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A Brutal Sport Hounded to Extinction

July 19, 2009 |  8:00 am

Dec. 12, 1897, Coursing

Coursing as depicted in The Times on Dec. 12, 1897.

"The rabbit dodged this way and that, squatted suddenly to the ground while the hound rushed past. Once, the dog's teeth sank in the hindquarters of the rabbit, jerked the little creature in full flight from the ground. But with a dying spasm, the rabbit freed himself and ran on.

"Again, the hound's teeth snapped and the fur could be seen tearing off in a fluff. With the awful terror and pain tearing at its heart, the rabbit went on. At last, he made the wrong turn and the hound closed in on it with a sickening crunch.

The rabbit was ground to death amid shrieks of agony. These cries of a rabbit sound appallingly like those of a tortured little child."

--The Times, April 24, 1905

Agricultural Park
Los Angeles Times file photo

One of the entrances to Agricultural Park in an undated photo.

"Dog coursing" was a sensationally popular pastime in Los Angeles that flourished in the 1890s despite repeated court rulings of animal cruelty and a personal campaign by the mayor after the police chief failed to close it down. 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 jackrabbit 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 and resulted in the arrest of several promoters, including an unrepentant E.J. "Lucky" Baldwin.

The races, which date to ancient times and were given a set of rules in Elizabethan England, were already underway elsewhere in California before being introduced to Los Angeles in the summer of 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."


Jan. 1, 1898, Slipper

Jan. 1, 1898, the "slipper."

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 women spectators, rather than being reserved and delicate, were far 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 of 60 yards to 80 yards. The dogs were released to chase the rabbit and trailed by a man on horseback who judged the race by assigning points based on when the dogs turned to follow the rabbit, when one dog passed the other and when a dog caught the prey. If the rabbit wasn't dead when the dogs were through, someone killed it by stepping on its skull.

Although The Times eventually opposed the races, the paper endorsed them 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," it said in 1898.

In explaining the races to a novice audience in 1897, The Times said: "The two species are natural enemies, and, while the dogs kill the rabbits as a general conclusion to a race, there is nothing cruel in the sport. The hares are given 'way the best of the start,' and more than 40 escapes are provided for them into which they can run and find safety.

"As a matter of fact, the hares are jackrabbits, the pest of Southern California. Thousands and tens of thousands of the rabbits are killed every year by farmers, whose orchards and vineyards they are ruining, by driving the rabbits into a pen and beating them to death with clubs. Such work is slaughter, necessary slaughter, it is true, but slaughter none the less. Coursing is not.

"The rabbit is turned loose in the field and the dogs are turned loose after it. If the dogs are swifter than the rabbit, they catch and kill it, just as nature intended they should do, but the rabbit has a chance for its life never given it in a rabbit drive by the farmers club. There is nothing brutal in coursing."

Not only did The Times imply that the races were merely following natural law, a Thanksgiving story from 1897 said -- perhaps sarcastically -- that the rabbits relished their role.

 "At Agricultural Park the winners in the coursing matches thanked an ever-watchful providence for bestowing upon mankind the gift of good dogs, sound in wind and speedy in the legs; the dogs were duly grateful for the chance to use those legs, and the unfortunate jackrabbits doubtless rejoiced over such an excellent opportunity to cultivate the true martyr spirit in yielding up their wretched little lives for the delectation of civilized humanity."


Jan. 1, 1898, Rabbits

Jan. 1, 1898, the rabbit enclosure at Agricultural Park.

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, unresponsive to race course employees' efforts to frighten them into running. Sometimes an injured rabbit was mistaken for dead and had more dogs set on it when it sprang to life and started running again.  

As for what became of the dead rabbits, The Times explained that some were sold to a downtown meat market for 75 cents a dozen, others were cooked for the dogs and "one or two persons about the park have enjoyed a rabbit stew for breakfast every Monday morning for the last year."

The dogs did not fare much better. Races sometimes had to be rerun because the greyhounds didn't see their prey. 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 an immediate sensation and within four months, promoters were reporting crowds of 2,500. Trolley service on the two lines to the park was increased to a capacity of 2,000 people an hour with streetcars leaving for the park every five minutes.

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 in trouble with the American Turf Congress which prohibited off-track betting and said the races were illegal.  

Jan. 1, 1898, Greyound

Jan. 1, 1898: Trip, owned by Oscar H. Hinters, one of the fleetest hounds on the course.

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. Annexation would also include Agricultural Park, which would mean an end to the dog races and gambling.

In an attempt to tilt the election with a tactic called "colonizing," Black hired about 100 men on the pretense of resurfacing the grounds and housed them in tents at the park, making them eligible to vote on annexation. On May 24, 1899, annexation of USC passed by less than 10%, with a close vote in the university district, 139 to 116.

The next month, Black's wife went to the park and tried to shoot his personal secretary, William Taylor, who was evidently keeping Black away from home. Mrs. Black missed her target and someone grabbed her arm before she could fire again as Taylor fled. "To those who led her away she expressed her regret at the failure of her effort," The Times said. She was never charged.

The next day, Black and the park's "slipper" were arrested on charges of animal cruelty by a newly appointed humane officer, and the trial was held in Gardena.  

Jan. 1, 1898, F.D. Black The previous officer had seen nothing cruel about coursing, but his successor had made a study of the operation by interviewing Black two weeks earlier while posing as a gambling entrepreneur from Santa Barbara who wanted to set up similar races.

Black's trial ended in a hung jury, so new animal cruelty charges were filed over another race in an attempt to put the case under the jurisdiction of a court in Los Angeles. 

On June 20, 1899, Justice James of the Township Court ruled that the races were illegal under state law, saying: "The coursing club is not conducted for the purpose of destroying hares because they are dangerous to crops when at large. The chase is had for the purpose of furnishing an object of pursuit to the hounds, whereby the spectators find amusement and recreation and the managers reap financial gain."

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

In July, 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 personally stop the races by arresting everyone and seizing all the rabbits.

"If coursing can be run there without rabbits, he wants to see how it is done," The Times said.  
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.


Lucky Baldwin
Los Angeles Times file photo

E.J. "Lucky" Baldwin in an undated photograph.

With racing shut down at Agricultural Park, enthusiasts looked for another city that might be more friendly to coursing. Santa Monica rebuffed attempts to begin races there, and in 1900, coursing began on what The Times described as open land 10 or 12 miles east of Long Beach near the beet fields of the Los Alamitos sugar factory.

By now, popular opinion was turning against coursing, with opposition by The Times not only in news stories, but in letters to the editor:

"It is a peculiar cry that the dying rabbit utters. It is the nearest to the wail of a young child of any known sound. And how men that are fathers and women that are mothers can hear these and at the same time rise to applaud the fierce dogs that are pulling and crunching the quivering bodies from which these wails and moans come is a question that staggers a man that has not had all the pity and compassion frozen out of his soul.

"The women who habitually attend these scenes can sit and witness these performances without a breath of protest. They grin and jest about 'the long-haired and old women,' referring to those who believe coursing is cruel, and cruelty under the state's laws in punishable. And when a hound is more fierce than others they rise with shrieks and clap their hands in applause."

The races continued infrequently without legal interference until March 1905, when E.J. "Lucky" Baldwin, whom The Times called "the despot of Arcadia," announced plans to stage them.

A month later, a brawl broke out at Baldwin's coursing grounds over an attempt to stop the races. Three agents of the SPCA, one of them a deputy sheriff, planned to halt coursing while Jack Birdie, a Baldwin enforcer who was also a deputy, tried to handcuff one of them. Overpowered, Birdie gave up and soon had his deputy's badge confiscated by the sheriff.

Known throughout his life as a man who loved a fight, Baldwin was angry over being arrested and outraged that he was taken to court in Pasadena rather than Arcadia, where he had more influence. The Times said: "Upon entering the courtroom 'Lucky' bragged aloud of his arrest, declaring that it was just what he had been looking for and wanting for a long time past. He declares that he will fight the case to the bitter end and will not stop short of the Supreme Court, if it takes the biggest part of his millions."

"I want every sign of a rabbit on my ranch killed off," Baldwin said. "They are the worst pest I have to contend with and I have a number. My dogs are out chasing them every night and I intend to keep it up till I get every rabbit off my fields. They have caused me to lose thousands of dollars in grain and grass each year."

April 24, 1905, Illustration

Stylishly arrayed woman applauds bloody killing of rabbit at Arcadia coursing event, April 24, 1905.

Baldwin and his seven co-defendants were released on bail and the case lay dormant. After repeated inquiries, The Times learned that all charges were dropped because the SPCA didn't want to pursue the case, citing the expense to the county of fighting Baldwin and the defendants' promise that coursing would not resume.

In July, Baldwin's coursing grounds were turned into a baseball field, perhaps as a ruse because two months later, word leaked out that rabbit cages had been seen at the park and the dog kennels had been prepared for the greyhounds.

Races were held once or twice more in Arcadia before the district attorney's office took up the fight at the SPCA's request in November 1905.

Dist. Atty. John D. Fredericks rejected promoters' pleas that he permit them run a few final races as "test cases." The Times said: "The only answer he has made to them is that coursing has stopped in this county; the first man who turns loose a dog in the trail of a rabbit will be put in jail."

Postscripts: Black died in Hong Kong in 1905 and Baldwin died at his ranch in 1909. The Arcadia coursing park was sold in 1907. In 1910, nearly all the buildings at Agricultural Park were torn down as 104 acres, including the coursing field, were cleared for a state exposition building and a county historical museum and art gallery.