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Dogfighting Investigations: Where We Stand

© Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control

Making the rounds a few years ago in pre-Katrina New Orleans, Kathryn Destreza of the Louisiana SPCA stopped at a house she’d been to many times before. Its former occupant, known for the prolific breeding of his unsterilized cats, had lived for years among his horde. But when Destreza and a fellow officer visited this time, they didn’t see any cats. In fact, they didn’t see any animals at all. But they did hear, coming from behind the house, the unmistakable sound of snarling dogs.

“So we go around the house, and there in the backyard are these two kids fighting their dogs,” says Destreza, now the director of humane law enforcement. “And our first thought is, Save the dogs. … The kids take off running, and I start chasing one of the kids—running, running, running—kid gets away. … So, later that year, New Orleans PD does this cockfighting bust, and everyone’s running, and one of the cops chases a guy and just reaches out at the right second and grabs the tail of his shirt. And bam—same kid.”

Interviewing the boy, Destreza found a child immersed in the world of animal fighting, an activity so embedded in parts of Louisiana culture that the rules for professional dogfights around the country have long been known as “Cajun rules.” The boy told her that his grandfather had taught his dad and his dad had in turn taught him—and that his family was well-known for cockfighting and dogfighting in the city; the “sport” made them feel connected to local history and traditions. “He’d grown up with it and was very proud of what he knew,” Destreza says.

Family ties to longstanding cultures of cruelty are not unique to Louisiana. Thousands of miles north in Boston, Scott Giacoppo, deputy director of advocacy for the Massachusetts SPCA, witnessed the same phenomenon during his years as a law enforcement officer for the organization. “We’ve busted people for animal fighting whose father and grandfather have been arrested for it,” he says. “They were taught it was OK.”

A History of Violence

Read the other two parts of the July-August 2006 dogfighting feature:

Brandishing the Long Arm of the Law: Working with Police To End Dogfighting

When the Victims Come to Stay

The bloodsport that every year results in the rescue and seizure of thousands of scarred, bloodied, and torn dogs—mostly pit bulls—has a history that dates back to Roman times. Men, dogs, and other animals were forced to fight to the death for spectators in the Coliseum. The peculiar enthusiasm for the activity continued through early modern times, and was exported to the United States by the British. It became so popular by the late 1880s that, according to Michigan State University’s online Animal Legal and Historical Center, railroads were advertising special fares to a dogfight in Louisville, Kentucky.

Society eventually turned its back on dogfighting, outlawing it in every state by 1976. But proponents continue to celebrate old bloodlines, often putting dogs through sadistic forms of training to achieve “gameness,” the intangible combination of aggression, tenacity, and power that makes for a winning fighting dog.

Looking at the animals who’ve experienced the brutality of the pit—their torn mouths, gaping body wounds, broken bones and teeth, the burns and scars inflicted on them by owners who were angry when they didn’t perform—one might wonder if the folks who celebrate the history of dogfighting are also nostalgic for other bygone historical practices, like witch-burning and public stoning.

While some “dogmen” can trace the bloodlines of their animals through generations, the bloodsport of dogfighting doesn’t take root only through direct instruction by longtime enthusiasts passing “the tradition” on to their descendants. In some areas, dogfighting springs up more loosely, a symptom of other social ills such as street gangs, illegal guns, and drugs. While Giacoppo has met dogfighters who come from a professional family tradition, he’s also seen the variation of the bloodsport that has become most prevalent over the past few decades: streetfighting, a loose and spontaneous extension of the more organized rules- and contracts-driven professional form.

In the late 1990s, Giacoppo says, parts of Boston were in crisis from gang activity, and the dangerous dogs who belonged to the gang members were simply part and parcel of the problem. The gangs were using the dogs as protection both from police and from competing gangs, and as a way to instill fear in the law-abiding citizens in their neighborhoods.

“If I’m standing on the corner selling my drugs and I need to have the neighborhood intimidated by me so they don’t call the police, I could wave a gun, but someone’s going to call the cops,” Giacoppo says. “But if I have a pit bull on the end of a leash, and his ears are cut down to his skull, and he’s all muscular … and the only thing separating the residents of the community from certain death by pit bull is this drug dealer holding a leash and whether or not he lets go, that’s intimidating.”

Dealers were even using the dogs as mini-drug traffickers, Giacoppo says. “If you have a collar with crack taped inside the collar or the harness,” he says, “there’s not a cop in the city that’s going to pat down a pit bull, you know what I mean?”

© Humane Society at Lollypop Farm
The image of the lean, healthy fighting pit bull often put forth by dogfighting proponents is a far cry from the state these animals are found in when rescued.
Casual, street-level dogfighters are nothing new, says Eric Sakach, director of The HSUS’s West Coast Regional Office, an animal fighting expert and investigator with nearly 30 years of experience. “There’s always been an amateur faction … just the ‘My dog’s tougher than your dog’ deal, and none of the conditioning, none of the rules. [It’s been] the back alley sort of stuff,” Sakach says. “But the phenomenon that has been most noticeable in the past 30 years in my experience has been the explosive growth in street-level fighting. … It’s still back alley, but it’s also much more public in that a lot of the characters involved tend to operate with a degree of impunity. They feel that they’re immune to being arrested by law enforcement.”

In these situations, dogfighting is often a mere sideshow to other illegal activities, a chance for gang members to demonstrate power through the aggression and tenacity of their dogs. But the effect on the dogs is just as horrifying as the damage caused by those who fight the animals professionally, and in some cases may even be worse: While professional fighters often invest a great deal of money in their animals’ care in order to prepare them for matches—feeding them, providing at least rudimentary worming and vaccinations—streetfighters tend to treat their dogs as disposable objects, often giving them little food and no medical care at all before setting them up to fight other dogs.

During his career, Sandy Christiansen has seen both ends of the spectrum. As the director of operations for a shelter in North Carolina, he worked in the vicinity of one of the most active professional dogfighters in the country; at a later job in Rochester, New York, his jurisdiction was overrun with streetfighting. “With more professional dogfighters, animals are treated like production animals,” says Christiansen, now the president and CEO of the Spartanburg Humane Society in South Carolina. “ … I wouldn’t say [the owners are] bastions of good ownership, but they realize that in order to have stronger, healthier litters, in order to be … dogs that are going to perform for you, they have to be healthier. Whereas in the inner city with the kids, I mean, we’d see skin and bones.”

One of Christiansen’s first felony cruelty cases in Rochester still stands out in his mind. He has a photograph of the crime scene that helped sway the jury toward conviction. “The pit bull starved to death, tied to a leash on a tree,” he says, “and the leash was one of those out of the late ’80s, early ’90s that said, ‘I heart my pit bull’—down in the dirt with a dead, starved-to-death pit bull at the end of it.”

Bad Love

Street-level dogfighting has grown for a number of reasons, but many experts point a finger at the hip-hop industry. Certain gangsta rappers have driven dogfighting to the forefront of juvenile consciousness by glorifying the imagery of the dogfighting pit. Some would argue that their lyrics and imagery merely depict the reality of gang life, but the reflected sheen of the music industry’s money makes that reality look sexier and more glamorous to many urban and suburban kids looking for models of popularity and respect.

The bad love conveyed by the image of a starved dog on the end of an “I love my pit bull” leash is reflected in many of the contradictory messages put forth by hip-hop. Those who’ve sheltered the canine victims of dogfighting might relate to this sentiment: “I don’t really trust humans much these days / Fact of the matter is I trust dogs more than I trust humans.” They might also be surprised to learn its source: DMX, whose album Grand Champ bore the image of a crop-eared, muscular, heavy-chained pit bull, whose tribute to his old dog is tattooed across his shoulders, whose autobiography includes proud stories of fighting that dog and teaching him to kill cats, whose neglect of 13 pit bulls led him to plead guilty to charges of animal cruelty in 2002, whose whole artistic persona exemplifies the contradictory love-hurt relationship many streetfighters have with their animals.

© Def Jam Records
Rappers like DMX and Jay-Z often glorify the image of fighting dogs.

DMX identifies with the dogs he depicts. His delivery has a barking, staccato quality, and he often imitates actual barking in his raps. His autobiography contains an electronically manipulated photo in which his features are mixed with those of a pit bull. The violence and neglect he’s inflicted on his pit bulls reflect his own experience; if biographies (including his own) are to be believed, the rapper’s life is a perfect example of what kids may learn when the adults in their life are abusive or absent.

Raised in a home where his mother’s boyfriends beat him, DMX found the second family many abused or neglected kids do: gangs, whose tough love and loyalties substitute for the tender ones they’ve never found with their families. The dogs used by these gangs for protection, intimidation, and fighting are often seen as extensions of the gang itself, canine soldiers who may be called on to represent their owner’s own gameness and outlaw nature by fighting. For gang members and their dogs, life is often nasty, brutish, and short. The violent, neglectful affection these urban fighting dogs experience reflects the mistreatment many of their owners have suffered.

None of this background excuses the end result: two dogs tearing each other apart for onlookers’ entertainment. But this bloodsport never takes place in a societal vacuum. Whether professional or street-level, whether rural or urban, whether dogfighting is passed on as a family tradition or stumbled upon as part of gang life, the problem has a common root: absent, inadequate, or distorted examples of how to live and how to care for other creatures.

A child who learns early that violence is OK may become desensitized and carry that lesson into his later relationships with both people and animals, becoming an abuser himself. If the people around a child present a clear message that the dogs enjoy it, that they’re doing what is instinctive for them, that they don’t feel pain—and if the child doesn’t hear any other messages—the damage may be done. Like concrete that starts out malleable but becomes rigid and set, lessons learned in childhood quickly harden into beliefs.

The justifications and denials that seem so absurd to outsiders may seem rational to those who’ve never known another way. Chris Sanford, a special investigator with The HSUS who spent 26 years working for the Galt Police Department in California, compares dogfighters’ rationalizations to those often presented by another group of abusers. “In their minds, how they justify what they’re doing, they’re not doing anything wrong,” Sanford says. “They’re doing what’s natural for the animal. It’s kind of like what a pedophile will tell you about a kid—you know, ‘I’m giving this kid the love they’ve never had.’ ”

Sanford leaves unsaid what has been indicated again and again: A molester who makes such claims may actually believe them, because he has probably been abused himself. And when the cycle started for him, no one stepped forward and said clearly and firmly, This is wrong and it must stop.

Breaking Up the Fights

Parents, role models, and educators can reach kids early with that message. But animal advocates are taking action to ensure the message also resonates with people already entrenched in the dogfighting culture.

In 1997, when Animal Sheltering published a feature on caring for dogfighting victims, the crime was a felony in 43 states; that total is now up to 48. Only in Idaho and Wyoming does it remain a misdemeanor. Laws mandating stricter penalties for animal fighting not only ensure more severe consequences, be they higher fines or longer jail time; they can also persuade law enforcement officials with competing priorities to take the crime more seriously and devote more resources to fighting it.

Because the forms of dogfighting vary from one community to the next, the approaches to ending it must vary as well. Professional dogfighters are careful about whom they let into their circles, so gaining access to their operations can be a full-time job. But the long-term undercover work and investigations that have led to prosecution of professional fighters and fighting-dog breeders won’t always work for streetfighting, which tends to be more spontaneous and is usually conducted by people who already spark fear in their fellow citizens. Even if people work up the nerve to report a fight in progress, the perpetrators have often dispersed by the time police arrive.

Overall, however, there’s much to celebrate. Police are taking the crime more seriously, and animal advocates have developed effective ways to fight back. In Boston in the late '90s, officers from the Massachusetts SPCA teamed up with police to develop a new community policing approach that made a significant difference in certain neighborhoods in the city. Other activities in recent years have produced major busts of professional dogfighters in Louisiana, Texas, and Florida. And a great team effort in 2003 took down the notorious Sporting Dog Journal, a magazine that fighters once used to share information and post dogfighting match results. James Fricchione, the publisher, was charged with multiple felonies related to dogfighting; the magazine later folded after he lost his appeal.

© Humane Society at Lollypop Farm

The Internet has been a source of valuable information for dogfighters—and for the investigators hot on their heels. “If you knocked on somebody’s door and they had 50 pit bulls and you said, ‘Are you fighting them?’ they’d say, ‘Naw, I just breed ’em,’ ” Christiansen says. “But you take that same person and you pretend to be a dogfighter and you say something nasty about his dogs on the Internet? For some reason, having a screen between that person and the rest of the world empowers them to say things that they would ordinarily not say … and it can be used very successfully.”

But many who’ve been working in the field for a while say that dogfighters have also adjusted their methods after major arrests, learning from the tactics law enforcement uses. Christiansen, who worked his first case involving Internet evidence in 1999, says that though the Web still has good information and computers should be included on any search warrant for a dogfighting case, fighters have become more cautious. They’ve figured out that information on the Internet is hard to get rid of, that macho postings on game-dog message boards can be used against them, and that written documents can become compelling evidence.

On a recent bust, Belinda Lewis of Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control was surprised not to find any “keep records” (the paperwork that has traditionally detailed a dog’s training and conditioning prior to a fight). One of the fighters charged by the Indiana agency told Lewis that professionals have increasingly limited or avoided written documentation, including contracts, since the closure of Sporting Dog Journal. In the contract system used for arranging matches, fighters have historically sent wagered money to a third party prior to the fight; the third party holds the money of both opponents as a way of guaranteeing each shows up to defend his stake. But that system is changing, said the dogfighter Lewis interviewed. “He told me that after they took the Journal down, they don’t do as many contracts because they don’t fight people they don’t already know and trust,” Lewis says.

Just as we learn their game, dogfighters can learn ours. The only way to combat this ever-shifting crime is to be ready to shift with it. Involve the community. Involve the police. Involve the schools. Use the methods that work best for you, and then be prepared to try something new if you stop getting results.

The best thing that could happen for pit bull-type dogs—not just individual dogs but the breed as a whole—is the elimination of dogfighting. If dogfighting disappears, the breeding of pit bulls would not only decrease, but some breeders’ efforts to produce animals who appeal to people seeking the dog’s “tough” image would decrease as well. Those who continue to breed pit bulls would be more focused on selling good companion animals than on creating competitors. The dogfighter’s rationale—that gamebred pit bulls are doing what comes naturally to them—is the bane of those who truly love the breed and have long been trying to persuade people that pit bulls aren’t naturally aggressive. These people are trying to win a battle against those who would change the pit bull’s nature through bad nurture.

We’ve made progress, Sakach says, but we have a long way to go. And some of today’s trends make him fear the situation will get worse before it gets better. For every humane, reasonable voice crying out in the wilderness, there often seems to be a din of violent voices raised above it. You can see the trend on television, Sakach says. “There are all these exhibitions of violence that didn’t used to be allowed—extreme fighting, bare knuckle boxing and such. Violent, staged fights between people makes staged fights between animals second nature—cage-fighting, these no-holdsbarred sorts of deals where they allow kicking, severe beating, and they’re really unabashed about it,” Sakach says.

It would be nice to think the human race has progressed morally since the time of the gladiators, but sometimes the days of fight-to-the-death bloodsports in the Roman Coliseum don’t seem so far away. Against the mainstreaming of such a flood of violent imagery, all the humane field can do is continue to model and work for a different way. Dogfighting is a problem that never seems to go away permanently. “Unless you have a high degree of diligence as an agency and you’ve got an ongoing community education program and you keep everybody involved, I think the problem just creeps back in,” Sakach says. “We’re just not at the end of this yet.”


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