Braving a cold, rainy Friday morning, four protesters stand at the entrance to Rollins College with signs reading "Rollins = Animal Cruelty" and pass out fliers to much the same effect. It's a modest demonstration, to be sure, but when asked, group leader Carla Wilson freely dispenses her memorized statistics on the sad plight of racing greyhounds.
"There's no excuse for it," she says, offering numbers that indict the greyhound-racing industry at large for the deaths of 20,000 to 25,000 canines annually, not to mention the 175,000 greyhounds "born between 1990 and 1997 [that] are unaccounted for and presumed dead."
This demonstration, however, also has another focus: a little-known fund-raising tradition known as College Night at the Sanford-Orlando Kennel Club. Working with area colleges -- participants include Rollins and UCF, as well as Valencia, Seminole, Brevard and Lake-Sumter community colleges -- the dog track hosts these special promotions and then shares a portion of the proceeds with its sponsoring partner. The schools in turn usually earmark that donation for their athletic scholarship funds.
To Wilson, the schools' endorsement of dog racing as an acceptable means of fund raising is beyond inappropriate; it's absolutely repulsive.
Kennel Club spokesman Bob Nash doesn't see what the fuss is about. "I can understand if you feel you want to protest against greyhound racing," he says, but "I don't understand what College Night has to do with this." Since greyhound racing is legal and regulated by the state, it's up to the schools to decide if they want to participate, he says. Since College Night's inception, he adds, the track has donated more than $3 million to UCF alone.
It's a decision every individual or institution must make for themselves, echoes Rollins College athletic director J. Phillip Roach. "Obviously, we think what we're doing is appropriate. We think it's an evening of entertainment and of fun."
The issue, says Susan Netboy of the California-based Greyhound Protection League, is the message sent to students. "One should take a view of the ethics we're teaching these young people -- bringing in dollars off the backs of these greyhounds." She charges the race tracks with using College Nights as a means of enticing students to gamble. "The older generation [of gamblers] is dying off; the tracks surely see that if they don't get to the young people, it's game over."
Roach counters that it's an event catering not to students but to coaches, administrators and "people from the town. This is an adult function."
"We really haven't marketed it to [students]," adds Tim Leonard, who is coordinating the Friday, Feb. 4, College Night for UCF's Golden Knight's Club. Instead, he says, UCF considers the event -- which falls just two days after National Signing Day, when high-school athletes commit in writing to their university of choice -- as a chance for local fans to "come up and talk to our coaches."
Asked whether the school was right to accept gambling proceeds, he replies: "I'm trying to think what the difference is between this and a lottery," since in Florida, as in most states, lottery money is designated for education, he says. As for the allegations of animal abuse and cruelty: "That's a legitimate question to pose. How they treat the animals -- I haven't even been out there. I have no feel for this other than that this is an event I inherited," says Leonard, who has been with UCF for only four months.
"We have to be very careful how we raise money," he says. After Friday, "We may want to evaluate, take a look at it."
Much to Wilson and the Greyhound Protection League's delight, the greyhound racing industry is in a bit of a tailspin. Decreed by Sports Illustrated to be a dying sport -- pari-mutuel betting has decreased by $1 billion in the last decade -- pari-mutuels in Florida have seen attendance slip 40 percent since the lottery began in 1988, according to a recent article in the Lakeland Ledger.
Part of that decline, Wilson insists, is based on an increasing public awareness of the mistreatment of the greyhounds. "Fleas and ticks, infestations, parasites, animals with broken legs and dogs that were so scared you'd have to chase them around the house -- all this was very common. We decided to be a voice for the dogs -- people needed to know about everything we'd seen," says Wilson, who plans another protest at UCF on Friday.
Counters Nash: "There are a lot of pets euthanized. When you single out one industry -- there are abuses in everything, but I know of no abuse. These people have these dogs, this is their living, their livelihood. It only makes sense that they would take good care of them."
Wilson doesn't buy it. Instead, she thinks the industry views the dogs as commodities -- if it doesn't win, it has no purpose and is destroyed. That attitude towards animal life, she argues, has no place within collegiate walls. And for a university to accept donations from such an industry, she says, equates to nothing less than blood money.