IN THE NEWS: On DEC 11, 2017
One of the country's top greyhound trainers is being investigated over allegations of illegally using live baits to train his racing dogs.
Live baiting is when live animals are allowed to be chased, mauled or killed by greyhounds, in an effort to excite the dogs and make them run faster.
The investigation into the trainer was prompted by several photos, which Newshub has obtained.
But there are also claims the trainer in question has been live baiting for years.
In the images, taken on a property in Palmerston North, an animal appears to be picked up and then tied to the lure arm inside a training ring.
"We got delivered some material back in July this year, which were some fairly graphic photos... and advice that there was a racer that wasn't complying with the law," says SPCA CEO Andrea Midgen.
One of the men seen in the photos is Brendon Cole, who trains dozens of dogs, alongside his partner.
Together, they've won more than $1.4m in prizemoney last season and had the most wins in the country.
Video of live baiting brought the industry in Australia to its knees almost three years ago and the sport's been fighting threats to ban it ever since.
Like there, the greyhound training rules in New Zealand are clear. The rules state "only artificial materials are permitted for use as a lure".
Using animals - either dead or alive - is forbidden. Part of the reason it's done is to increase a dog's 'prey drive' and makes them run faster.
"While these pictures may be blurry and hard to tell, I think there are little things that make it obvious that they're not dealing with a stuffed animal or a dead animal that's not responsive," said senior Auckland veterinarian Dr Shalsee Vigeant.
She believes the images show a live or semi-conscious rabbit or hare. She thinks it's alive, because it appears to stand on its hind legs and because of the way it's being handled.
"Handling a dead animal or a stuffed animal, you don't need two people to hold it," she said. "You don't need someone else to tie things on."
The SPCA has seized phone and computer records, and also inspected the bullring at the property, where the baiting allegedly took place, to test for traces of animal blood.
Newshub has tried repeatedly to contact Brendon Cole to ask about the images, but when we've stated where we're calling from, he's hung up.
We've had claims and counter claims about the allegations.
One long-time employee of Brendon Cole denied live-baiting ever occurred, saying that in the many years spent working at Cole's property, he never witnessed animals - either dead or alive - being used to train racing dogs.
He says the only lures they ever used were soft toys.
But that's certainty not what another employee, who asked to remain anonymous, remembers.
He says, in the two years he worked at Mr Cole's property, live baiting was part of an entrenched training regime and he saw chickens being killed weekly.
He's says the chickens were tied to lengths of rope and the dogs, sometimes wearing muzzles, were then encouraged to race towards the birds.
"And then, the dog that needed it the most or needed the stimulation or had a big race coming up, then they would get their muzzle removed, and they'd be the ones that got to finish the job so to speak and sink their teeth in."
He's not proud of his time with Brendon Cole and says other trainers he's worked for have won races without live baiting.
"I've had it somewhat normalised and sort of been desensitised to it... but I've come to realise it's not necessary and entirely unacceptable."
The greyhound industry says it's never found evidence of live baiting in New Zealand and does kennel inspections to ensure people play by the rules.
"We have zero tolerance," says Greyhound Racing NZ CEO Phil Holden. "Our position is really clear, the implication is very clear - anyone caught acting inappropriately will be dealt with accordingly."
Newshub has spoken to two other former workers, who say they too witnessed live baiting at Brendon Cole's property.
But Mr Holden says it's a case of innocent until proven guilty.
The industry says it has a zero-tolerance approach to live baiting, but it's investigating body- the Racing Integrity Unit - says it's waiting for the SPCA to finish its inquiry before it acts.
If you have further information, contact the SPCA confidentially on (09) 256 7300 or Michael Morrah ([email protected]).