Sonia Stratemann can still picture the first greyhound she adopted in 2003. His name was Pat C Trooptrain, but they soon took to calling him Leroy. He was injured at the Palm Beach Kennel Club, a dog racetrack in Palm Beach County. And his owner told the trainer to "get rid of him."
But the trainer liked the 4-year-old black brindle, and hung onto him for a year. He had been turned down by other adoption groups because he was a little timid.
Then Stratemann took him in. She soon became known as the woman who would adopt anything. Trainers began calling her to adopt dogs whose owners wanted them euthanized. Some started calling her the "broken leg lady" because she took in so many who had broke legs on the track. A few years later, she founded Elite Greyhound Racing, a nonprofit organization in Loxahatchee to help the animals.
"[That dog] is the reason that I became so involved with rescue and wanting to save as many dogs as I could," she says. "He lived to be 14 and was an amazing family member."
Florida voters will decide this November whether to end greyhound racing at tracks and casinos. The state is home to 11 of the America's 17 dog tracks. If it garners 60 percent of the vote, Amendment 13 would phase out the sport by December 31, 2020.
But some involved in the grassroots "Yes on 13" campaign say officials have been fighting dirty. When she started speaking out about the inhumane treatment of the racing dogs back in 2014, officials threatened to cut off the supply of dogs she was trying to rescue. Stratemann says it started when she began posting articles to her Facebook page about the injuries she saw. There were broken legs that literally dangled, she says. Many of the animals were kept for use in blood banks rather than being euthanized, and needed urgent dental care. They were essentially kept in solitary confinement and would stand stock still and bug-eyed in the yard when she finally got them to her center and let them have some freedom. They were traumatized after being locked in the dark for years.
Owners and trainers gave the dogs the cheapest care possible, she claims. The dogs almost always came to her full of hook worms and tape worms from fleas. Those who did use flea medicine avoided expensive name brands, opting instead for a blue chalky substance that no one could identify.
She eventually sent photos of the abused dogs to the track's director of publicity, Theresa Hume, asking for financial help.
"[Hume] called and said 'I knew it was bad. But I didn't know it was that bad,'" Stratemann said. In one email, she wrote, "I want to make things better, I really do but it's difficult."
Hume declined comment, but the Palm Beach Kennel Club responded to Stratemann's claims with the following statement: "The management at Palm Beach Kennel Club takes its responsibilities for greyhound welfare very seriously. Although we do not own the greyhounds that run at our track, we have rules and contract provisions in place that require our kennel operators to follow proper procedures in caring for their greyhounds. Palm Beach Kennel Club is 100 percent against Amendment 13 and is fully committed and supportive of the continuation of greyhound racing in Florida."
Stratemann says the last straw for the kennel club came in November 2017, when her daughter posted a photo of a malnourished greyhound named Forrest on her Facebook page to raise funds. The money was also supposed to honor her brother's memory. Donovan Stratemann, age 17, was killed playing polo in February. "They went crazy because I posted a dog with a broken leg," Sonia Stratemann says. "They don't want anyone to know these things happen. They cut you off and don't let you adopt any more dogs because of it."
The Kennel Club told Stratemann, who has kept a record of her email correspondence with the racetrack dating back to 2013, that she couldn't call her organization a rescue. So she partnered with Grey2K USA, a greyhound protection agency committed to banning racing. "It's clear from the emails that the Kennel Club was notified over and over and over again about significant animal welfare problems at the track," says Carey Theil, Grey2k USA's executive director. "According to Sonia, the track did nothing."
Stratemann has adopted more than 2,000 dogs since 2003. She hopes speaking out now will reveal how much is hidden and the officials' attempts to keep greyhound racing despite the harm to the dogs. And she hopes voters will make the right decision in November. "This is the most exciting and promising news that we've heard in a long time, with it on the ballot," she said.
State reports show that dog tracks took in half the revenue in 2016 that they did a decade before. But an estimated 8,000 dogs remain. "They've been able to hide everything," Stratemann said. "They just don't care because they need the dogs to have their poker rooms. They just don't want to know or acknowledge the abuse. Nobody wants these dogs once they're not making money for anyone."