Life's a Bitch

Evenings, when the sidewalks of South Beach become a pedestrian mall of boozing and buying, Michael Hernandez's pitch might be mistaken for just another commodity among the burgeoning itinerant marketplace of flower vendors, parrot photographers, and craftspeople. But Hernandez's merchandise is singular. And he's unloading it for free.

The 23-year-old veterinarian's assistant has spent a good part of his spare time during the past few months trying to find happy homes for greyhounds who have run their final races at local tracks and are destined for an early death -- at the end of a syringe. All Pets Veterinary Group, the Miami animal hospital where he works, receives between six and twelve racing dogs every month from a local trainer who doesn't want them any more. The dogs range in age from about eighteen months to ten years old.

At first Hernandez watched as dog after dog was put to death by injection. But two months ago, no longer able to stand it, he took action. An avid animal lover (he has seventeen pets), Hernandez has gone from pestering family members and co-workers to accosting shoppers in malls and printing up flyers, to strolling through the nighttime throngs on South Beach with adoptable canines in tow. "They make good pets," he says. "They adapt really well to domestic life, even to living in a studio apartment. In addition, they're leash-trained, housebroken, and healthy."

Hernandez's efforts are all right with his bosses at All Pets. Although hospital administrator Marc Knowles refuses to divulge the name of the trainer who brings his dogs to the clinic (the man requested anonymity, he explains), he does acknowledge that "the gentleman has given us the OK to find suitable homes for the dogs. We've dealt with many owners in the past, but we only like to deal with owners who want us to try to find homes for their dogs." By Hernandez's count, he has managed to place about a dozen dogs since he began his campaign, mostly as a result of the strolls on South Beach.

Those are extremely lucky dogs. Of the tens of thousands of greyhounds annually bred for racing in the U.S., only a small fraction can expect to spend their dotage chasing tennis balls or curled up on the hearth. According to the Humane Society of the United States, three out of every ten greyhound pups make it as far as the racetrack; the rest fall victim to a breeding system that graduates only the healthy and quick-footed. Most of the 70 percent of pups that don't become racers are put to death. The majority of racing dogs, too, are killed as soon as they are retired, in order to save their owners the cost of food and care. (Industry officials say the average career of a racer begins at eighteen months and lasts only about two years; most state laws require that a racer be retired by its fifth birthday.) A few die naturally, others are kept by trainers for breeding.

The figures are astounding, and hotly debated. The National Greyhound Association, based in Abilene, Kansas, estimates that 48,000 racing dogs are born every year, while fewer than half that number of greyhounds are killed. The Humane Society contends that while the birth statistics are accurate, the NGA's estimated number of euthanizations is off. "There's no question that more than half of the dogs in the industry are euthanized," says Ken Johnson, an investigator in the society's southeast regional office. The NGA figures, says Johnson, deny statistical reason: There just aren't enough dogs actually racing, being adopted, being used for breeding, or dying every year to account for all the dogs the NGA claims aren't being euthanized. But, both organizations concede, since breeders aren't required to report how many dogs they kill, the actual number is a matter of speculation. (An official with the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering says the state cannot regulate the numbers of racing dogs bred or killed and doesn't maintain statistics.)

Gary Guccione, the NGA's secretary- treasurer, insists that improved adoption programs have contributed in recent years to a significant decrease in deaths: from 27,000 in 1991 to fewer than 20,000 this year. As recent bad press has driven industry officials to reconsider the way they habitually disposed of dogs, Guccione explains, many kennels and tracks around the nation -- including a handful in South Florida -- have organized their own adoption programs. He says national adoption numbers have increased from 3500 in 1990 to more than 9000 this past year, a number confirmed by Greyhound Pets of America, one of several national greyhound adoption organizations that have sprung up in recent years. "We've produced brochures in cooperation with the ASPCA [American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals], videos of how to care for greyhounds as pets," says Guccione. "We'd like to get it to the point where all the dogs are adopted."

In addition, Guccione goes on, industry leaders and state officials have encouraged trainers to breed fewer dogs. "Our board of directors has recommended to members to cut back on breeding," he says, pointing out that the industry has seen a fifteen percent reduction in breeding numbers in the past year.

Of course, the more dogs a breeder raises, the better the chance he has to produce a big winner. And indeed, a lot of money is at stake. The total amount bet last fiscal year at Flagler Greyhound Track, one of five tracks in South Florida, amounted to $67 million; Hollywood Greyhound Track reported a handle of $83 million for the same time period.

Humane Society investigator Ken Johnson admits that adoption numbers have increased slightly, but he disputes Guccione's claim that breeding numbers have gone down. "The greyhound industry is making no attempts to limit the breeding that is taking place," says Johnson. "The situation is still really bad."

Michael Hernandez isn't frustrated yet, even though there is no foreseeable end to the procession of unwanted dogs destined for the needle. He's considering establishing a nonprofit greyhound adoption service and will continue distributing leaflets and parading his doomed charges along South Beach's thoroughfares.

"I'm going to keep doing this as long as I can," he insists. "As long as there is greyhound racing, we're going to have this problem.

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Kirk Semple