Bella and Tree are retired, livin’ the good life.
The 7-year-old greyhounds, bright-eyed and curious, greeted me at the door during a recent visit, like most dogs would. Except, graceful and tall, they don’t look or act like most dogs.
For one thing, they rarely bark. After some brief excitement and pats on their velvety heads and ears (at waist level), the pair soon resumed lounging in their living room, one stretched out, the other curled up. They are retired, after all.
“It’s an honor having retired athletes living in our home,” said Rita Spitler of Mechanicsburg, who, along with husband Larry, volunteers with Camp Hill-based Personalized Greyhounds. “We call them retired and re-homed, but not rescued.”
The nonprofit, all-volunteer group, founded in 1995, has matched hundreds of greyhounds, retired from racing, with adoptive owners in the Harrisburg area. Similar organizations exist throughout the country because greyhounds are typically 3 to 5 years old when they slow down and are retired, but their life expectancy is 10 to 12 years.
“They still have a lot of life in them,” said Rita.
She said that the word “rescue” brings misconceptions because it implies that the racing industry is mistreating the quick canines.
“People often think they require a ton of exercise, are abused, drugged, vicious or forced to run at greyhound tracks,” she said. “People are shocked when they see 25 to 30 greyhounds together, and there’s no growling or barking. People are surprised that they’re actually very laid back.”
Indeed, the American Kennel Club (AKC) describes the breed as “gentle, sweet-tempered and noble.”
Originating in Egypt, the greyhound is an ancient breed—the only specific dog mentioned in the Bible. It’s their incredible speed (up to 46 mph) and quick acceleration (similar to the fastest land animal, the cheetah) that spurred the American dog racing industry.
Today, fewer than 20 tracks remain, with half located in Florida—long considered the hub of American greyhound racing. Tracks have been losing money for years, as changing tastes and technology have impacted the entertainment and gambling industries. The closest track to Harrisburg is located in Wheeling, W.Va.
Greyhound racing is actually banned in 40 states. In fact, the long-time hub, Florida, approved a constitutional amendment to end greyhound racing by Dec. 31, 2020. Three Florida tracks, including Sarasota—founded in 1929—have closed since November.
To say Amendment 13, which banned greyhound racing, is controversial is an understatement.
“The biggest problem with the amendment was the verbiage,” Rita said. “A lot of people thought they were voting to keep racing. When you read it, it is not clear what you’re voting for. So, one judge in Florida called it trickery. By voting ‘yes,’ a lot of people thought they were voting to keep racing.”
Many organizations issued pro-racing (anti-amendment) statements including the AKC and National Greyhound Association (NGA). About 100 adoption groups did the same.
In addition to PG, another local nonprofit, Nittany Greyhounds based in State College, is listed on the NGA website as “pro-racing.”
Nittany’s president, Bob Koch, is a resident of Midtown Harrisburg who’s often seen walking Sully and Hiway, both 11-year-old retired racers. He said that Nittany’s inclusion on the list is a “mistake.”
“We are strictly neutral,” he said. “Our philosophy is all about the dogs and finding homes for the retired racers, not speaking out for or against or about the issue. We don’t want to take a stance. Greyhounds are bred to run—that is their nature—but when it comes to racing, we state that we’re neutral.”
Meantime, both organizations are closely watching events unfolding in Florida and gearing up for a possible influx of dogs in need of homes.
“Right now, we want to get families involved and willing to step up when the need arises for foster families,” Rita said.
Typically, foster families help transition former race dogs into their adoptive homes.
Amid the swirling issues, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there are thousands of greyhounds, with more to offer than speed, whose fate hangs in the balance. And it might go beyond that.
“If racing is completely abolished, we’re going to lose this breed of dog,” said Rita.
“I don’t think it’ll be the end of the breed—there are other tracks out there,” he said. “Racing won’t go away. What’s going to change is the number of dogs up for adoption.”