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I show up unannounced on a Sunday morning at the massive, gated compound called the Florida Kennels, which includes Tru-Paws. The 70-acre plot consists of about 50 buildings able to house 50 to 100 dogs each (there are around 2,000 dogs total), a full-sized practice track, and several fenced sprinting runs.
All the dogs running at Flagler Dog Track and Entertainment Center or Mardi Gras are kept here. Outsiders — especially reporters — are not welcome on the compound, but Trudden gets me past the security guards at the gate.
Trudden is just finishing preparation of the dogs' food. He starts with 75 pounds of raw meat, which comes in giant blocks labeled: NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION. Trudden adds the contents of a tall, industrial pot that's been simmering on the small stove at the front of his building. It's got chicken broth, some carrots, a few different kinds of pasta, and rice. He mixes it all together with his bare hands.
To the food concoction, he adds a few small scoops of powdered Gatorade "to build their electrolytes." He scoops the mixture into silver bowls and weighs them. Then he adds a large scoop of a standard grain dog food. Before he hands out the bowls to the dogs in their crates, he squirts some with pancake syrup, "in case they have low glucose." He has a bottle of Tums handy in case he suspects one of the dogs has a bellyache.
"There's nobody who loves these dogs more than we do," he tells me. "I feel like I have 60 pets."
Trudden asks me how often I've taken my dog to the vet since I've had her.
"Well, these dogs each see a vet twice a week." He points out: "It behooves us to take good care of the dogs. If they're not in good shape, they're not going to win."
In the back of Trudden's kennel, the Rolling Stones play from a stereo to 62 dogs in individual crates stacked two high along both walls; each standardized crate measures 26 inches wide by 30 inches high and is 42 inches deep. The females are on top. "They jump better," Trudden says. Females receive hormones so they can race with males without fear of "accidental breeding." The dogs all look healthy. Most wag their tails when they see us. The few I look at closely have good teeth and soft fur. Trudden knows each dog by name and kisses some of the females' heads, calling each "mama."
There's a large industrial scale — each dog must weigh within one pound of what it weighed in the previous race, per track rules — and near the front door is a chart detailing each dog's racing schedule and special needs. On the walls are photos of Trudden and his family with past champions.
Trudden was introduced to greyhounds by his grandpa Joe, who played the dogs every day. He fondly remembers studying the program together every afternoon and waiting anxiously to learn whether the dogs they picked had won. When his grandfather died, Trudden scraped together $1,200, bought a dog, and named it Joe's Unicorn. The dog won early and often, and by the early '90s, Trudden was able quit his job at the telephone company to become a full-time trainer. Not long after that, he bought his own kennel.
One of the dogs he trained was BB's Story Book. I ask him about the incident with the lure.
"I was here that night," he says. "It's one of the worst things I've ever seen. I scooped him up with my own arms." His voice gets softer and his eyes become glassy as he describes speeding to the animal hospital. He kicks a rock. "There's nothing they could do," he says. BB's Story Book was euthanized.
As Trudden works, he defends his beloved industry. He says he has never had a healthy dog euthanized and has even kept dogs in his kennel for more than a year — at an average cost of $5 per day — before a spot in an adoption kennel opened up. Trudden estimates that the industry employs 20,000 people in Florida alone. "That's not counting the people who sell the trucks and the tires and the gas and the food."
Still, Trudden acknowledges that public opinion has swayed and that the end of dog racing is inevitable. "I just hope it's not in my lifetime," he says.
We walk out back to the two fenced runs where the dogs are "turned out" at least twice a day. Alongside the kennel is a small, metal whirlpool for the dogs, on the day after they race. It's a greyhound Jacuzzi. After the "hydrotherapy," he says, each dog gets a hand massage.
Trudden turns to me: "Do these dogs look abused?"
Joe Trudden might be a conscientious guy — but not every trainer is. In December 2007, state investigators from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering — the state agency overseeing greyhound racing in Florida — discovered a gruesome scene. In building four, just a few hundred yards from Trudden's kennel, 74 dogs were left in dirty cages with almost no food or medicine for months.