How we finally won the ballot question on greyhound racing

Thirteen years of good intentions weren't enough. We had to change our tactics.

Back in 1995, as I held a sign in protest outside Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere, Mass., I was confident that the cruel "sport" of dog racing would end quickly.

After all, this progressive New England state has long been a leader in animal welfare. Not only was it clear that the racing dogs were treated inhumanely, but the competition from casinos and other gambling venues had lured away so many of the tracks' patrons that their revenues were in free fall.

But I was wrong. It took a full 13 years before a gradual phase-out of greyhound racing became law in the Bay State. Finally, last month, a majority of voters said "Yes" to compassion and "No" to cruelty. Fortunately, the lessons we learned over this long and arduous period will help to hasten the decline of dog racing in the remaining states where it still exists.

It was three years after I first rallied at Wonderland that I learned of, and enthusiastically joined, a grass-roots campaign to end dog racing by citizens' vote. With a Black Russian Terrier named Kelsey at my side, I became part of an all-volunteer group that collected more than 150,000 voter signatures to place the first greyhound question on the ballot. We worked day and night to advocate for the hounds.

The campaign used graphic photographs of injured and dead racers from all around the country to support claims of cruelty. Ex-trainers, veterinarians, and rescue workers gave testimonials about the abuse and killing of racing dogs. Even though we had little money, and received little encouragement from established animal protection groups, we swelled with passion and pride – never once thinking that our ballot question would fail.

But the election of 2000 proved a shocking disappointment. In one of the closest votes in state history, the greyhounds lost by 51 percent to 49 percent. Outspent 3 to 1, we had neither the savvy nor the wisdom to effectively counter the unrelenting media campaign of wealthy dog-track owners and their paid spokespersons.

Disheartened, many volunteers chose to walk away. But several of us decided to keep fighting. In early 2001, Dr. Jill Hopfenbeck, Rev. Tom Grey, Carey Theil, and I formed GREY2K USA, a national, nonprofit greyhound protection organization. Our sole mission was – and is – to end dog racing nationwide.

We had learned that good intentions and hard work are critically important, but that real change requires a thoughtful and well-researched strategy. Moving forward, we decided to treat each state individually, and focus on the problems that voters and lawmakers could see with their own eyes.

Essentially, we realized that it was important to elevate the debate beyond two sides pointing fingers at each other – a type of discourse that is too easily dismissed as "he said/she said."

To do that, we decided to use only information that was obtained from the dog tracks' own records, and if such records were not public, we would introduce legislation to make them so. In effect, we would allow the greyhounds to speak for themselves.

In 2006, the state's highest court struck our second voter question from the ballot, declaring it overly broad. But in 2008, with law degree in hand, I drafted a third voter question, the Greyhound Protection Act, which made its way to this year's ballot.

Now armed with the tracks' own records, we approached our campaign in a different way. When Massachusetts television viewers saw track video of a greyhound named Cawla Hawley somersaulting and crashing into a wall, they learned how dangerous dog racing can be. The injury records of Carolina Alarm, who died of a heart attack; Die Cut, who was paralyzed; and Hibbert, whose skull was crushed, spoke volumes. Most important, the kennel photos of dogs confined in tiny cages raised the simple question: Would I treat my dog that way?

We knew that the tracks were working to spend millions against us, and that our fight would not be easy. But this time we got major endorsements – and our facts were indisputable. In the end, 56 percent of voters and nearly 300 of 351 cities and towns "voted for the dogs."

Our big victory last month means dog racing will end by Jan. 1, 2010. And it means we have momentum on our side to end the practice all across America. My newly adopted greyhound Zoe couldn't be happier.

Christine Dorchak is the president and general counsel of GREY2K USA.

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