from records.
Clarissa Baldwin, chief executive of Dogs Trust, Britain’s largest canine charity, said microchipping was vital for all dogs, to know where they were bred and how they were dispersed, and urged transparency with greyhound records.
“It would be possible to bring about prosecutions of owners who don’t look after their dogs properly,” she said.
The GBGB says it has its own system in place to track the animals and to report strays and maintains that greyhounds are not being abandoned in large numbers.
The industry-funded Retired Greyhound Trust says its 72 adoption branches find homes for roughly half the dogs that retire every year while many registered greyhounds are retained as pets by their trainers or re-homed by other organisations.
Greyhound welfare campaigners were not so sure.
“If you breed the numbers of dogs they do ... if you ask how many dogs are racing each year, you can’t hope to find homes for those dogs every year,” said actress Annette Crosbie, patron of the Wimbledon Greyhound Welfare, an independent retirement kennel.
Meanwhile Alice now seems to be one of the lucky ones, having found a home with Wendy and Gary Jones in the former mining town of Barnsley, south Yorkshire, where she enjoys daily walks on the rolling, green hills nearby.
“The dogs that actually race and get discarded or thrown out onto the streets are actually the lucky ones,” says Tia rescue centre’s Rothery. “They stand a better chance of actually getting into a place like this and getting re-homed.”
Editing by Maria Golovnina and Belinda Goldsmith