ST. PETERSBURG When the greyhound handler set the purple plastic muzzle next to the kennel for Justin, a fawn-colored, 72-pound racer, the dogs tail started wagging.
“He knows hes racing today,” Greg Morse said at a weigh-in before a matinee race at Derby Lane. As he waited his turn, Justin leaped up against a low fence to get some welcome nuzzles from bystanders.
Louise Weaver, a descendent of Derby Lanes founder, scratched his stretched-out neck. The dog darted his tongue through the holes in his muzzle basket to lick her hand.
“Oh your coat is so soft,” she cooed. “Can you just see how loving and loved these dogs are?”
Many people love these dogs. But as legislators consider a proposed constitutional amendment asking voters to phase out greyhound racing by 2021, the people who love the dogs on both sides of the issue worry about their future. It is the dogs apparent contentment that has caused even die-hard racing opponents to say the situation is nuanced.
Of the 18 dog racing tracks in America, 12 are in Florida, with an estimated 7,000 greyhounds working in the state. If racing ends, what happens to all those dogs?
One answer might start in a surprising and controversial place with rescue workers who have forged a relationship with the very track where the embattled dogs race.
Derby Lane remains the oldest continuously operating greyhound track in the country. In its heydey, it was a place for ladies in furs to open the season with champagne at the Derby Club. The likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle visited.
Since it opened in 1925, every president of Derby Lane including current president Richard Winning has been a descendent of the Weaver family.
Louise Weaver, 64, is vice president and the great-grandaughter of the tracks founder, T.L. Weaver, a lumber baron. She spent years working as an art historian in the Smithsonians National Museum of American Art, but moved back to her hometown in 1991 to help the family business.
As the track historian, she mourns the end of an era. Though horse racing has its share of opponents, it doesnt get the volume of protests as greyhound racing does. For one, the cost to own a greyhound is a fraction of a racehorse, and even the gamblers are different.
“This is a working mans sport,” Weaver said. “Its not aristocratic like horse racing.”
But it is a sport on the decline. The money spent gambling on live racing at Florida dog tracks dropped by 56 percent over the last 10 years, according to state reports. State tax revenue from dog racing declined by 81 percent from 2006 to 2016.
And the public is increasingly losing its appetite for animals as entertainment, Weaver acknowledged.
“SeaWorld has been hit,” she said. “The circus has been hit. There are people who are just highly opposed to racing animals working. I think they just dont understand that the dogs are bred for this, that we love the dogs. The trainers love those dogs. They arent in that business because they hate them. You arent going to win if you have an underfed dog or a hurt dog. It wouldnt make sense.”
Stuck in the middle of the detractors and the supporters is Greyhound Pets of America.
The American Greyhound Council, the public relations arm of the racing industry, formed and has partly funded Greyhound Pets of America since 1987. There are now hundreds of independent greyhound rescue and adoption groups, but the largest is GPA, with 47 chapters across the country, requiring members to be “racing neutral.”
GPA has an office on site at Derby Lane and kennels to house the dogs. Rescue workers find them foster homes and visit potential families. The dogs need time, up to six weeks in some cases, to transition from their life on the track.
“It made life much easier when GPA came along, they do a great job,” said trainer Ken Deacon, who has spent 40 years in greyhound racing. “Im sending two over today.”
One, at 5, was getting a little too old to race and the other had a nagging shoulder injury. Deacon also works with other groups including a program at the Hardee Correctional Institution where the dogs are trained for therapy at the prison.
Some volunteers have left GPA because of the groups unwillingness to protest dog racing. Don Koppin, a retiree from St. Petersburg who is a longtime volunteer and an owner of greyhounds said that is “not logical.”
“As my late mother said, you catch more flies with a teaspoon of honey than you can with a barrel of vinegar,” Koppin said. “This way, we get to put them into homes, and people get to know them. We just want to find them forever homes.”
The drumbeat against greyhound racing grows louder each year.
Kate MacFall, Florida state director of the Humane Society of the United States, thinks Florida is finally ready to end what she called “one of the cruelest sports left in America.”
The proposed constitutional amendment would reduce racing by one-third each year, starting in 2019. It would be fully outlawed by July 1, 2021. Greyhound tracks would still be able to operate their more lucrative card rooms.
Comparing the lazy life of greyhounds as housepets to spending 20 hours a day in a kennel at the track is “false equivalency,” said Carey Theil, executive director for Grey2K, the Boston-based nonprofit that pushes for greyhound protection laws.
“I do think greyhounds love to run, I have no doubt in my mind that some greyhounds enjoy racing,” Theil said. “But the fact that they love to run means the confinement is all the more cruel.”
While many adoption groups say the current climate is much more humane, with a 95 percent adoption rate according to the industry, greyhound racing has a dark history to overcome.
Only in 2013 did Florida start requiring the greyhound industry to report deaths at a track or racing kennel, with 438 dog deaths reported between May 31, 2013 and Sept. 30, 2017, about one every three days.
Unlike other states, Florida does not require the greyhound industry to report injuries. Opponents like Grey2K have charged that opposition to more detailed reporting is a signal that they have something to hide.
Stories of animal abusers in Florida have drawn headlines for decades. In April 2017, a veteran Derby Lane trainers license was revoked after cocaine was found in five of his dogs. Records show Floridas greyhound industry has had 46 cocaine positives since 2008.
Since 2008, state investigators have documented at least eight cases of severe neglect and cruelty at Florida dog tracks and associated kennel compounds, including a 2010 case in northwest Florida in which 37 dead greyhounds were found with another five severely emaciated live dogs.
Track defenders say the most egregious stories are now decades old.
“I was anti-racing until I was able to meet them and talk to them,” said Kelley Weaver, 46, a board member of Bay Area Greyhound Adoption, an independent club that also calls itself neutral to racing. She has fostered close to 90 dogs in her home. Shes not related to the Weaver family of Derby Lane.
Her change of heart started about six years ago when a trainer sought her out at Derby Lane and asked her to put a bio of one of her dogs in the clubs newsletter. Touched by the trainers affection for the dog, she started getting to know the kennel owners.
“It was taboo back in the day for trainers and adoption groups to even talk to each other,” she said.
She took time off work at a local nursing home to speak at a recent public hearing on the proposed constitutional amendment. She doesnt want racing to end.
“If you are going to make a law, dont make it based on lies,” Kelley Weaver said. “Theres going to be bad apples in everything but I do think they have cleaned up.”
Lee Day of Oviedo also took time off to attend the hearing. He called groups like Greyhound Pets of America “apologists” who are in “a kind of dysfunctional marriage” with the track to stay quiet so they can have access to the dogs.
He worked for a few months in 1997 at a now-closed Seminole County racing track. He said he was disgusted by their lifestyle of living in kennels when they werent training or running.
“Good people who care about animals dont work at the tracks,” Day said. “The dogs dont have any choice in the matter, so of course they are going to be loving. If they love the dogs, why put them in a situation where they are literally in a jail cell all day?”
Neutral rescue groups are enablers, he said.
“We could shut down greyhound racing a lot quicker if they had to clean up their own mess.”
Adopting a greyhound is unlike adopting any other pet. Dogs that have worked at a track may be so unfamiliar with everyday household features that they walk into a swimming pool or balk at stairs.
During Hurricane Irma, Beverly Bucklew briefly fostered one at her Palm Harbor home. Andre, a 95-pound racer she nicknamed Andre the Giant needed a place to evacuate. He had never lived anywhere but the track before that day. She arrived home, let him out of the car and headed for the lawn so he could relieve himself.
“He stepped in the grass and he jumped about 5 feet in the air because hed never touched grass before,” she said. “That broke my heart.”
Despite their racing lineage, they spend most of the day sleeping. They only show a few bursts of energy a day before resuming their perch on the couch.
“Its like a 70-pound house cat,” GPA volunteer Don Koppin said.
On a recent Sunday, Bucklew brought her dog Ironman, a sleek 80-pound black greyhound who was racing as recently as last summer, to the Mutt Derby, a fundraiser for the Greyhound Pets of America at Derby Lane. Regular dogs got to run on the track that day, and the club members brought their greyhounds to show off.
“I have mixed feelings, I really do,” Bucklew said of ending greyhound racing. “This guy is sweet as could be.”
On the drive to Derby Lane that day, Ironman had his back end on the back seat and his feet on the floor. He reached his head into the front seat to put his head on her lap while she drove.