Dog-racing ban gets local support

May 30, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

A major Jamaica Plain-based animal welfare organization and many local volunteers are backing a ballot question that would ban greyhound racing in the state.

About 20 local volunteers coordinated by JP resident Jacqueline Gambarini are collecting signatures in Arnold Arboretum and other dog-lover hotspots.

“I think JP is pretty dog-friendly,” said Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy for the JP-based Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA), one of the main sponsors of the ballot question. The local effort kicked off at a May 1 event at MSPCA’s 350 S. Huntington Ave. headquarters.

But the fate of the ballot question currently rests outside the neighborhood in the hands of the state’s highest court, as the owner of one greyhound racetrack has claimed it is illegal and unconstitutional. The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) shot down a similar ballot question in 2006.

Voters narrowly rejected a previous version of the ballot question in 2000.

If it does make the November election ballot, the question will ask voters to approve a law banning gambling-based dog-racing of any kind. The practice would be declared “cruel and inhumane,” and violators would face a minimum fine of $20,000. The ban would take effect on Jan. 1, 2010 and force the closure of Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere and Raynham Park in Raynham.

Supporters of the ban have many complaints about greyhound racing, but are strategically focusing on two issues that they say are well-documented.

One is racing injuries. A 2002 law requires Massachusetts tracks to report such injuries. As of last summer, 728 injuries were reported, about 80 percent of them involving broken bones, according to a fact sheet from the ballot question’s backers. Holmquist noted that is a statistically high rate of serious injuries. On the other hand, it is a statistically low overall injury rate considering that there appears to have been hundreds of thousands of individual dog races in that time.

The other major concern is “caging”—the practice of storing the dogs in small kennels, reportedly for around 20 hours a day.

“The dogs are continually confined,” Holmquist said. “We don’t think that’s how dogs should be treated.”

MSPCA cages dogs at its Adoption Center. The MSPCA cages, Holmquist said, are “about five times as big as what you’d find at a racetrack.”

“I heard about the pain and suffering these animals suffer behind the scenes,” Gambarini said of her motivation to join the ban effort. She said she has a 17-year-old dog and could never stand to see it treated like a racing greyhound.

“The fact that these dogs are treated as commodities really disturbs me,” she said.

The greyhound racing industry accuses ban supporters of being “radicals” spreading misinformation. It says shutting the racetracks will put many people out of work, though the exact number of employees is in dispute.

The Delaware-based Greyhound Racing Association of America distinguishes “animal welfare” from “animal rights,” calling those who would ban dog-racing radical supporters of the latter.

Its web site boasts that some racing greyhounds are so well-treated that they receive “alternative” medical treatments, including scientifically unproven methods such as magnetic therapy. The site is also selling a “high-powered romance novel” by association president Ron Hevener that doubles as an “exposé” of the animal rights movement.

“The same people who oppose greyhound racing think it’s wrong to eat a hamburger, wear a leather jacket or go to the zoo,” says the association’s web site.

“That’s not true at all,” said Gambarini. “It’s not radical. Most of the people I know who are involved in [the ballot question organizing] have dogs. It’s a compassionate issue.”

“The MSPCA is not an extremist organization,” Holmquist said. “Honestly, I think when people try to paint the issue that way, they’re trying to avoid the issue.”

MSPCA policies described on its web site appear politically moderate. The organization supports improved welfare of livestock, but does not seek a ban on farming of animals for food. It also calls for finding the middle ground in the debate over the use of live animals in laboratory research.

The issue of racing animals suffering injuries may bring horse-racing to mind. Horses have suffered fatal injuries in some recent high-profile races, including Eight Belles in this year’s Kentucky Derby. That horse suffered two broken ankles and was euthanized on the track in front of shocked spectators.

Holmquist declined to comment about whether the MSCPA is also concerned about horse-racing, saying only that this ballot question addresses dog-racing specifically.

Supporters of the ban need to collect thousands of voter signatures by June 15 to get the question on the Nov. 4 ballot. With more than 2,000 statewide volunteers, they will probably pull that off easily.

A far bigger challenge is the lawsuit brought to the SJC by George Carney, the owner of Raynham Park. Carney argues that the Attorney General’s Office should never have approved the ballot language, as it did earlier this year.

Carney was successful in the similar 2006 case, where he argued that a proposed greyhound ban ballot question improperly combined several issues into one question.

Carney’s main argument this time is that the ballot question is improper because it is not really a statewide issue. Instead, he argues, it is targeted specifically at the two local racetracks.

Another argument is that if it became the law, the ban would amount to government seizure of property—a highly valuable dog-racing license—without compensation.

Carney also argues that the question is unconstitutional because of its proposal for a theoretically unlimited fine on violators levied by a state commission. The fine is so severe it amounts to a criminal penalty, rather than a civil fine, and so should allow a right to trial by jury for violators, he argues. He also argues that it is a violation of the constitution’s separation of powers for the legislature to allow a state commission to decide the amount of a large penal fine.

The SJC heard oral arguments in the case on May 7. It is expected to issue a ruling before the deadline for filing the ballot question paperwork with the state.

State ballot questions have to be put forward by specially formed committees. In this case, it is the Committee to Protect Dogs, which includes the MSPCA, the Humane Society of the United States, the Animal Rescue League of Boston and Grey2K USA.

While JP may be fertile ground for racing ban supporters, it has also been home to the breeding of racing greyhounds. The Gazette reported in 1991 that Jerry Rodgers, owner of the Mann and Rodgers Funeral Home at 44 Perkins St., was raising racing greyhounds in a carriage house behind the funeral home.

At it happens, the funeral home sits diagonally across the Huntington/Perkins intersection from the MSPCA. Rodgers did not return a Gazette phone call for this article.
Other initiatives

Other groups are trying to get other issues onto the November ballot. The issues include: a repeal of the state income tax; the decriminalization of possessing small amounts of marijuana; the repeal of 40B zoning laws that call for more affordable and dense housing in suburbs; and a non-binding referendum on legalizing casino gambling.

The MSPCA has other animal welfare laws pending at the State House, according to Holmquist.

One would increase the penalty for being a spectator at a staged animal fight. Holmquist said it is inspired by “the Michael Vick thing,” referring to the professional football quarterback who recently went to prison for aiding and abetting dog-fighting.

The other law would allow pets to be included in restraining orders, because pets often are used as leverage in domestic violence incidents, Holmquist said. “People who abuse animals and people who hurt people are often the same people,” she said.