- Going to the Dogs: Greyhound Racing, Animal Activism, and American Popular Culture by Gwyneth Anne Thayer
“Remember: Nobody forces greyhounds to run,” declares the Greyhound Racing Association of America on its official website. Behind this somewhat defensive statement lies the long history of a controversial sport that, until now, has largely escaped scholarly attention. Author and archivist Gwyneth Anne Thayer fills this historiographical gap with an extensively researched book that traces the trajectory of greyhound racing in the United States from its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s to its decline in the 1970s and beyond. Informed by present-day movements to outlaw dog racing and rescue ex-racing hounds, Going to the Dogs is not just an interesting case study of a spectator sport’s rise and fall. It is also a cultural history that connects the greyhound’s story to a host of broader twentieth-century social, economic, and ideological changes that have undermined dog racing’s popularity, and even its legitimacy, in the twenty-first century.
Thayer begins with a detailed exploration of greyhound racing’s origins from ancient hare hunting through the nineteenth-century development of public coursing as a carefully regulated European sport. A competition that pitted two hounds against each other in a contest of speed and agility, coursing had long been popular among the aristocratic classes in England. In the Civil War era, the sport was imported to the United States where it lost some of its upper-class veneer. By the turn of the century, coursing events, along with jackrabbit hunts and drives, had become part of the social fabric in the Great Plains. But the growing practice of using greyhounds to pursue and kill rabbits for sport raised the ire of humanitarians who painted coursing’s participants as unsophisticated brutes. The mechanical rabbit, invented in the first decades of the twentieth century, distanced greyhound racing from these kinds of cruelty charges and transformed the rural “blood sport” into a sanitized urban spectacle with significant moneymaking potential.
Despite the opening of the first public dog track in 1919, promoters struggled to expand greyhound racing into new markets. Associations with illegal gambling and organized crime meant that dog-racing venues were routinely subject to police raids and forced closings. Political opposition from competitors, especially the horse-racing establishment, thwarted early attempts to legalize dog racing in a number a states. In the face of many challenges, greyhound racing spread, albeit unevenly, across the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, largely due to the sport’s appeal to working-class audiences, Thayer contends. [End Page 283] Promoters achieved some of their greatest midcentury successes in Florida where dog tracks became key components of a burgeoning entertainment wonderland for northern tourists. Marketing campaigns further elevated the industry’s image by painting the sport with the glitz and glamour of celebrity. By the end of the 1960s, greyhound racing appeared to be an accepted part of the mainstream of American sporting culture.
The emergence of animal advocacy groups in the 1970s changed all that, Thayer argues in the book’s final chapters. In the last several decades, the greyhound-racing industry, though never free from controversy, has become the target of increasingly confrontational attacks by groups such as the Humane Society, PETA, and, more recently, GREY2K USA. Evolving American attitudes about animals, especially those kept as household pets, writes Thayer, fostered the growing antiracing sentiment that infuriates greyhound racing’s “dogmen.” Here Thayer perhaps misses an opportunity to deepen her analysis. To be sure, modern campaigns to eliminate greyhound racing were part of the longer-term cultural trend, originating in the Victorian era, from primarily utilitarian to more affective relationships with domestic animals, as Thayer notes. But the specific forms of late twentieth-century animal protectionism, as expressed by greyhound-racing critics, suggest that the place of animals in American society has been significantly transformed since dog racing’s glory days. To put it another way: How did it come to matter whether greyhounds...