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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Slow Greyhounds Electrocuted On ‘Hot Plate,’ Trainers Say Regulators Investigate Allegations That Dogs Killed Amid Party Atmosphere

Copyright 1995, The Spokesman-Review

Four years, and greyhound dog trainer Larry Conarty can’t shake the nauseating memories.

He still recalls the festive atmosphere, the trainers who sipped beer, smoked marijuana and snorted cocaine after-hours at Coeur d’Alene Greyhound Park, priming themselves for 20 seconds of entertainment.

An unlucky four-legged lady, a born loser on the track and unfit as a pet, was taken from her wooden crate, placed on a wet floor and prepped for the “Tijuana hot plate.”

A stiff wire was oiled and shoved up the dog’s rear end. An alligator clip was pinched onto her lip and another wire grounded on a metal gate. A jolt of electricity later, the dog was dead, bagged and thrown into a pickup for the next day’s run to the dump.

Four years after Conarty saw that and two other electrocutions, the parties are over:

The Idaho Department of Law Enforcement and the Oregon Racing Commission are investigating dog trainer and kennel owner Gary Burman, 62.

Burman’s racing contract here was canceled two weeks ago because of the Idaho investigation, which was bolstered when another trainer, Rory Bracken, passed a lie-detector test about seeing an electrocution.

The National Greyhound Association is following the investigations to determine whether Burman should be banned for life from racing in the United States. Since 1980, 72 people in the greyhound business have been censured by the NGA, most of them for abuse.

Several trainers and greyhound welfare authorities say abuse at the Post Falls track by other trainers is widespread. Dogs have been shot, had their throats slashed and been beaten, they say, and kennel conditions are inhumane.

Track executives won’t comment on the investigation because it is ongoing and because they fear lawsuits.

In an interview with The Spokesman-Review on Sept. 1, his last racing day here, Burman denied any wrongdoing.

“Why the hell should I go around killing dogs?” he asked. “I’m deathly against putting dogs down.”

Hours later, Burman packed and left. He told neighbors he was moving to Kansas.

Investigator Tom Beal has submitted his findings against Burman to the Idaho Racing Commission, the agency that regulates dog and horse racing. Sources say the commission is mulling a lifetime ban.

Al May, Coeur d’Alene Greyhound Park’s operations manager, says the track will be absolved of wrongdoing.

The track, May says, has little control over what handlers do after-hours on property they lease. Between 12 and 15 trainers are hired on a contractual basis and are not track employees, he adds. Burman owned Axel Greyhounds.

“I’ve come to work every week this year and worked my butt off … to see that greyhound welfare and greyhound racing can coexist,” May says.

Other trainers and greyhound adoption agents whose experiences here date back to the track’s 1988 opening say Burman’s abuse is a small part of inhumane conditions and corruption at Coeur d’Alene Greyhound Park.

“It’s the Auschwitz of greyhound tracks,” says Conarty, 40, who moved to Colorado in 1992 to start over. “That’s where the dogs go to be tortured. They can’t run anywhere else.”

Trainer Rory Bracken might be his own worst enemy.

The wiry Irishman’s brogue is thicker than the head on a Guinness Extra Stout and, when coupled with his animated personality, intimidates many around him.

Bracken was suspended from racing for one day last month after shoving a teenager who operates the stuffed rabbit that lures dogs around the track. He claims he actually was suspended for four days without a hearing, so he promptly pulled his dogs off the track.

Management canceled his racing contract two weeks ago, claiming Bracken cost the track bettors by reducing the number of dogs available to race. To management, it was as if Bracken, 35, had called in sick for a week and then gone fishing.

But before Bracken got sideways with management, he told state investigator Beal about watching Burman electrocute one of his dogs.

Bracken, according to the racing commission, passed a polygraph.

The dog’s name was Queen of the Ring. She was too slow to run at Coeur d’Alene Greyhound Park, a track designed for breaking in young racers or as the finish line for older dogs slowing down.

Queen of the Ring was too spooked to make a good pet so Burman ordered Bracken, his assistant at the time last December, to go get her.

“He zapped her,” says Bracken, who later bought his own kennel, Celtic Racing Kennel. “Then he zapped her again. Then we took her to the Ramsey Road landfill.”

Bracken says within a week he reported the killing to the track’s chief racing judge, C.L. “Chick” Schomburg, who is employed by the Idaho Racing Commission.

Schomburg denies Bracken’s claim.

When Schomburg never got back to him, Bracken says his conscience compelled him to participate in the state investigation.

That’s when, he says, his troubles began with track management.

“I don’t want to hurt the dog business or the industry,” Bracken says. “I’m looking for justice. It’s not a vendetta. I was always taught what right and wrong was.

“I’m Irish, and I’ll fight to the end for what’s right. I’m not going to be intimidated.”

In the summer of 1991, Conarty says his conscience was getting to him, so he risked his racing career to go undercover to gather evidence.

He decided to watch those Tijuana hot-plate parties he heard Burman and another trainer brag about.

After losing his racing contract later for what he says was blowing the whistle on abuse and mismanagement, Conarty wrote a letter dated Nov. 26, 1992, to the Kootenai Humane Society.

It mentioned electrocutions, shootings and throat slashings of greyhounds. Conarty says he also saw another trainer take a claw hammer and beat to death six puppies, the offspring of a greyhound who mated with a fellow racer - a taboo in the industry, he says, because such dogs can’t be registered.

Pete Nikiforuk, executive director of the Kootenai Humane Society, says he took Conarty’s complaints to track management and the racing commission, both of whom deny it.

“They laughed at it,” Nikiforuk says. “I can’t get anywhere with them.”

Earlier this year, members of a greyhound adoption group based in Otis Orchards were pained over continued rumors of animal abuse.

Greyhound Pets of America is solely concerned about greyhound welfare and does not take a position for or against racing. Greyhounds, its members say, are born to run and love it more than anything else.

But rumors of Burman’s electrocutions were reaching GPA member Sandi Babcock. There is no need for trainers to kill their dogs here, she thought, because the track pays to have it done by pain-free, lethal injection.

While state law doesn’t say electrocutions are illegal, it does say animals can’t be killed with “intentional and malicious infliction of pain.” Electrocution is painful.

Babcock began her own investigation and got signed affidavits from one dog trainer and confirmation from two others of Burman’s cruelty.

“My only conclusion is an atrocity is happening in the kennels and my conscience can no longer rest,” Babcock wrote Feb. 16 to the National Greyhound Association.

Babcock also hired Spokane private investigator Sandra Brewer. Three months later, on April 10, Brewer caught a break.

An employee at the Ramsey Road dump called to say Burman had just left. He had dropped off a dead dog and said it was a pet that had been hit by a car.

The carcass was driven to Washington State University. A forensic pathologist found the cause of death to be kidney disease but would not rule out electrocution, which is difficult to determine. The doctor found no evidence of trauma, however, which would contradict Burman’s hit-by-a-car claim. The dog was no pet, either. The ear tags confirmed it was SR Casper, a racer.

Dr. D.M. French did find something disturbing: SR Casper had been mutilated, a long swath of skin removed from the shoulders to the hips by a sharp instrument. Nobody can explain why.

Unknown to the Babcocks, fellow greyhound adoption agents Robin and Jim McKee were writing Idaho Gov. Phil Batt and the racing commission about alleged track atrocities. The April 4 letter, which also alleged corruption, incompetence and mismanagement, sparked the state investigation.

“I finally got sick of what was going on,” Robin McKee says.

McKee requested in her letter that the state keep her anonymous to track management and the state’s racing judges there so she wouldn’t be black-balled. The first thing the investigator did was give McKee’s signed complaint to the track. McKee says authorities never were interested in targeting anyone except Burman.

About the same time, a disgusted dog trainer quit the business and moved to Las Vegas.

On June 27, Steve Bergeron, 1994’s leading winner at Coeur d’Alene Greyhound Park, sent Beal, the state investigator, a three-page complaint. He had mailed the same complaint to Coeur d’Alene police on April 18 but got no response.

“I witnessed continuous and daily cruelty to greyhounds by most kennel personnel,” wrote Bergeron, 37. “I fought with the track management and state Racing Commission constantly to get them to enforce rules and stop this from happening. I was not successful.”

Bergeron says Beal never called him.

May, the track’s top manager, blames many of the allegations on disgruntled former trainers. As for taking five years to address Burman, May says, “I think anybody’s entitled to their due-process rights.”

The Greyhound Protection League in Palo Alto, Calif., doesn’t like any greyhound racing tracks. But founder Susan Netboy says there is enough evidence of abuse at Coeur d’Alene Greyhound Park that it should be closed.

“The American public is no longer willing to support entertainment that kills its athletes,” Netboy says. “It’s a blood sport.”

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: LOOKING FOR A HOME The majority of greyhounds no longer fit to race at Coeur d’Alene Greyhound Park wind up in happy homes. The total was 760 last year. More families are needed to adopt these animals. For more information, call: Greyhound Pets of America in Otis Orchards at (509) 927-8002 or 1-800-366-1472. Greyhound Pets Inc. in Coeur d’Alene at (208) 765-3115.

This sidebar appeared with the story: LOOKING FOR A HOME The majority of greyhounds no longer fit to race at Coeur d’Alene Greyhound Park wind up in happy homes. The total was 760 last year. More families are needed to adopt these animals. For more information, call: Greyhound Pets of America in Otis Orchards at (509) 927-8002 or 1-800-366-1472. Greyhound Pets Inc. in Coeur d’Alene at (208) 765-3115.