Fatal Dog Fights on the Rise

July 19, 2000 -- Lured by gambling profits and machismo, more than 40,000 people across the nation attend staged animal fighting events, which often result in an animal’s death.

The beast of choice remains the pit bull, favored by trainers for its loyalty, “gameness” and willingness to continue fighting through extreme pain and exhaustion.

Pit bulls have been bred for more than a century to propagate genes favored in fights, and are thrown in the ring most often. Breeds such as akitas, rottweilers, and German shepherds also are used.

Street-Fighting DogsThere are two main types of dog fighters — street fighters who walk around with their dog looking for impromptu fights and “dog men” who stage fights similar to professional boxing matches.

The attraction crosses across all ethnic lines, sometimes even bringing together members of Aryan, black and Latino gangs to organize a fight card, one detective said.

The street fighters are the ones most likely to torment, assault and terrorize the dogs to make them mean, while the dog men can be found running the Web sites, magazines and sophisticated matches where thousands of dollars will exchange hands during multiple fights with different dogs.

Once in a ring, the powerful dogs growl and fight for hours at a time during a single match. Footage in an educational tape assembled by the Humane Society of the United States shows dogs too weak to stand in the fighting pits, dogs with deep defensive gnashes — one flat on its back, blood squirting in an arc from its chest as another pit bull grips and shakes at the downed dog’s neck and face.

Trained Like Pro BoxersOn the Internet, owners brag about their dogs’ wins, posting the fight cards and pictures of their dogs — with names such as Gnasher, Butch, Sooooo Evil, Sarge, Baby Snoopy and Trixie. They advertise T-shirts and treadmills that allow an owner to harness a dog behind a caged raccoon and make the dog run for hours while in training.

“They are the victims here, they are not the monsters,” says Veronique Chesser, who runs Pit Bull Rescue Central in Missouri, of the dogs.

Organized dog fights went deeper underground in the late 1980s and the early 1990s after a series of high-profile dog attacks, but the events are re-emerging, says Randall Lockwood, the vice president of research for the Humane Society.

“It is something we’ve seen in practically every state,” said Lockwood, who has a doctorate in animal behavior.

From the Pit to the CourtTo crack down on the practice, animal activist organizations are encouraging tougher legislation, broader enforcement and better education of the public as well as law and justice professionals.

Chris Sanford, a narcotics detective in the small Northern California town of Galt , says he learned a lot about the dog-fighting underworld in 1998 when he received a tip about an upcoming fight that led to the several arrests, as well as the confiscation of 60 dogs, drugs and illegal weapons. It was one of the biggest operations in the Western United States.

He says tougher laws against dog fights — which had normally been left in the venue of animal control officers — have become a useful tool to catch criminals who are also active in drug trafficking, illegal gambling and other crimes.

“Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion,” Sanford notes. “It’s another tool.”