Animal Defenders of Westchester

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We advocate on all animal protection and exploitation issues, including experimentation, factory farming, rodeos, breeders and traveling animal acts.

Animal Defenders of Westchester
P.O. Box 205
Yonkers, NY 10704


Dogs' Blood Brings Big Bucks

Updated 4:14 PM ET January 28, 2003

The crowd was cheering inside an auto body shop, long after it was closed for its normal business, but what they were cheering for was blood - the blood of a pair of dogs, locked in a vicious battle to the death.

"It was almost reminiscent of a professional boxing match," Franklin County Sheriff's Department Detective Dave Hunt said. "People yelling and screaming, rooting on their dogs. Alcohol - everybody drinking. It was a social event, but there was blood everywhere."

That was the scene that Franklin County, Ohio, police and animal control officers say they found recently in a raid on an organized dog fight that had drawn participants from New York, Virginia, Alabama, Maryland and Washington, D. C., to the auto body shop in Columbus.

And with arrests of 40 people, the confiscation of nearly $25,000 in cash as well as handguns and drugs, the event was yet another example of what law enforcement and animal welfare officials around the country say is a rapidly growing problem.

Dog fighting has developed over the last 15 years from the bloody pastime of amateurs in backyards and vacant lots, to a big business, with events organized like professional boxing matches, tens of thousands of dollars bet on which dog is toughest and purses of up to $100,000 for the winners.

While much dog fighting is still what the Humane Society of the United States calls "street fighting," impromptu or loosely organized fights using dogs with little or no pedigree as a fighter, there is another level of the blood sport.

Using the Internet, people who want to buy fighting dogs and are willing to spend as much as $10,000 are able to find breeders advertising animals with the bloodlines of killers, and the Web is also used as tool for organizing fights that draw participants and spectators from far and wide, police and animal welfare advocates say.

Federal legislation is being introduced in both the Senate and the House to make it a felony to transport a dog across state lines for use in fighting, and at least four states have measures pending to stiffen the penalties for dog fighting.

The Ohio State Department of Agriculture presented a set of proposals to the legislature on Jan. 22, asking for measures to strengthen anti-dog fighting laws, stiffen enforcement and increase public awareness campaigns.

In Virginia and West Virginia legislation is pending that would create RICO-type statutes to allow police to pursue those involved in dog fighting.

Demonized Victims

What police found in Columbus was similar to what officers found in recent weeks in Toledo, Ohio; Detroit and Union Parish, La. - all of which were the scenes of raids on large-scale organized dog fights. In each case, dozens of people were arrested, tens of thousands of dollars were confiscated and drugs and weapons were seized.

And in each case, dogs clinging to life had to be rushed to veterinary hospitals for emergency surgery to keep them alive until they could be used as evidence in trials, even though the eventual fate that awaits most of them is euthanasia.

The tragedy of the dog fighting culture may be that its greatest victim is also its most demonized member - the pit bull, the breed of choice for people looking for a killer canine.

"Pit bulls don't make much noise, they just keep coming," Humane Society of the United States senior vice president Wayne Pacelle said. "They're 50 pounds of muscle and when they're trained, they won't quit. Sometimes both dogs will die from shock or loss of blood. They won't quit - some fights will last three or four hours."

Pit bulls are legally classified as "vicious animals" by Ohio state law, a classification perhaps justified by the fact that, according to statistics kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dogs identified as pit bulls accounted for 60 fatal attacks on humans - more than twice as many as any other breed - between 1979 and 1996, the most recent statistics available from the CDC.

But in that, too, the breed is also a victim.

"This is an animal that was created by man to do this," Lucas County, Ohio, dog warden Tom Skeldon said. "The way these dogs are raised, they are made into killers."

'Not Even a Jaguar Will Do That'

Skeldon, who has been a crusader against dog fighting for more than a decade, described just how effective the training can be.

He had a pit bull that had been used in fighting in his pound, and when the dog started "going wild," biting at the walls of the kennel. He shot the dog with a tranquilizer, and then left it for five minutes to let it pass out.

When he came back the dog had indeed passed out, but not before it had leaped up and clamped its jaws on a cable used to open the door of the kennel.

"Everything else was relaxed, the dog was out cold, but its jaws wouldn't let go of that cable, and he was hanging in midair," said Skeldon, a former zookeeper whose father and grandfather were both zookeepers. "Not even a jaguar will do that."

There are numerous pit bull rescue organizations around the country that try to care for and rehabilitate dogs scarred both physically and mentally by their upbringing as fighting machines, but there are even more kennels offering "gamebred" pit bulls - a euphemism for a dog with a pedigree of fighters.

The Humane Society of the United States has a database of 40,000 suspected dog fighters operating across the country, and according to the organization's estimates some 250,000 dogs are used in organized dog fighting.

Pacelle said that while the breed has been unfairly declared as universally vicious, dogs that have been trained to fight are unlikely to become good pets.

"Oftentimes the training involves killing smaller animals - cats or smaller dogs - to give them the taste of blood," he said. "Once they're trained that way, it's very hard to get that out of them and we don't recommend them as pets.

"But it's clear there are tens of thousands of pit bulls that have been properly trained that are perfectly nice dogs," he added.

'Under-Enforced, Under-Prosecuted'

In Franklin County alone, 1,931 pit bulls were housed by animal control in 2002, and 1,538 of those were either captured on the street or seized - more than half of them either bearing scars or open wounds from fighting.

In Yonkers, N.Y., just outside of New York City, police recently rescued 17 pit bulls from a basement where dogs were allegedly trained for fighting, and every one of them - even a 21/2-month-old puppy - bore scars of fight training or being used as bait in the training of other dogs, police said.

Skeldon has spent the last dozen years trying to increase the police focus on dog fighting, which is illegal in every state in the country. In 46 states, even being a spectator at a dog fight is a crime, but according to some animal welfare advocates most police do not make it a priority.

He has focused his campaign on trying to convince police that raids on dog fights can lead to arrests on other charges, because the blood sport is so often a pursuit of drug dealers and gang members.

"It's under-enforced and under-prosecuted, and yet it's a crime that's directly related to the drug trade," he said. "The drug trade can be hard to find, but the dog trade is easy to see. It's hard to hide 15 pit bulls in a house."

Those arguments are backed up by what police in Franklin County have found as they have stepped up their enforcement of laws against dog fighting.

Since Feb. 8, 2002, the sheriff's department has executed nine search warrants related to suspected dog fighting, and "in every place we've raided we've found drugs and guns," Detective Bureau Chief Deputy Steve Martin said.

Death as Family Entertainment

When police in Union County, La., raided the scene of a suspected dog fight on Jan. 19, they found a wooden pit where two dogs were fighting, surrounded by a cheering crowd, while nearby food was cooking on barbecue grills.

"They were cooking food within 8 feet of where dogs were bleeding to death," Union Parish Sheriff Bob Buckley said. "There were three young children, even a mother with a 2-year-old child."

Buckley, whose officers trailed the suspected dog fight organizers for three days before they finally settled on a location they were comfortable with, said he needs no other justification for going after the crime than just to wipe it out.

"This is not only a heinous crime, it is a dangerous crime," because of the threat that dogs raised to kill present to the community, he said.

"The danger of it is, I've got two kids and they'll go out with our two border collies and run with the dogs," he said. "These pit bulls, they'll mostly be friendly with people, but they'll attack another dog. Now what if one of these pit bulls gets off its chain? If they attack my kids' dogs, what are my kids going to do? They're going to protect their dogs, and what's going to happen then?"

Nevertheless, he did not discount the links between the drug trade and dog fighting.

"Our intelligence tells us that a number of drug dealers are going into owning dogs, fighting the dogs and hiring their underlings to be the pit men, actually handling the dogs during the fight," he said.  

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