Race to find homes for greyhounds as pandemic closes Florida tracks

Retirement is treating Pat C Rollo well. Just weeks after the coronavirus pandemic closed his workplace for good, he has moved into a modern apartment in south Florida and enjoys long, leisurely walks watching the yachts on the Intracoastal Waterway before heading home for a nap. He even has a new name – Lambo, short for Lamborghini – as a reminder of the fast-paced industry in which he once worked.

It was a swift, and fortunate, transformation for a racing greyhound who never distinguished himself in 97 outings over 20 months under the Rollo moniker, yet always seemed to enjoy the thrill of chasing an electric hare around the track at the Daytona Beach Racing and Card Club.

When Daytona’s owners, starved of paying customers due to the Covid-19 lockdown, brought down the shutters on 20 March after 71 years of live greyhound racing, Lambo and 600 other greyhounds suddenly found themselves not just out of work, but instantly homeless. Thanks to a hastily scrambled caravan of volunteers from the Awesome Greyhound Adoptions agency willing to drive the 420-mile round trip from Boynton Beach, several dozen dogs traveled south to temporary foster homes or, as in Lambo’s case, permanent new digs.

“We’re keeping each other going,” says Lambo’s new owner, Courtney Portela, 38, a bartender from Boynton who also lost her job in the pandemic. “I’m helping him out by showing him a good new life, and he’s helping me out by keeping me motivated at a time when everything’s up in the air,” she says of the three-and-a-half-year-old she calls her “45mph couch potato”.

Portela saw on the news that Florida’s greyhound tracks were closing because of the pandemic and that dogs were in need of homes, but that doesn’t reflect the magnitude of the challenge that has befallen the state’s network of adoption agencies almost instantaneously.

Other long-established greyhound racing tracks in Naples and Sanford closed permanently in short order of Daytona, the former having soldiered on with televised races but no spectators for several weeks before bowing to the inevitable. Meanwhile, circuits in West Palm Beach, St Petersburg and Jacksonville suspended operations indefinitely with their futures uncertain. It left 1,500 greyhounds, by many estimates, in need of immediate rehoming. Roughly another 3,000 are still in kennels at the remaining three venues, all of which must close by law at the end of the year anyway when Florida becomes the 41st state to outlaw commercial dog racing.

In truth, the popularity of a wagering activity legalized in 1931 as a mechanism to replenish state coffers depleted by the Great Depression has been declining for years. The anti-racing group Grey2K USA says gambling revenues dropped 57 % from 2006 to 2016, spectatorship has dwindled and a state that once attracted cultural icons such as Frank Sinatra and Babe Ruth to dog race meetings, boasted 20 tracks in its late-1980s heyday and still had 11 tracks two years ago, is down to its final three.

Even so, Amendment 13, the 2018 ballot initiative that ended dog racing by a two-to-one majority, and which was reaffirmed by a federal judge last month, allowed for an orderly, rolling program of closures by January 2021. The intention was to allow the volunteer groups time to absorb the dogs instead of being overwhelmed all at once, but coronavirus has upended that situation.

“With tracks closing earlier than expected, it’s a perfect storm of greyhounds needing homes at one of the worst times in US history,” said Dennis Tyler, president of Greyhound Pet Adoptions of Central Florida. “Fortunately most of the groups in Florida scattered dogs across the country to different groups that could take them and start the adoption process, but Florida is saturated with greyhounds as far as local adoptions.”

Rescue groups hastily assembled teams of volunteers to drive hundreds of dogs to sister agencies in California, Tennessee and New England. Others, from the Naples track in particular, will race on for the time being, in Arkansas or at Iowa’s sole remaining track in Dubuque, before eventually being rehomed as pets.

“It’s a much better place to be doing it,” Tyler said. “You can disperse them to Canada and northern states. In Florida you have to get a couple of states out to where it’s not overloaded with greyhounds.”

Barbara Masi, founder of the Awesome agency, a non-profit that works specifically to rehome former racing dogs, which found Lambo his new home, said “greyhound nation” was stepping up at a time of need. “Approved groups all across the US have 50 or 100 applications sitting there waiting for greyhounds to come,” she said.

“Locally, we put out a plea for fosters and new adopters, and though the ones we brought were a minimal number, 23 have been adopted right here.”

The Greyhound Retirement Foundation of Tennessee sent a cavalcade of vehicles from Knoxville to retrieve 60 dogs from kennels at the Sanford Orlando Kennel Club when racing ended there abruptly in March after 85 years. “We’ve adopted out probably 30 of them already,” said director Brenda Stafford, who added that the suspension of “meet and greets” in her local Petsmart’s parking lot had been another challenge to overcome. “Our foster homes are the real heroes of this, taking care of greyhounds that need to leave the track and begin another career as a pet.”

If things are looking up for the dogs, the same could not be said for Florida’s 3,000 kennel owners, trainers and track employees, many now out of work after decades in the industry.

“It’s been devastating,” said Jack Cory of the Florida Greyhound Association, which operates as a voice for industry workers. “Fortunately we have two responsible tracks in West Palm Beach and St Petersburg where they have been helping out the kennel owners with a subsidy each week to help take care of the animals.”

Ultimately, Cory says, every retired racing greyhound in Florida deserves a new life in a loving, permanent home, like Lambo. “He’d never been in a home before, he was pretty clueless,” Portela said. “He didn’t understand the hardwood floor, he kept walking into the sliding glass door, he doesn’t know how to do stairs, he’ll stare at himself in a mirror for hours.”

“I had to push my boyfriend to get him, and moments after he arrived my boyfriend was like, ‘OK, when can get another?’”

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