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Dog and hare races spawned early battle over animal rights

L.A. THEN & NOW

In the late 1890s, 'dog coursing' races were introduced at what is now Exposition Park. Greyhounds would chase a hare around a fenced field, a sport that was eventually banned for animal cruelty.

July 19, 2009|Larry Harnisch

"Dog coursing" was a sensationally popular pastime in Los Angeles that flourished in the 1890s despite repeated court rulings of animal cruelty. The fight over coursing was so fierce that its supporters nearly derailed the city's annexation of USC and nearby Agricultural Park, where the races were held.

A variation of greyhound racing in which dogs chased a live jack rabbit over a fenced field of about 40 acres, coursing was finally stopped through the efforts of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The races were introduced to Los Angeles in summer 1897 by Francis D. Black, the manager of what is now Exposition Park.

Coursing caught on quickly, The Times said, adding: "The people take to it with a vim that surpassed their enthusiasm for horse racing."

In a typical coursing match, a rabbit was released into a large open field that was tightly fenced. To give the rabbit what was considered a sporting chance, there was an inner enclosure with 20 to 40 "escapes" in which it could flee to safety from the dogs. At one end of the grounds was a grandstand, and many stories noted that the finely dressed female spectators, rather than being reserved and delicate, were more bloodthirsty than the men.

A man called a "slipper" held two competing greyhounds -- sometimes four -- on a leash while the rabbit was given a head start. The dogs were released to chase the rabbit and were trailed by a man on horseback who judged the race by assigning points to the dogs' agility catching its prey. If the rabbit wasn't dead when the dogs were through, someone killed it by stepping on its skull.

The Times endorsed the races at first: "Coursing as a sport is almost as old as the sport of falconry and there is no country on the civilized globe where it is not indulged in," the newspaper said in 1898.

If the races were intended to be thrilling spectacles of majestic sport, they often fell short. Although promoters insisted that the rabbits were crop-destroying vermin preying on local farmers, the animals were actually imported from Kern County. And after being kept in dark cages for days before the race, the suddenly freed rabbits frequently sat trembling and frozen in fear.

The dogs were run hard. A winning dog might run three races in an hour, get a 30-minute rest, and then race again. One Times story mentions a dog that was lame and ran on three legs. Another story tells of an 11-year-old greyhound that won after being dosed with cocaine.

Coursing at Agricultural Park was such a sensation that within four months, promoters were reporting crowds of 2,500. For two years, the enterprise flourished -- helped by "nickel in the slot machines" -- and then Black ran into the first hint of the problems that lay ahead.

Along with the races at Agricultural Park, Black ran a gambling operation at 143 S. Broadway that accepted bets on races in New Orleans, Oakland and elsewhere. When authorities closed him down in 1899, Black moved his operation beyond the city limits to the park, but he got into trouble with the American Turf Congress, which forbade off-track betting and said the races were illegal.

Then came a more serious complication: annexation.

Los Angeles was continually expanding in this era and an election campaign was underway to add USC to the city. The successful annexation included Agricultural Park, which meant an end to the dog races and gambling.

Black was eventually arrested on charges of animal cruelty by a newly appointed humane officer. His trial ended in a hung jury and new animal cruelty charges were filed over another race. On June 20, 1899, Justice James of the Township Court ruled that the races were illegal under state law.

Black was fined $10 and resumed the races pending an appeal.

In July of that year, The Times noted that gambling and coursing had continued at Agricultural Park even though it was now part of the city. A furious Mayor Fred Eaton had ordered Police Chief J.M. Glass to end the races at once, and when those efforts failed, despite Black's arrest, Eaton vowed to lead a squadron of police officers to the park on the Fourth of July and stop the races by arresting everyone and seizing all the rabbits.

But Black was tired of the legal battles, complaining to reporters: "The town has been given over to the longhairs, so what's the use of trying to do business?" His conviction was upheld on appeal and the case was held as a precedent in state law.

The races continued infrequently in Long Beach near the beet fields of the Los Alamitos sugar factory without legal interference until March 1905, when E.J. "Lucky" Baldwin, whom The Times called "the despot of Arcadia," announced plans to stage them on his ranch.

A month later, a brawl broke out at Baldwin's coursing grounds over an attempt to stop the races. Baldwin and seven other men were arrested on animal cruelty charges brought by the SPCA.

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