On an unusually hot summer night at Wonderland Greyhound Park in July of 2002, a greyhound named Die Cut raced for the last time. While rounding the first turn, the three-year-old black dog was bumped by other greyhounds and collapsed, his back legs paralyzed. In the final moments of his life, Die Cut was removed from the track and euthanized.
Last week, Wonderland Greyhound Park announced its permanent closure. There is no doubt that Wonderland – which was once the most popular dog track in the world – had a profound effect on its surrounding community over the past seventy-five years. In the wake of its demise, however, we should take a moment to reflect on all of the dogs who competed , and sometimes died, at this fabled institution.
We know very little about the greyhounds who raced at Wonderland in the first fifty years of its existence. We know that in the very early years, greyhounds were transported to Boston by self-professed “dog men,” who would move from track to track while taking greyhounds with them. We also know some details of the early champions. For example, we know the story of Rural Rube, who was so iconic in 1939 that 1,500 people reportedly honored him at a Copley Plaza dinner where he was given a golden collar.
But for every Rural Rube, there were undoubtedly countless greyhounds who lived tragically short lives. Tens of thousands of greyhounds passed through Wonderland during this period, and during these years virtually no greyhounds were adopted when they became unprofitable or suffered career-ending injuries. Then, in 1983, the non-profit adoption group Greyhound Friends was formed in Cambridge. The formation of this group, and others like it, surely made life better for greyhounds. Nevertheless, dogs would continue to suffer and die at Wonderland for another three decades.
Things began to change in 2000, when a coalition of grassroots activists collected enough signatures to place a question to end dog racing before Massachusetts voters. Even though the measure was narrowly defeated, 51% to 49%, it marked the beginning of a broad movement to end greyhound racing in our state. Perhaps more importantly, it also ushered in a new era of accountability for the dog racing industry, the results of which would ultimately help seal Wonderland’s fate.
Shortly after the ballot question was defeated, the legislature passed a new law requiring that Massachusetts dog tracks report all greyhound injuries to the public. At the same time, the dog racing industry began to disclose unprecedented information to the public on its methods and operation, in an effort to defend itself from public criticism. This included the release, starting in 2005, of videos that were filmed inside the Wonderland kennel compound. Ironically, this footage would later appear in television ads – as documentation of the daily confinement greyhounds endured – during the successful 2008 campaign that ended dog racing for good.
As a result of this reporting legislation, the industries’ own self-reporting, and increased media scrutiny, we know much more about the dogs who raced at Wonderland in its final years.
For example, we know that in late 2003 and 2004, a greyhound at Wonderland tested positive twice for cocaine. We also know that in the Spring of 2005, nineteen greyhounds died at Wonderland from a mysterious illness that was later proven to be a form of horse flu that had never before jumped species.
In these final years, we also learned much more about the daily life racing greyhounds experienced than we ever had known before. For the first time, we saw the cages that dogs were kept in at Wonderland, thanks to photographs the track took itself in 2006. Based on industry statements, we learned that greyhounds at Wonderland were confined in these warehouse-style kennels in stacked cages for twenty or more hours per day. Also from industry statements, we learned that the dogs were fed so-called “4-D” meat to reduce costs. This meat is deemed unfit for human consumption and contains denatured charcoal.
Perhaps most importantly, in these final years the public finally gained access to the first-ever reports on greyhound injuries at Wonderland. Between 2002 and 2008, 316 greyhound injuries were reported at the track, including 206 reports of dogs suffering broken legs. Other reported injuries included spinal cord injuries, paralysis, a puncture wound, and an amputation. These reports, however, were more than just mere statistics. They brought to life the stories of individual dogs, like Die Cut.
Over the course of its existence, as many as one hundred thousand dogs may have competed at Wonderland. Most of them were there for only a short time, before being sent to tracks elsewhere. All of these dogs had names, and their own stories. Most of these stories have been lost to time, but a few, like Die Cut, are still with us.
Wonderland will always be a part of our history as a state. It became an institution that was ultimately ended because our values as a society changed. Let’s make sure that the when this iconic track is remembered, the dogs of Wonderland are included in the story.