By Campbell, Beatrix
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 136, No. 4831
Cleopatra had hers. Queen Elizabeth I had hers, too. And I've got mine--Molly Kay, a shy, sleek, blue, aerodynamic wonder of the world. But the journey from the pyramids to the asylum where our eyes met and we fell in love is a lamentable narrative. It's a story of not rags to riches, but riches to rags and even unceremonious death.
On 16 February, David Smith, a local businessman, appears before North Durham magistrates facing an unprecedented prosecution: he has been killing thousands of greyhounds for years. He won't be prosecuted for that--it's not illegal--but has been summonsed in a private prosecution by the Environment Agency for illegally dumping thousands of unwanted greyhound carcasses on his allotment.
How did it come to this?
Greyhounds are reckoned to have been around in their contemporary form for about 8,000 years. Their relics appear in the tombs of pharaohs. Their prowess streaks across the vases of Mediterranean empires. The greyhound diaspora stretches from the Middle East, along conquering trails through Europe, to the royal houses of our own monarchs, from the Tudors to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
These fleet sight-hunters who target rabbits and hares and squirrels have been petted as accessories to the aristocracy. They are admired for a peculiar faculty: greyhounds have been known to surpass 40 miles per hour, and yet they lie around all day, like Mae West, resting. That magnificent greyhound chest is for breathing and extreme acceleration. They dash, like springs; they soar. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes them as "fowels in flight". Their heads and hips are perfectly engineered for spasms of speed. They run for joy; there's even a notion that they smile, and then they spend the day prone.
The Normans banned the common people from owning greyhounds. Royal dynasties colonised them, and they made house room for greyhounds much as, sometimes, they admitted clever black slaves: as exceptions and adornments. In some societies, including our own, the greyhound was prized above a woman. The history of this dog is stitched into narratives of empire and class, of country and city.
They have been bred not for killing but for running. In less than a century, however, the greyhound has been transformed from an emblem of luxury to a victim of capitalist exploitation.
In the 20th century the greyhound was prole-tarianised; the dog became a working-class man thing--like allotments and football and pubs, an excuse to get away from their women. This happened, however, only after the industrialisation of its spectacular prowess, with the creation of a mass spectator sport and a billion-pound betting industry.
This modern crisis begins there. The effort to release the greyhound from rural sport to urban stadium triumphed in the invention of a mechanical lure early in the 20th century. That allowed the greyhound to hurl itself around the oval stadiums that then proliferated in Britain, Ireland, America and Australia.
Britain's first was Belle Vue, built in Manchester in 1926. The industry proliferated until the 1980s, when stinky, scruffy stadiums were closing down en masse. London now has only two--Wimbledon and Walthamstow.
But the decline in the live audience did not lead to a decline in either the number of dogs or the betting. The betting industry offered a fresh opportunity for you to part with your money when it invented the Bookmakers' Afternoon Greyhound Service (Bags). That means afternoon racing where the dogs sprint round empty stadiums. So, although live spectatorship declined, betting flourished. But Bags needs more dogs, and that means more surplus dogs.
Tony Peters, founder of Greyhound Action--the direct-action wing of the greyhound welfare movement--reckons that you need only study the stud books of the British and Irish breeders (most greyhounds in Britain come from Ireland) to see the source of the problem. …