MACAU (Reuters) - In a dingy neighborhood far from the sparkling casinos that have proliferated across Macau in recent years, six greyhounds raced around a concrete track on a rain-soaked weekday night.
A handful of punters watched the race on two dated TV screens from inside the dilapidated betting center of the territory’s - and China’s - only dog-racing track, the Macau Canidrome Club, which is set to close on July 21.
The scene was in stark contrast to the opulence of the territory’s Las Vegas-style casinos, where Chinese gamblers throng the baccarat tables, splashing out minimum bets of HK$500 ($63.70), compared with just HK$10 at the greyhound track.
While dog racing has been popular in Macau since the 1930s, demand to see the wiry hounds chase a mechanical bunny around a track has waned in the past decade as authorities try to reposition the former Portuguese colony as an international tourism center.
The Canidrome’s fate was sealed after the authorities declined to renew its lease on the property it occupies in the north of the city, following pressure from animal rights groups.
The closure of the track marks the end of another of the often grubby old-time gambling businesses that long defined Macau before the arrival of luxury casinos owned by tycoons like the U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
Animal rights groups like the Macau-based Anima say the greyhounds have been subject to cruel and inhumane conditions, with an average of 30 dogs euthanized per month due to their inability to perform.
The Yat Yuen Canidrome company that operates the dog racing in Macau has repeatedly rejected cruelty claims and declined requests for comment.
Australia, which once supplied the majority of Macau’s greyhounds, banned exports of the dogs to the Chinese territory in 2013, citing inadequate welfare standards, adding to pressure on Macau’s government to not renew the concession.
The fate is unclear of the 650 dogs remaining at the Canidrome, which is owned by the family of the Macau businessman Stanley Ho. Ho held a monopoly on the gambling industry until 2001 and has presided over the territory’s economy over the past four decades.
While the 96-year old’s influence has shrunk over the past 10 years amid competition from companies like Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts, his fourth wife, Angela Leong, has stepped in to manage his businesses, including Yat Yuen.
Leong, is a longstanding legislator and executive director of Yat Yuen.
Macau’s government told Reuters that it was still studying what to do with the land after the racing facility closed.
Yat Yuen has proposed sending dogs to China and suggested moving them temporarily to empty stables at Macau’s Jockey Club, which operates the horse racing franchise.
Anima, which is trying to take ownership of the dogs, has cautioned that greyhounds are not allowed as pets in many Chinese cities and would likely end up on underground tracks or sold for their meat.
“We are trying to stop them sending the greyhounds to the mainland because the problem is it is legal to have dog meat and there is no animal protection there,” said Zoe Tang, the shelter manager at Anima. The animal protection group has had its website hacked repeatedly.
Yat Yuen has not responded to any communications regarding the caring of the dogs, Tang said.
As races got underway on the weekday evening, howls could be heard from the greyhound quarters on the side of the track. Handlers dressed in raincoats prepped the dogs in colored jackets before they were marched onto the track.
A Japanese tourist, who would only give his name as Hiroshi, stood among the handful of locals and retirees taking shelter from the bucketing rain, carefully marking down wagers on small betting slips.
“I came here 20 years ago. I heard it was closing so I came for a second time. I like to watch horse racing and dog racing. It is more interesting than the casinos,” he said.
Zhung Tsang, a Hong Kong retiree who comes to Macau every week to watch the races, said he was trying to enjoy the races while they last.
“I am retired from work so I don’t have much to do that’s fun,” he said. “I am sad it is closing. I will have to find something else to enjoy.”
Reporting by Farah Master; Editing by Philip McClellan