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Giving Dogs a Fighting Chance

In a tough city, an anti-animal-fighting campaign gathers momentum through education—and offers of cash

If you’re looking for a fight, don’t go to Rochester, New York—the Anti-Animal Fighting Task Force is looking for one, too.

Comprised of professionals from the Monroe County District Attorney’s office, the Rochester Police Department, Rochester Animal Services, the Humane Society at Lollypop Farm, and several other agencies, the task force has made education one of the primary aspects of its campaign to end the suffering of animals used for fights. And it’s reaching out to folks across the region to help empower the local community to combat the vicious practice of dogfighting.

The campaign has run in two phases, says Sandy Christiansen, director of field services at the Humane Society at Lollypop Farm. The first phase involved the production of an informational video, “Contest with No Winners: Dogfighting in America.” “The video focused on issues for humane societies and law enforcement groups that do cruelty investigations, in addition to a lot of groups that work visiting homes or meeting people,” says Christiansen.

Frequently, he says, people who work for social services agencies and utility companies are a valuable but untapped resource for recognizing and reporting signs of illegal animal-fighting; social services workers and the people who read electric meters usually would have no way of knowing how to identify the everyday objects that often indicate the presence of illegal animal fighting activities. “We had an investigation where the family was receiving social services and there were people in and out of the home on a fairly regular basis,” says Christiansen. “And later on when we got involved based on a complaint, we executed a search warrant and there were [dogfighting] trophies on the walls, and lots of injectable antibiotics on one of the speakers.” If the visitors from social services had seen the video, which explains the potential significance of such seemingly ordinary items, Animal Services may have been able to step in sooner, Christiansen says.

Saturating the Market

The second phase of the campaign has focused on getting the message to the general public, and for that, the task force has sought professional help. A humane society volunteer who works in communications helped find a design firm, Thresh Creative Associates, to do the pro bono work. With some guidance from task force personnel, the firm came up with the eye-catching, provocative ad that says simply, “We’re looking for a fight.”

The group set about blanketing the community with the anti-animal-fighting message, using discounted ad space to plaster it on buses, billboards, and TV, says Alice Calabrese, the shelter’s assistant executive director. “We wanted to make sure [the message] got into the right areas, so we got to choose which bus lines we wanted the cards to go on, and which billboards we wanted to display it on,” says Calabrese, “ ... and then we’re also mailing out postcards and then they’ll see it hanging in the schools and community center.”

While the team considered espousing a variety of reasons for reporting animal fighting to authorities, they finally decided that a reward would be the best incentive. “We had a list of softer ‘whys’ for why people should report this even if they don’t care about animals,” says Gretchen Wood, the shelter’s manager of marketing and community relations. “But in the end we decided that the people who would be able to give us good tips would be people who would want the money.”

Rewards Bring Good Leads

And while some organizations give out rewards only once there has been a conviction, the task force in Rochester offers a reward for any tip that leads to an arrest. Informants are often frightened to come forward with good leads, Christiansen says, so he and the rest of the task force wanted to ensure that brave behavior on the part of an informant would result in a reward. “We felt it was unfair to refuse to give someone the money because some glitch in the justice system happened, something that wasn’t connected to their information,” he says.

By October, the campaign had resulted in some valuable leads and arrests—and would have resulted in several rewards so far if the tippers had chosen to identify themselves. “But the real focus on the reward has only started recently,” says Christiansen, “so I think we will end up giving money out later on.”

The Anti-Animal Fighting Task Force has put fighters on notice that the city is not a friendly environment for those who want to abuse animals. The group has been aggressive in targeting not only the main perpetrators but also anyone complicit in the illegal activities, including people who own or lease properties where dogfights take place. Christiansen notes that the wife of a dogfighter was arrested and charged with a felony. “We don’t necessarily think she had anything to do with the training, but they had a picture of Christmas morning where she was in the kitchen making breakfast and there was a treadmill clearly visible behind her. She clearly knew what was going on and did nothing to stop it,” Christiansen says. He hopes that such arrests will send a clear message to the community: Participate in animal fighting, and you put not only yourself but also your family members at risk.

Justice for the Animals

That message, and the message that dogfighting is a serious problem, is one that’s sometimes difficult to convey to people who aren’t already involved in animal protection, says Christiansen. In Rochester as elsewhere, the crimes against animals are barely distinguishable from the crimes against humans: the city has experienced dogfight-related homicides as well as a brutal gang rape in which the perpetrators videotaped the rapes before proceeding downstairs to hold a dogfight and videotape that, too.

“It’s disheartening for humane societies to go through all of this [investigating] and then have the guy get a slap on the wrist and go walking free,” Christiansen says. “We’re trying to make it clear that, OK, it may not be the worst thing going on in society in the whole scope of things, but it’s organized crime and needs to be treated as such.”

The point has begun to hit home, says Wood. “There was actually ... an online chat [recently] where someone here who was obviously involved in animal fighting was warning the other people, ‘Watch out, it’s not a good climate here in Rochester—they’re very serious,’ ” laughs Wood. “Which was, you know, so flattering!”

The down side of such success, says Christiansen, is that the shelter now houses a large number of fighting dogs who must be held for long periods of time while the criminal proceedings take place. Housing and caring for former fighting animals presents some safety risks for staff and requires extra personnel to ensure proper handling.

But Christiansen says it’s worth it and says the staff of the shelter have come together to handle the challenges. “It’s part of our mission to prevent cruelty to animals,” says Christiansen, “and I think everybody really understands that and wants to step up to the plate—because they know that it’s not only these dogs that are suffering, but these dogs are also bred every time they’re in heat. ... In the big picture, I think a lot of the staff feels that it’s not just these animals that they’re doing justice for, it’s a lot of animals down the road as well.”


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