The public has always been fascinated by an animal-on-drugs story. Take the legendary "squirrels on crack" incident, where a gang of our fluffy-tailed friends were allegedly terrifying Brixton residents after nibbling on rocks they had stolen from dealers' stashes; or the Moldovan cat smuggling cannabis into prison; or even the chimp that took up smoking.
Last week, two such tales – both involving dogs taking cocaine – gained a fair bit of attention. First came the inquest into the violent death of Mario Perivoitos, mauled by Major, his pet Staffordshire bull terrier, who had ingested a stash of crack cocaine. Two days later, it was revealed that champion Irish greyhound Clonbrien Hero had tested positive for cocaine three times in two months.
No one can be sure how Major the Staffie ended up ingesting the crack; according to a toxicologist, the dog had "probably eaten" the drugs. But a greyhound found with drugs in its system is not entirely out the blue, whatever his trainer may say about people "patting it on the head" after handling money contaminated with cocaine.
Clonbrien Hero's trainer denies any wrongdoing, but the case still serves as a reminder that the dog racing industry – banned in all but a handful of countries – has a shaky track record on doping and animal welfare.
Despite introducing a strict drug testing system to combat race fixing, and new rules to improve animal welfare, greyhound racing in the UK and Ireland – two of the sport's last bastions – still stands accused of shady practices.
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So far this year in Ireland, cocaine has been found in three other dogs apart from Clonbrien Hero, at tracks in Longford, Limerick and Cork. Two have tested positive for amphetamines at Lifford and Shelbourne Park. One greyhound, Alive Alive Mayo, tested positive for steroids five times between May and June. His kennel mates, Gods Own Mayo and Hartbeating Mayo, also tested positive for steroids.
Positive tests in the UK – which has witnessed such a steep fall in interest in the sport that all its London tracks have now closed – are rare. Increased drug testing in the last decade by the industry's governing bodies, the GBGB, and its Irish equivalent, the Irish Greyhound Board (IGB), has reduced the amount of doping in the sport. However, while the GBGB says that over 99 percent of drug tests on greyhounds come up negative, between 2012 and 2016 there were 261 positive tests for banned drugs; dogs are still being drugged.
In the last three years, racing greyhounds have tested positive for an alphabet soup of sedatives, steroids and stimulants, designed to either hinder or boost a dog's ability. Cocaine, barbiturates, ketamine, Viagra, cannabis, beta-blockers, Ritalin and morphine have been found in greyhounds. So have novocaine, caffeine, anti-malaria drugs, antihistamines and medicines for treating human hair loss.
Doping gives dog owners or trainers an underhand advantage when it comes to gambling. By illegally drugging their dogs, they can control their performance on the track and in the betting ring. Sometimes, dogs are sedated in races to lengthen their odds for the target race. Dogs are then raced without sedatives, or given stimulant drugs or steroids in order to improve their performance, earning those in the know big cash rewards.
Despite the dangers to their health posed by drugging dogs, trainers caught doping are often handed a small fine and allowed to continue racing. One trainer, John Mullins, who runs a kennels in Suffolk, has greyhounds that tested positive for cocaine and amphetamines in 2005, 2012 and 2014. Yet Mullins is described by those charged with maintaining the integrity of the sport, the Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB), as "very highly regarded within the greyhound industry".
In 2014 an undercover BBC Panorama investigation found one trainer, Chris Mosdall, sabotaging his dogs' performance at Wimbledon Stadium by injecting them with antihistamines in order to rig bets. Mosdall was jailed for four months. In 2014, a greyhound trained by Michael Field, the former CEO of the Irish Greyhound Board, tested positive for the banned stimulants ephedrine and phenylpropanolamine following a win at the Irish hare-coursing derby.
However solid the authorities' grip on doping within the official circuit is, there is little to stop dogs being doped on the handful of unregulated greyhound courses – known as "flapping tracks" – throughout the UK and Ireland. At these events vets are not required and drug tests are not undertaken. In 2011, a greyhound trainer operating on flapping tracks, Anthony Fowler from Stockton-on-Tees, was banned from keeping dogs for life after he gave Viagra to a dog to make him "run his head off", and boiled cannabis to slow him down. In December of last year a Scottish newspaper uncovered evidence of widespread drugging of dogs on the flapping circuit.
Pumping greyhounds full of powerful drugs is not just a British and Irish thing. In New South Wales, Australia, 20 trainers were caught doping their dogs in eight months despite promises by the sport to clean up its act. In America, where 40 states have banned the sport, most of the tracks are in Florida. In June, a trainer had his license suspended after 12 of his greyhounds tested positive for cocaine. A month earlier, Malcolm McAllister – a veteran on the US dog racing scene, described as a patriarch of the industry – lost his license after five dogs tested positive for cocaine following a race.
Doping aside, the greyhound racing industry has found it hard to shift away from a largely prejudiced image of it as a sport of rogues, in comparison to its more thoroughbred cousin horse racing, the "sport of kings". But its reputation hasn't been helped by its occasional ties to organised drug crime. In 2013, two Teesside greyhound trainers, Robert and Thomas Hall, were jailed for a total of 19 years after their cocaine and cannabis enterprise was rumbled. Four years earlier, Newcastle greyhound trainer Brian Stirling, who was found guilty of doping his dog in 2007, was jailed for ten years for running a cocaine and amphetamine dealing business.
In Ireland, gangster Christy Keane was arrested on suspicion of stealing Clares Rocket, a champion greyhound worth €1 million, from the Tipperary-based kennels of Graham Holland, the trainer of Clonbrien Hero, before being released without charge. In May, the IGB set up an investigation into race fixing after a highly suspicious flurry of bets on dog racing at Mullinger stadium in County Westmeath.
Yet the sport has bigger problems to confront than doping and links to the criminal underworld. According to animal welfare campaigners, large numbers of healthy greyhounds are killed each year because they have become uneconomic for their owners. In 2007, builders' merchant David Smith was fined after killing and burying hundreds of healthy greyhounds – deemed by their trainers too slow for racing – for £10 a time on land near his home in County Durham. The Dogs Trust estimates that around 3,500 greyhounds are unaccounted for every year in the UK.
"Thousands of greyhounds are bred each year for racing. Some of those who do not make the grade are killed when they are young; others are kept in terrible conditions," says Rita James of Caged, a campaign group against greyhound exploitation. "Then there are the injured and retired greyhounds that just disappear, left to rot, shot with a bolt gun or dumped in the river. There are too many to be rehoused. That's why we want to ban this sport."
If these beautiful animals that we profess to love so much are looked after from cradle to grave, and left to compete without being doped, then at least this seemingly doomed sport can meet its maker with dignity.