Wrapping up our series on the proposed amendments from the Constitution Revision Commission most affecting northwest Florida, one would abolish what some view as a sport, and others consider to be animal cruelty.
On a 6-1 vote, the Florida Supreme Court in September kept Amendment 13 on the November 6 ballot. It seeks a ban on greyhound racing across the state.
While greyhounds have been around for about four thousand years, modern greyhound racing began in California in 1919, with the invention of the mechanical lure – that fake rabbit the dogs chase around the track. Pensacola Greyhound Track is one of 12 in Florida, opening in 1947.
If approved by 60 percent plus-one of Florida voters, dog racing would be outlawed by the year 2020. CRC member and former State Senate President Tom Lee was the bill’s sponsor.
“There are roughly 8,000 racing dogs at Florida tracks currently; there are 12 tracks operating here in Florida which represents two-thirds of those tracks nationwide,” said Lee. “Because greyhound racing is illegal now in 40 states and since 2004, the industry has essentially been cut in half.”
Currently, only a half-dozen states have active dog tracks. In the past 25 years, 13 states have outlawed greyhound racing. It’s an industry, says Lee, that’s clearly in decline.
“Since 1990 the amount wagered on greyhound racing has declined by 75 percent; the taxes and fees associated with that have been reduced by 90 percent,” contends Lee. “As a result, the state loses money – a substantial amount of money. Essentially we are propping up this industry by using other revenue sources to fund the deficiency between the revenue that comes in off of dog racing, and the cost to regulate it.”
That disparity is estimated at between one million and $3.3 million and growing, according to a study on pari-mutuel wagering in Florida conducted for the Legislature.
Money aside, Lee says the core of this amendment is the inhumane treatment of the dogs. The numbers are as of last April.
“A greyhound dies every three days at a Florida track,” Lee said. “Since the state began tracking greyhound deaths in 2013, 438 dogs have died at race tracks in our state. Florida and Alabama are the only two states now that have some form of greyhound injury reporting to the public.”
In a lawsuit filed in Leon County circuit court earlier this year, the Florida Greyhound Association claimed there were numerous flaws in the amendment. Lobbyist Jack Corey said the ballot title and summary don’t fully inform voters about the impact of the amendment if approved.
“What [A-13] is going to do is stop live greyhound racing in the state of Florida; cost the state of Florida over $80 million a year in live betting in live greyhound racing,” Corey argues. “Two hundred million dollars at greyhound tracks; 3,000 jobs, and put 8,000 beautiful greyhounds at risk.”
The complaint is a desperate attempt to thwart voters from deciding greyhound racing’s fate, according to Kate MacFall with the Humane Society of the United States.
“The reality is, Floridians love dogs; they’re members of our families,” said MacFall. “And they don’t support them being confined, injured and certainly dying – and the cruelty that goes along with the industry. And [the dogs] certainly deserve to be protected from industries and individuals that do them harm.”
Numerous calls to officials at Pensacola Greyhound Track for an interview were not returned. The 12 Florida tracks would still be allowed to operate other gambling activities, such as slot machines and poker rooms – the latter now offered at the Pensacola Track.
“I’m a career prosecutor; my entire adult life I’ve prosecuted many, many cruelty to animals cases even when I was a felony bureau chief and not taking cases, I would take those,” said Attorney General Pam Bondi, a CRC member.
One obstacle in prosecuting animal cruelty cases at dog tracks, she says, is that they’re virtually impossible to investigate because they’re usually hidden from view.
“These dogs I’ve seen first-hand after the fact are scared to death of their own shadow,” Bondi said. “It’s inhumane and in my opinion it’s cruelty to animals and it’s horrible. Are you aware that most of them are skin and bones when they’re taken away from the dog tracks?”
“One of the most telling features about an animal that has been abused is, as Commissioner Bondi says, is how it behaves,” said sponsor Tom Lee. “These instances have been reported time and time again by these adoption agencies that are taking these dogs after their racing eligibility has expired.”
Animal cruelty within the framework of legal greyhound racing, contends Attorney General Pam Bondi, is among the worst such cases she’s seen. She adds that Amendment-13 is getting a lot of attention.
“If your good amendment passes, people around the country and watching and waiting, and will take every single one of these dogs; not euthanize them and find them good homes,” Bondi said.
And this is not the first time greyhound racing in Florida has gone under the political microscope. Despite apparent support among state lawmakers to ban it over the years, the notion has failed when it became intertwined with other gambling-related issues.
After more than a century of debate, the issue now goes to the voters.