Should SA go to the dog races?

2009-02-06 00:00

Should greyhound dog racing be legalised in South Africa after 40 years? It depends who you ask.

Yesterday’s public hearing on the matter in Durban — the first of seven to be held throughout the country and organised by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) — was marked by heated exchanges between interested parties, reflecting the intense divisions that surround the issue.

About 60 dog owners from around the province, many of them members of the KZN Rural Coursing Club, yesterday gave vigorous support to the legalisation, which they say will create jobs, provide constructive recreational pursuits and allow people to practise an important part of their culture.

“It’s in our nerves,” was how Maurice Dube from Inanda described the hunting and racing activities of Zulu dog owners.

Dube, who has eight greyhounds, two of which he imported from the United Kingdom and Australia at a cost of between R25 000 and R30 000, told the hearing there is no danger of him mistreating his animals.

He told Weekend Witness that he spends R2 500 per month on dog food alone. His dogs are registered with the SA Studbook Association, receive regular veterinary attention and have certificates to race.

“Please, we will do whatever it takes to make this work,” he told the hearing.

Despite appeals from organisers to refrain from finger-pointing, dog owners were frequently critical of the National Council of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA), which objects to legalisation mainly on the basis that it will produce a surplus of thousands of unwanted dogs in an already overpopulated dog market.

“We can’t lose sight of the bigger picture” the NSPCA’s Morgane James told Weekend Witness.

“Nowhere else in the world does dog racing exist without massive animal welfare problems.”

And who will benefit from the industry, she asked. “We have people here who admit to paying up to R30 000 for a dog. Do they represent the community at large?”

James said dog racing tracks are closing down in the United Kingdom and the United States. “Job creation is a popular argument in desperate times like these, but playing that card may be giving people false hope.”

Shane Brody of Amatwina Sport, a private company that has been campaigning since 1998 to legalise racing, said that regulation is the only way to protect the welfare of the dogs, which are currently being raced illegally. Brody told the hearing that the substantial revenue streams generated by legal racing could be used for industry-funded regulation and capacity-building programmes.

Steve Smit, whose organisation Animal Rights Africa has opposed the legalisation since the early ’90s, said there is no proof of any benefits to the country from greyhound racing.

“When the industry grows, we will lose control of it,” he told the hearing. “When people start doing things for money and profit, it’s been repeatedly shown that the welfare of animals is put aside.”

Dog racing was banned in South Africa in 1949, but has been taking place “underground” for many years. Wayne King, a member of the dog racing fraternity from Bloemfontein, said after a clampdown by police on illegal dog racing late last year, they now conduct time trials that involve only one dog at a time.

Dr Neels Swanepoel of the University of Free State’s law faculty, a member of the research team appointed by the DTI to investigate greyhound racing, said the reason given for the 1949 ban was the “insobriety” surrounding the gambling-related industry.

Swanepoel told Weekend Witness that horse racing probably managed to escape the net at the time because it was a recreational activity for society’s upper echelons. Various attempts over the years to reintroduce dog racing have failed, despite the legalisation of gambling in 1996.

Swanepoel said the issue of animal rights is “prominent” in current discussions because the world is now more aware of its duty to care for animals.

“If legalised, the industry would have to be capable of addressing the concerns of organisations like the SPCA … We have to appreciate their role.”

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