When he was first approached about an opportunity to collaborate with Greyhound Racing NSW (GRNSW), David Eager's overwhelming instinct was to say no.
Although the project aimed to improve animal welfare – by redesigning race tracks to reduce the likelihood and severity of greyhound injuries – Eager says, "The truth is I wasn't interested."
Beyond the fact he couldn't see an alignment with his research expertise in children's playground safety, the associate professor in the School of Electronic, Mechanical and Mechatronic Systems at UTS was troubled by the ethical implications of working with the greyhound racing industry.
Eager vividly remembers the ABC Four Corners episode last year that revealed evidence of live baiting within the Australian industry and led to a Special Commission of Inquiry to investigate wider animal welfare, integrity and governance issues within the sport.
He has a deep compassion for animals and is distressed by the idea of greyhounds being mistreated. "They're sentient beings. They've got beautiful kind eyes and when you see them, you just want to pat them."
Though Eager was mauled by a German Shepherd as a child, he emphasises that the dog had been mistreated. "It was kept in a pen and taught to bite things. A German Shepherd is a lovely dog if it's treated well, and I'd imagine that greyhounds are exactly the same."
Nonetheless, the university's Research and Innovation Office believed the project would be a good fit for Eager's expertise, so he set about researching the topic of greyhound race track safety. To his surprise, Eager found it was "almost a perfect match" for him.
"Whether it's the kids or the greyhounds falling and hurting themselves, it's very similar mechanisms.
"And as I did more research, I realised there was even more overlap because I'd done a lot of work on safety standards for amusement rides, and these tracks are like rollercoasters because they've got camber, bends and transitions and we're looking at similar forces," he says.
"So my two primary areas of research were overlapping with the greyhounds."
However, Eager still put a caveat on doing the project: "It had to be for the welfare of the dogs, to improve their situation."
After successfully tendering for the project, Eager met with representatives of GRNSW who allayed his concerns. "They left no doubt in our minds that we were part of a change process that would put a broom through the bad practices."
Eager emphasises that the 12-month track design project will use rigorous scientific methodology and an evidence-based approach starting with the incidents and injuries and the causes behind them.
Supported by $325,000 funding from GRNSW including a contribution from Greyhound Racing SA, the project will identify an optimal model for track design and surface in order to reduce both the number and severity of injuries during racing and training.
The project is part of a broader suite of welfare initiatives being implemented by GRNSW, including the introduction of breeding restrictions, expanding its rehoming scheme for retired greyhounds, a review of veterinary services, a new greyhound welfare code of practice and moves to establish a national licensing scheme for all greyhound racing participants (including owners, breeders and trainers).
"This is only step one in a very comprehensive change process," says Eager.