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In this four-part radio series, West Virginia Public Broadcasting examines the history and future of greyhound racing in the state. In 2023, West Virginia will have the last two greyhound racing tracks in the United States. The state government is bound by law to support the greyhound racing operations at two casinos. Reporters Randy Yohe and Chris Schulz take us inside West Virginia’s dog racing world, examining the economic, humane and legal elements that make this sport unique and controversial.

Part Two: Humane Treatment Major Question For Greyhound Racing Industry

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Chris Schulz
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
The view of one of the day's greyhound races from the grandstand at Wheeling Island Casino.

Just off the first turn of the dog track at the Wheeling Island Casino stands a concrete-block building, the racetrack’s paddock. Inside, greyhounds are prepared for the day’s races.

Dogs are weighed, fitted with racing bibs and checked by the state veterinarian on-site. Before and after their race, the dogs are held in crates, one stacked on top of the other.

Long spans of crating is just one of many issues opponents of dog racing point to as abusive treatment.

WVPB Greyhounds Wheeling Island 2.jpg
Chris Schulz
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
The holding crates inside the paddock at Wheeling Island Casino, where dogs are kept before and after races.

Carey Thiel is the president of Grey2KUSA, a non-profit dedicated to ending greyhound racing in the U.S. In the racing system, Thiel said, dogs are disposable.

“Just last year, 627 greyhound injuries were reported to the state racing commission in West Virginia, including 189 dogs that suffered broken bones and 10 dogs that died," Thiel said.

In an industry that calls its dogs “athletes,” Thiel said the death rate is unacceptable.

“If 10 high school football athletes died in West Virginia last year, I think that would be the number one story being discussed in the state,” Thiel said.

Thiel has advocated for laws banning greyhound racing in states like Florida and Massachusetts. For him and similar-minded activists, there is no point in prolonging a doomed industry.

“There's no doubt in my mind that greyhound racing is going to end in West Virginia, as it has ended elsewhere,” Thiel said. “I think the question is, how long is it going to take? How many millions in state funds are going to be wasted? And how many dogs are going to suffer in the meantime?”

Dr. Lori Bohenko, the state veterinarian at Wheeling Island, takes issue with that position.

“It's my data,” Bohenko said. “I've been here 18, 19 years. And they just twist it to their benefit.”

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Chris Schulz
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Dr. Lori Bohenko stands in her office at the Wheeling Island Casino racetrack. As the state veterinarian on-site, Dr. Bohenko is responsible for treating and reporting all dog injuries at the track.

In her role as the racetrack’s state veterinarian, Bohenko reports every injury.

“Whether it's a toenail that was torn off or a broken leg,” Bohenko said. “Are there catastrophic things that happen? Absolutely. But they're minimal. They're not as frequent as they like to portray.”

Bohenko concedes that in the past, the racing industry did treat dogs as disposable, but insists that attitudes have changed. She points towards the Four Legs 4 Hounds program she founded with funds from greyhound breeders.

It sends dogs with broken legs to the veterinary hospital at Ohio State University in Columbus. In the past, these dogs would have been euthanized, but Bohenko estimates that since its creation, the Four Legs program has reduced the number of euthanized dogs by 80 or 90 percent.

“I would say there might be anywhere from three to six dogs a year that might be euthanized here,” Bohenko said. “I'm sure veterinary practices, small animal practices euthanize a lot more dogs than this racetrack does in a year.”

For people involved in and employed by the greyhound racing industry in West Virginia, accusations of cruelty are puzzling.

“For these dogs to have an opportunity to get on a racetrack and do what they instinctively do, I just think is a joy for them,” Bohenko said. “You see these dogs and they love going out and running. I think because it is a regulated sport, the surface is kept as safe as you can.”

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Chris Schulz
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
A view across the dog runs at the Sarras farm in Wellsburg shows some of the 75 dogs at the farm.

Steve Sarras is the president of the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association. He is a second generation greyhound breeder, and currently has about 75 dogs on his farm in Wellsburg, north of Wheeling.

“These dogs are brought up, they expect you to dote on them, they expect that love and affection,” Sarras said. “They come running up to you with their tails wagging. Which is, you know, if you stop and think if a dog was abused, they're not going to do that, they're going to cower away.”

When visitors first arrive on the Sarras property, they look down onto the dogs’ living quarters, some two dozen concrete block shelters attached to fenced-in runs. The blocks are spartan, but the runs are maintained and dogs can run whenever they like.

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Chris Schulz
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Greyhound breeder Steve Sarras interacts with some of his dogs on his farm in Wellsburg.

Sarras says his dogs are well taken care of because otherwise, they don’t win races.

“You're giving them the best food, the best vitamins, best vaccination protocols, the best worming protocols,” Sarras said. “In order for you to be competitive, and in order for you to win, and in order for you to get reimbursed, you have to do all of that stuff.”

Sarras believes that activists, while well-intentioned, are ultimately misinformed about what actually goes on at the track and on farms like his.

He encourages concerned citizens to go to a racetrack or a breeder’s farm, see things for themselves, and make up their own mind. Seeing the industry up close seems to have been enough for the state’s lawmakers.

Listen to West Virginia Morning on Tuesday next week for part three of “Greyhound Racing In W.Va. – Last Of A Dying Breed.” In our next story, statehouse reporter Randy Yohe explores the relationship between the legislature and the dog track.

North Central/Morgantown Reporter, cschulz@wvpublic.org, 304-284-1497, @SchulzReports

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