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Macau’s Abandoned Greyhounds See New Hope After Closure of Dog Racing Track

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A glimmer of hope for animal welfare appeared Friday in Macau, China’s semiautonomous gambling enclave, where more than 500 greyhounds await a better life in small concrete kennels following the closure of Asia’s only legal dog racing track.

After a week of public outcry over their abandonment, an agreement to ensure their wellbeing has been reached between the billionaire owner of the now-defunct track and the animal rights group that has historically been something of a thorn in her company’s side.

“It’s very good news for greyhounds,” says Albano Martins, president of the Macau-based rescue organization Anima, which plans to tend to the animals until they can be placed in loving homes. Many have been worried about the animals’ fate since the July 21 closure of Canidrome Club, owned by Macau legislator Angela Leong, the wife of gambling tycoon Stanley Ho.

The agreement, which still awaits approval from the regional government, follows a week of international furor over the fate of 533 greyhounds, mostly from Australia, who have spent the last week in limbo. Despite having two years to prepare for the site’s closure upon the expiration of its lease, Canidrome did not arrange to find homes for the hundreds of dogs who lived in its decrepit kennels.

A greyhound kept in Canidrome's kennels.Photo by Aria Hangyu Chen in Macau for TIME.
A greyhound kept in Canidrome's kennels in Macau on July 26, 2018.Aria Chen—TIME

But the deal announced Friday lays out a plan to establish a non-profit called the International Center for the Rehoming of all Greyhounds in Macau (CIRGM in its Portuguese initials) that will house the greyhounds indefinitely. Leong and Canidrome will provide about $1.7 to 1.9 million to the center annually to cover management and housing of the greyhounds, as well as ensuring that none are sold into illegal markets in mainland China.

The agreement marks an unexpected positive twist after a week of uncertainty and an outpouring of sympathy for the animals. The Macau government even threatened fines of up to $12,000 per dog against one of the region’s most powerful women; it is unclear whether the new arrangement will relieve Leong of possible legal action.

For a minimum of two years, Martins says Anima will administer the center, which will be headquartered on a privately-owned plot of land on the small island of Taipa. During the months it will take for a new facility to be equipped with things like air conditioning and humane accommodation, the greyhounds will remain in kennels at the now-defunct race track, where scores of volunteers recruited by Anima have been caring for them.

A volunteer walking a greyhound at the kennels at Canidrome.Photo by Aria Hangyu Chen in Macau for TIME.
A volunteer walking greyhounds at the kennels at Canidrome in Macau on July 26, 2018. Photo by Aria Chen in Macau for TIME.Aria Hangyu Chen—TIME

The collaboration also marks a drastic thaw from otherwise frosty relations between Canidrome and Anima. For years the animal-rights group has been lobbying to shut down the race track, which is infamous for reports of animal cruelty and euthanasia. One 2011 investigation by the South China Morning Post found that the Canidrome killed 383 underperforming dogs in 2011 alone. The new agreement guarantees that no dogs will be killed unless they are suffering from sickness that cannot be treated.

The new complex will also be tasked with facilitating adoptions around the world, primarily to the U.S. and Europe. According to Zoe Tang, an Anima board member overseeing volunteer efforts at the race track, of the 660 greyhounds left behind after Canidrome’s closing, 127 already found homes during an adoption drive held last month. Seventy-two were adopted by residents of Macau, 39 in Hong Kong, 15 from mainland China and one from Taiwan.

Read more: As Casino Revenues Plummet, What’s Next for Tiny Macau?

Responding to press questions at the Canidrome about the dogs being sold to illegal tracks in China, Tang said the dogs’ new custodians “will never, never let these greyhounds be transported to mainland China” for illicit purposes.

When Cheung Chung-bong, 41, went to the Canidrome’s adoption drive on July 1, the Macanese cab driver did not expect the greyhounds to be so friendly. Surprised by the gentility of the dogs, Cheung adopted 6-year-old Nick, who was in relatively good condition. When Nick was first brought home, his teeth were flat and rusty — the result of chewing iron bars, Cheung believes — and his eyes lacked focus. But slowly Nick started reacting to his voice, swinging his tail, and greeting Cheung when he came home.

“I had the full intention to help [Nick],” says Cheung. “I wanted to help if I could, even if it was just one. So I chose him.”

The problem remains, however, that some of the dogs may be difficult to find homes for due to their health condition; some have skin ailments, missing fur and other issues caused by their decrepit living conditions and physical hardship. Moreover, after several years of confinement and racing, many of the dogs may not take easily to domestication. “Maybe half of the population will not be capable to be adopted, or only by people that really love animals,” says Martins of Anima. “I can guarantee you that the level of injuries and sickness of those animals at Canidrome is too high.”

Over the years, Kathleen Trainor, a Hong Kong businesswoman, has adopted four greyhounds from Canidrome, and she says they’re more than worth the effort and care required to nurse them back to normalcy after what they’ve been through.

“They need nurturing and training like a puppy; they know nothing of the outside world but often people expect them to normalize immediately,” she says. “I fell in love with the breed… They are amazing, sweet and gentle dogs, but they need time to transition to home life.”

— With reporting and video by Aria Chen / Macau

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