MIAMI (CBSMiami) — Hiding among a stand of trees and overgrown bushes in eastern Oklahoma, Pete Paxton waited patiently for a myth to become reality.

An animal abuse investigator for nineteen years, Paxton has gone undercover in puppy mills, slaughterhouses, and factory farms. He was the first person to get video of the barbaric practice of strangling sick hogs, by wrapping a chain around their necks and then hanging them with a forklift as the animal kicks and cries for help. That undercover video led to criminal charges against the farm owner.

On this day in early March, Paxton was hoping to document another example of animal cruelty – the use of live jackrabbits to train greyhound racing dogs.

For years there have been rumors that some kennels and dog owners were training young greyhounds to race by first allowing them to chase live jackrabbits. Within the industry, it is known as “live lure training” and “coursing.”

The idea is that before the dogs chase a mechanical rabbit around the racetrack, they first need to literally develop a taste of what it is they are chasing. Some trainers believe it gives their dogs an advantage over the greyhounds trained by only chasing the mechanical rabbit around the track.

This wasn’t the first time Paxton had tried to document the practice. Several years earlier he examined the claims without any success.

“I went to a lot of breeders, and everybody would say, `No. Nobody does that anymore. Maybe they used to, but not anymore,’” Paxton recalled. “’It’s a myth,’ is what people tried to say.”

Paxton moved on to other investigations, but then earlier this year he received a call from the animal rights group Grey2K, whose members work to expose what they believe is the cruelty of greyhound racing. The group has successfully led campaigns to end Greyhound racing in several states and in 2018 pushed a constitutional amendment in Florida that will shut down the sport in the Sunshine state by the end of this year.

Since August 2019, Carey Theil, the executive director of Grey2K, traded Facebook messages with a whistleblower who claimed to have worked for one of the largest kennels in the country.

“I worked in the greyhound industry for thirteen years,” the initial message to Theil began. “I have a lot of info I’d like to get off my chest.”

The man claimed he not only knew kennels and dog owners were still using live jackrabbits to train their greyhounds, but that he done it himself. And he was able to pinpoint the exact location of where one training facility was located.

Keota, Oklahoma. Population 549.

“We receive confidential tips all the time,” Theil told CBS Miami. “And sometimes they turn out to be accurate. Sometimes they don’t.”

This tip, Theil thought, seemed worth pursuing.

“At that point we reached out to Pete,” he said.

Paxton was eager to go.

“All I had to do was go out there and figure out how do I get eyes on that location just to verify this,” he said.

It was in 1978, during the premier episode of the ABC News magazine 20/20, that Americans first learned about coursing and live lure training.

“Our 20/20 investigation has found that coursing is a common practice among most greyhound owners, training their dogs on live bait – wild jackrabbits,” correspondent Geraldo Rivera said at the time.

His video showed graphic images of greyhounds chasing jackrabbits and then tearing them apart.

“The jackrabbit is good for nothing,” one of the trainers noted. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with it in any way, shape, or form.”

Added another: “We don’t want to see the jacks get killed. Nobody does. Those things happen.”

Geraldo took the video from the coursing event in Kansas and played it for then Kansas Senator Bob Dole, who expressed outrage and said he would introduce legislation to end the practice.

“Whether it’s for a minute, a second, or an hour, it’s an act of inhumanity, cruelty and it ought to be stopped,” Dole told Rivera.

At the end of the segment, the 20/20 anchors seemed skeptical anything was going to change.

“Geraldo, do you really think there is going to be legislation growing out of this?” one anchor asked.

“I hope so,” Rivera replied. “Congress of course has a lot of profound things to consider. But this is one of those petty barbarisms. I hope they get around to passing the law.”

Turns out the 20/20 anchors were right to have their doubts. The bill introduced by Dole and another, even stricter bill introduced by Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, were never passed.

“When Geraldo Rivera exposed how cruel and barbaric live lure training is, the industry was embarrassed,” Theil noted. “They were publicly shamed. And it claimed that it was going to clean up the mess and prevent this from happening again.

After the 20/20 scandal, the National Greyhound Association prohibited the use of live jackrabbits to train greyhounds, but in reality, Theil claims the practice didn’t go away – it simply went underground.

“We have repeatedly received confidential tips that live lure training not only still occurred but was commonplace,” he claimed.

Over the years, however, leads dried up, insiders fell silent, and they were left chasing a ghost. Then came last year’s Facebook message.

“Not only did he claim that all of the dogs that went through his farm had been live lure trained,” Theil said. “He claimed he did it himself.”

Paxton arrived in Keota in early March.

“The first thing I noticed was I have no idea how the hell I’m going be able to see what it is that they’re doing,” he said. “There’s an area where they’re training these dogs and it’s hidden from view. It’s right off a street corner, but it’s hidden from view, surrounded by trees on all sides.”

Paxton worked his way around the property and was eventually able to find a spot along a tree line about 800 feet from the training site. On the morning of March 3, he set up his high-powered video cameras in the bushes along the tree line and waited.

“I put myself in position. I’m prepared to wait all day, you know, but within 45 minutes – BOOM – two trucks pull in and they’re pulling trailers of greyhounds. So, I know that this is going down.”

“And they move past that dirt road completely and they start going out into the field. So, I have to reposition myself, set up in some bushes, and then I see them,” he said. “They pull their trailers, the trailers of dogs next to this dirt field. And they have these wooden boxes on the back of trailers, which is exactly what Grey2K described as being used to hold wild rabbits. And without hesitation three men get out and they start they open up cages and they start pulling dogs by their collars. They just drag him over and they put him into these metal boxes with gates on the front. A starting gate. And they put three or four dogs in there, generally four dogs at a time.”

“And then they reach into a wooden box and pull out a rabbit by the hind legs and the rabbit’s kicking and spinning,” he recounts. “And then they would hold the rabbit in front of the dogs to get the dogs worked up and then let the rabbit go and the rabbit would take off in a panic. And this little dirt patch had just nothing but a chain link fence around it. And the dogs would come out of their gate and shoot out. And with no rhyme or reason, some dogs were muzzled. Some weren’t. And they would either pin the rabbit on the ground or the or the rabbit would get stuck against the fence trying to squeeze through a hole of a chain-link fence.”

There was no escape. Time after time, a new set of dogs would be released, and another jackrabbit would be torn to death.

(Courtesy: Grey2K)

“One of the worst things that I’ve seen is that one of the men would go up to the rabbit and he would take a rope tie it around the rabbit’s legs or midsection and drag the rabbit on the ground,” Paxton said. “I could see that even if the rabbit was bloody, and dogs had already pushed the rabbit down. The rabbit would start bouncing and [the trainer] would start spinning the rope around his head to entice the dogs to finish the rabbit off.”

“And part of how I knew the rabbit was alive was that I could from eight hundred feet away. I could hear the rabbit screaming.”

Paxton said it was one of the hardest things he has ever had to watch.

“There’s not a lot that makes me grit my teeth when I see it,” he said. “But this was one of them. And part of the reason it was so tough for me to watch wasn’t just that the rabbit was suffering. It was the sheer joy that these men had for what they were doing.”

After a few minutes, the men would drag the rabbit’s lifeless body back to their truck.

“Well, once the dogs had completely killed the rabbit, they would just throw the rabbit in the pile [on the hood of the truck],” he said with a grimace. “And then the bodies would pile up. It was rabbit after rabbit after rabbit. And the pile will just grow and get bigger and bigger until they had no rabbits left in their boxes to use.”

Grey2K provided CBS Miami with all of the raw video Paxton shot for us to review and use as we saw fit on our story. The same video was also provided to law enforcement in multiple states.

In the field, Paxton took copious notes. Jotting down license plate numbers for all of the vehicles. Descriptions of the men. He brought along the local paper to make it clear what day he was shooting the video and recorded the GPS map on his phone to verify the location. When the men finally finished and drove off, Paxton emerged from his hiding place.

“I packed up the gear, walked through the woods to head back to my vehicle,” he said.

His first call was to Carey Theil.

“And he just said, `Yeah, we knew that. We knew that that’s what was happening this whole time,’” Paxton recalled.

“The first time a former greyhound trainer came to me and said, not only is this happening, all the dogs or virtually all the dogs are being live lure trained I was skeptical,” Theil said. “The second time someone came to me and said that, I was skeptical. I’m no longer skeptical. I think the facts in this case show that it is very likely this is a widespread pet practice involving a large number of dogs.”

Theil argued the Keota location has deep ties to Florida greyhound racing. At least two of the men in the video have been licensed to race greyhounds in Florida.

“We know that based on social media posts, that Florida greyhound breeders have been sending dogs to Keota for finishing for many years,” he claimed. “There is very clearly a link to Florida and Florida racetracks.”

Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation – which oversees the greyhound industry – confirmed it has opened an investigation into the Keota operation. It is against the law in Florida to race Greyhounds that have been trained using live jackrabbits.

On March 4, Paxton returned to the training facility. Only this time he saw something even more disturbing. He believed the man who was training dogs on this day, was the former police chief for Keota, Jason Martin, who is now a Haskell County deputy sheriff.

According to state records, he raises greyhounds and has been licensed to race dogs in several states including Florida.

“And he does the same thing as with, you know, that the other guys did,” Theil said. “He drags the dogs off to the starting gate and he brings the rabbits out. The only difference was that, you know, he made sure none of his dogs were muzzled. They tore all of the rabbits apart alive.”

“It’s not a thing to them. It never has been. They grew up with it, right. It’s what I call a culture of cruelty.”

In an interview with CBS Miami, Jason Martin denied he has ever used jackrabbits to train his greyhounds. When he was told there was video that appears to show him using live jackrabbits, he replied: “I really don’t care what you’ve seen.”

Asked if he could explain why he would use live jackrabbits, Martin said: “I don’t have to explain anything.”

Following the interview, Martin sent a text: “Just to let you know if you try this you will ruin my life. I am 2 months from closing my farm anyway and getting out of the business.”

Jim Gartland, the executive director for the National Greyhound Association, said the industry has a very tough policy against using live jackrabbits.

“We denounce the practice of using live lures in training,” he said, although he could not recall an occasion where the group sanctioned or punished a member for using live jackrabbits.

When we first contacted him, he denied anyone in the industry used live jackrabbits, calling it a myth spread by Grey2K. Then we told him about the videos.

“Again, as far as the videos go, I haven’t seen them. I haven’t heard about them,” he said. “If they exist, then those people have to be dealt with.”

With two days of footage, Paxton packed up and left Keota. Back at the Boston offices of Grey2K, they drafted a complaint, outlining everything they found, including all of the video footage, and on April 6, sent it to both the United States attorney in Eastern Oklahoma and the District Attorney for Haskell County.

“This is an industry that has been torturing animals for years and now for the first time we’re able to show it,” said Christine Dorchak, president and general counsel for Grey2K

“Our undercover footage shows that both federal and state laws against cruelty to animals is being violated by the greyhound racing industry, particularly the mutilation of rabbits that are being moved in interstate commerce,” Dorchak said, noting the jackrabbits are brought to Oklahoma from Texas. “We are seeing actors from various states involved in this scheme. It’s a terrible act.”

The federal law Dorchak is referring to is the PACT Act – which stands for Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture ACT. Forty years after the Geraldo Rivera segment on 20/20, Congress for the first time made animal cruelty a federal crime.

The bill was sponsored last year by two Florida congressman, Sarasota Republican Vern Buchanan, and Broward Democrat Ted Deutch.

“I pushed this legislation through because there was this hole that existed,” Deutch said. “This is a way to beef up enforcement and supplement enforcement of local laws by giving federal authorities a role to play here and recognize that some cases of animal cruelty are more than just a one off. Sometimes it’s a larger group that’s engaged in that and federal resources should be brought to bear.”

Reviewing the video from Keota, Deutch had trouble watching it.

“All right, I got it, I got it, I got it,” he said, turning it off. “I mean it’s horrific. There’s just no scenario where what I just watched should be tolerated It’s not sport. It’s disgusting. It’s just awful. It’s really, really terrible.”

Deutch added: “A lot of people said when we worked on this legislation that that it’s not the most important issue there is in the world. And that’s true. And Lord knows we know right now is we’re battling this pandemic. That’s especially been made clear. But it still matters. And anyone who watches that, except I guess from the people who are responsible for that brutality, would be horrified. And that’s why it is necessary to do what we did.”

A spokesman for the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Oklahoma told CBS Miami he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.

Deutch said he’ll be watching to see if the U.S. Attorney’s Office takes a close look at these allegations.

“I’m not a prosecutor; I’m a legislator,” Deutch said. “And we worked with law enforcement to write this law, to give them the tools necessary to enforce it and to stop animal cruelty. And I hope that someone’s taking a look at this law. I’m sure there are laws in Oklahoma they ought to be looking at.”

In fact, Oklahoma does have a law against animal cruelty and a specific statute the makes live lure training illegal. It is considered a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $250 fine.

The District Attorney for Haskell County, Oklahoma did not respond to calls seeking comment.

“The facts in this case are clear,” said Theil. “Are federal authorities going to use the new law or not? Are they going to hold these individuals accountable or are they going to look the other way?”

As in late June and early July, as CBS Miami was getting this story ready for air, we got word that Paxton had found locations in Texas and another one in Kansas and was able to secure hidden video of both sites using rabbits to train greyhounds.

(Courtesy: Grey2K)

“Well you know there’s a whole lot more targets Grey2K is interested in,” he said.

Grey2K has turned the Texas and Kansas video over to the authorities in those states and they are waiting to see what if any action is taken.

In the meantime, Paxton has his own message for those facilities that use live rabbits to train greyhounds.

All of them need to think and understand that we’re never going to let up,” he said. “They will be held accountable. So, the best thing they can do is give up.”

Jim DeFede

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