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December 2006/January 2007
Fatal Fights: Dogs On The Underground Circuit
By Brenda Shoss

 

Gypsy stumbles along Gaston County’s main highway in North Carolina. Her right front leg is shredded. Flesh falls from her face, exposing teeth and gums in a perpetual bite. But the battered pit bull can no longer bite anyone. Her lips and nose have dissolved into pus.

This dog without a face is a familiar sight to Tri-County Animal Rescue staff who admitted her in April 2005. She is dogfighter’s garbage. Her moneymaking days are over.

Months later, three boys ages nine to 14, meet at a levy in Algiers, Louisiana. Their pit bulls display “gameness,” the battle-till-death vigor dogfighters covet. The boys face two dogs nose to nose and release them. One sinks razor-sharp teeth into the other’s throat and savagely shakes his head. Blood sprays as the losing dog howls. The boys jab both dogs and cheer them on.

A hundred yards away, Jeff Dorson crouches in the shadows. The founder and executive director of Humane Society of Louisiana simultaneously flips on his video camera and dials 911. But the police never show. After 15 minutes, the boys yank their limping dogs away on heavy chains.

Though dog fighting is outlawed in 50 states and a felony in 47, American Pit Bull Terriers and other “pit bull” breeds are raised to compete in the underground circuit. Dog fighting statutes in 46 states forbid possession of fighting dogs and 48 states ban presence at matches. But the underground circuit is thriving.

Dogfighters convene in empty homes, garages, warehouses, remote parks and barns to fight their dogs in makeshift arenas bordered by plywood walls. “Dogmen” compete nationwide, attracting fans who bet as high as $10,000 to $50,000 on dogs honed in “hard bite, athleticism and gameness,” reporter Eileen Loh-Harrist writes in “Fight Clubs” for the Gambit Weekly in New Orleans (2001). “Professional dogmen are akin to the mafia, bestowing to the illicit activity a set of generally accepted rules.”

During matches lasting hours, dogs paired by weight are situated behind “scratch lines” etched on either side of a soft-surface pit. A referee orders each handler to “face your dog.” Upon the “let go” command, dogs are freed to attack until one turns his head and shoulders away from his rival.

Trainers then line them up for a repeat encounter. The dog who turned gets ten seconds to cross the line and clamp down on his opponent (a scratch). “The match continues this way,” Loh-Harrist explains, “ending when one dog is too injured or unwilling to continue, jumps the pit, or is killed.”

Unlike career dogmen, hobbyists rarely vie beyond the local level. But they do adhere to the precepts of a refereed brawl. Street fighters ignore rules and bloodlines, preferring the big fierce dogs symbolic of gang culture. Many are restless kids drawn to the thrill of an illegal blood sport.

Jeff Dorson knows them all. For the past 18 years, he’s done the sitting-on-the-porch-drinking-lemonade thing with scores of dogfighters. He logs their war stories as evidence for law enforcers.

Dorson formed the League in Support of Animals (LISA) to lobby for stronger animal protection laws and track cruelty cases in the field. LISA evolved to Humane Society of Louisiana with a dual mission to enforce state laws and rehabilitate/adopt abandoned animals.

Dorson’s focus shifted to dog fighting the longer he lived in Louisiana, a state revered for its champion bloodlines and prolific fight circles. The Boudreaux dynasty, whose prized pups netted up to $10,000 a head, ruled for half a century—even hosting hometown festivals with rural law officers in attendance. But the homage ended when state and federal agents raided their Broussard, Louisiana property in March 2005, arresting “dog fighting don” Floyd and his son Guy for animal cruelty, illegal possession of steroids and a sawed-off shotgun, and 64 counts of dog fighting. The district attorney’s office began prosecution in the case this year.

At least there is a case. Until recently “Two bloody pit bulls were never high on police radar,” Dorson contends. “Even with detailed documentation, New Orleans police simply call Animal Control to come euthanize the dogs.”

Animal fighting arrests are tricky. Most police departments don’t have the resources or know-how to nail dogfighters at the scene. By the time they take action, the match has disbanded.

But in late 2004, Louisiana State Police arrested over 125 dogfighters and seized 680 dogs in 16 months. Dorson credits the dramatic spike to new Superintendent Henry L. Whitehorn’s willingness to employ a preemptive strike approach: Officers talk to alleged dogfighters, tape the transaction, acquire a search warrant, and return to book them.

Acting upon Dorson’s addresses and descriptions, an initial sting landed three criminals, ten dogs, weapons and narcotics. “[Since then] state police have dismantled enormous dog fighting structures throughout Louisiana. Today they function like a military Special Ops unit, totally informed about dog fighting and prepared to move quickly,” Dorson says.

Once cops know what to look for, a dogfighter’s trademark is unmistakable. In between fights, dogs are typically tethered on thick logging chains in backyards cluttered with feces, ant-infested kibble and rusty water pails. Rickety structures offering limited shelter. Dogfighters live by the credo: The meaner you treat a dog, the meaner he’ll perform in the ring.

Dog compounds are outfitted with restraining tables, treadmills and wooden ramps. Serious trainers follow a hard-line regimen of forced daily runs, hand-walks, and treadmill exercises to pump dogs from chain weight to fight weight. Dogs are fed steroids and hormones typically acquired on the black market. “These guys aren’t real bright,” Dorson concedes. “Sometimes they mix gunpowder in dog food, assuming it will give their dogs explosive energy.”

Most use “bait” animals to arouse aggression. Cats, rabbits, small dogs, or chickens are strung to a pole and twirled like toys until the dog fatally mauls them. Sometimes a caged chicken or rabbit is placed in front of a dog on a treadmill as incentive to chase. For a practice fight, or “roll,” trainers mismatch a submissive animal with an aggressor. “No bait animal survives training,” Dorson says.

Dogfighters commonly steal companion animals to use for bait, as the Pima County Sheriff’s Department learned after years of unearthing the gnawed remains of lost pets in the Arizona desert.

In National Geographic’s “U.S. Dog-Fighting Rings Stealing Pets for Bait (2004),” Detective Mike Duffey, co-chair of the Animal Cruelty Task Force of Southern Arizona, claimed 50 percent of 3,396 animals missing over a six-month span were likely stolen. Although no national statistics depict the number annually snatched for bait, the sheriff’s department noted a parallel between a rise in dogfight rings and pet theft.

The stealers tend to be bored teens in an urban hierarchy where tough dogs elevate status. Sergeant Steve Brownstein, a Chicago Police Department veteran who investigates animal abuse on his high-crime beat, has come across a pit bull pup with a split open stomach. He’s seen a Rottweiler mix with skin slashed off her face and a shepherd mix whose penis was in fragments.

If fight dogs don’t succumb to internal trauma, blood loss, shock, dehydration, collapse or infection, they live with wounds and abscesses on their heads, throats, shoulders and legs. Ears are bloody stubs and some faces are so lacerated dogs can hardly breathe.

Photos of Gypsy in recovery show her mutilated face and amputated right leg. When you see all her teeth exposed, she isn’t biting. The frontal area of her lips and sides of her mouth were so infected, they fell off, leaving her gums and teeth exposed.

Once a dog’s “game” is gone, dogfighters view them as a liability. They are discarded in a trash heap or barren building to starve to death. Sgt. Brownstein has found spent dogs burned alive as punishment.

Dogs abandoned on the streets are at the mercy of humane societies and animal control. “You can’t un-train a true fighting dog,” Dorson says. The majority are euthanized.

For each dog, life is a brief mix of arduous training and gory scrimmages. Still the dogs seem little more than props in an underworld linked with gambling, auto theft, drug trafficking, arms smuggling, money laundering and human violence.

Children who often take part as spectators, fighters, or runners for the betting operation are desensitized to animal suffering and criminality. A fifth grader by his uncle’s side at a dogfight told Sgt. Brownstein he was the only bystander who didn’t “explode with laughter” when a defeated dog urinated and defecated upon himself before dying.

“The danger is that [children] will emulate the violence around them,” Brownstein says. “I know of a group that swung a puppy around by a rope, snapping its neck.”

Psychologist Stephanie LaFarge, the nation’s first expert in court-mandated animal abuse counseling, calls extreme cruelty towards animals “a marker for potential violence toward humans.” In particular, young males with a history of parental neglect or abuse may vent feelings of powerlessness upon animals. Nearly every young male behind the rash of high-profile shootings tortured animals before aiming weapons at students, teachers or parents.

Some question the validity of Dorson, Duffy, Brownstein and others devoted to eradicating dogfighters in a world plagued with weightier problems. Brownstein counters with a simple question: “What kind of society do we become if our children lose their humanity?”

What You Can Do

1. Ask your Federal Representative in the House to support the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act (H.R. 817), which makes dogfighting (and related crimes) felonies at the national level. The Senate passed a companion bill by unanimous consent during the 109th Congress.

2. If your state only has misdemeanor dog-fighting penalties, urge your state legislators to make this crime a felony.

3. Click on your state to see animal fighting statutes and provisions where you live at www.animallaw.info/articles/armpusanimalfighting.htm.

Brenda Shoss founded Kinship Circle to empower activists to write, speak and act influentially on behalf of animals. She was among the founding coordinators of Animal Rescue New Orleans (ARNO). In August 2006, her peers honored her with the Grassroots Activist of the Year award at AR2006 in Washington, D.C.


 

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