Nonetheless, Floridians were startled on the morning of May 6, 1973 when, upon opening The St. Petersburg Times, they found a color picture of a live white "Easter bunny" hanging by its legs from a moving lure while open-jawed greyhounds pursued it around a training track. Other pictures showed coursing dogs closing in on a jackrabbit, and grabbing it by the neck.
In the accompanying article Times Staff Writer Allen Cowan described the training process he had observed at Richard Kiper's Central Florida Greyhound College near Ocala:
"The greyhound is trained with a lure that has a live white rabbit tied on by its hind legs. The rabbit dangles inches off the ground on the gliding lure, its eyes bulging, its chest pounding, bleating as it watches its killers in pursuit. Kiper teases the dogs around the track once. As they approach the finish line, the lure slows, and the dogs are allowed to catch the rabbit. Their teeth flash in the night as they tear at it. Frequently the first group of dogs doesn't kill the rabbit. The dying animal, blood spurting into the sand, gets another ride around the oval with fresh dogs in pursuit."
Letters of outrage began pouring into State Attorney General Robert Shevin's office. A month after the Times story appeared, Shevin ruled that using live rabbits to entice greyhounds to leave their starting boxes, capture the rabbits and inflict pain and suffering on them violated Florida's cruelty to animals statute which provides punishment for "whoever unnecessarily overloads, overdrives, tortures, torments...or cruelly beats, mutilates or kills any animal...."
To greyhound trainers the key word was "unnecessarily." Oscar Duke Jr., dean of Florida trainers, filed a class-action suit in Dade County Circuit Court asking for an injunction against the attorney general's ruling on the grounds that "it is impossible to produce efficient, capable greyhounds to race at Florida tracks if the right to permit greyhounds to pursue wild rabbits is denied."
Duke does not mince words when the subject of jackrabbits is brought up in his normally jovial presence. "Jackrabbits are no good for anything," he says emphatically. "Not for any thing. In Texas they run 'em into box canyons and beat 'em to death with clubs, and nobody screams about cruelty. In Florida you can take a .22-caliber rifle and knock a coon out of a tree, and have your dogs waiting under that tree to tear that coon to shreds, and it's legal, so what's illegal about coursing?"
Duke starts his greyhounds on live rabbits at the age of four months. "It's the first thing that's fun for a young greyhound," he says. "The chase, the kill. Take that away, and what have you got? A dog that won't race. No greyhound is going to chase a toy rabbit around a track unless he thinks it's real. They hunt by sight, not by scent. So when eight dogs chase a lure around a racetrack, they're not racing. They're running to kill."
Duke won his case in Miami when the circuit court ruled that because hunters were allowed "without any reason or necessity" to kill rabbits with dogs, it would be a denial of equal protection under the law to prohibit greyhound trainers from doing the same, especially since it was a necessity. But in northern Florida, Richard Kiper and his Central Florida Greyhound College did not fare as well.
State Attorney Gordon Oldham brought a civil suit against Kiper in Ocala, contending that his training methods were a public nuisance. At the same time a bill was introduced in the state legislature making it a misdemeanor to use live animals in training racing greyhounds.
The bill was passed unanimously by the Senate but died in the House. Kiper lost in court, and was enjoined from allowing his greyhounds to mutilate and kill live rabbits. He was, however, given a year to find an alternative training method before the injunction took effect. He immediately appealed the decision, saying that there was no alternative method.