Activists: Dogfighting Nothing New

Minnie, a brown pit bull-boxer mix with white feet, was tied to a tree when she was a puppy and repeatedly attacked by other dogs as part of a dogfight-training exercise in Louisville, Ky. She was rescued after her abusers fled and left her for dead, her torn flesh riddled with infections. Today, a year and a half later, Minnie has a huge saddle-shaped scar under the fur on her back, and she's terrified of tall men and large dogs. Her adoptive parents, Megan and Greg Crabb, spent weeks nursing her back to health. "I cried every time I had to clean her," Megan recounted to NEWSWEEK. "She was covered in deep bite marks."

Most fighting dogs aren't so lucky. If they don't die of injuries suffered in the ring or get killed by their owners, they're often euthanized by local authorities because they're considered too dangerous to re-enter society. The ones that do survive breed more fighting dogs, and their puppies enter an ugly world where survival of the fittest is not just a cliché.

This week's federal indictment of NFL superstar Michael Vick, complete with stomach-turning allegations, has brought this blood sport to the front pages, but it's really nothing new: organized fighting has been around as long as domesticated dogs. (Vick, who has not pled in the case, is scheduled to appear in court on July 26.) Dog fighting is illegal in all 50 states and a felony in every one but Idaho and Wyoming, but no federal agency tracks national arrest figures. Animal advocacy groups and law enforcement gauge its popularity through media reports and court filings, Web activity, the number of publications—like "Match Night" and "Sporting Dog Journal"—and the simple fact that many urban dog shelters are flooded with pit bulls, by far the most popular fighting breed. According to Mark Kumpf, a member of the National Illegal Animal Fighting Task Force, dogfighting is increasing nationwide. "It's a multibillion-dollar industry," Kumpf says, "and it's partly because it's glamorized in the entertainment industry in hip-hop, rap, and professional sports."

In 2006, pet-abuse.com found 122 suspected dogfighting cases nationwide (114 with pit bulls), but that number only represents a fraction of cases. Many police departments don't report dogfighting, and many cities don't announce that they have confiscated dogs because owners have been known to break in and steal them back. Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, says at least 40,000 people are actively involved in the industry, not including spectators. He calls it the modern day equivalent of the fights in the Roman Colosseum: "It comes from the same dark place in the human spirit."

One reason it's growing is because modern technology makes it easy to engage in. Anyone so inclined can log on to Amazon.com and pick up the book "Dogs of Velvet and Steel," which critics say offers guidance for dogfighting trainers. It's out of print and highly coveted so a used copy could set you back as much as $1,800. Or you can purchase a copy of "The Dog Pit" at BarnesandNoble.com, a reprint of an 1888 book that explains "How to Breed and Train Fighting Dogs." There are Web sites with information on fighting strategies and on how to avoid law enforcement, as well as underground videos and DVDs that get passed around by participants.

Pit bull fans howl at the assumption that every pit bull is trained to fight and argue that authorities should "punish the deed, not the breed." But many pit aficionados like the hard reputation of the dogs. Professional boxer Roy Jones Jr. says he does not enter the pit bulls he owns in fights, but likes studying their moves. "I like the nature of the dogs and how they are cool and calm until you mess with them," he says. Antwan Patton, a.k.a "Big Boi" of the popular group Outkast, raises pit bulls at Pitfall Kennel in Fayetteville, Ga. "They're the best dogs because they're loyal to a fault. I would never hurt one," he says. His kennel's Web site makes it clear that "no dogs will be sold for illegal or cruel purposes."

Erin Patton (no relation) a sports marketing executive who's worked with many prominent athletes, says African-American men, in particular those growing up in lower-income areas, have always owned pit bulls to deter violence. "In the hood you can't always afford a Brinks security system … but a pit bull served the same purpose."

Even though the brightest media focus is on prominent athletes like Vick, it's wrong to generalize from the specific. Old dogfighting lithographs show gentlemen dressed in their Sunday best, but today it could just as easily be the country guy down South as the gangster wannabe in the big city. Street fighting can involve many types of breeds and is much less ritualized than the so-called professional game, whose boosters look down their noses at the unorganized brawls.

For a behind-the-scenes look inside the ritualized pro world, NEWSWEEK interviewed "Fat Dog," 45, who didn't want to use his real name because dogfighting is illegal. He raises pit bulls in the low country near Savannah, Ga., and says he can trace his dogs' fighting bloodlines back to the 1800s. "I have attended about 50 professional matches in my life, and I have only seen two or three dogs die. They have every opportunity to quit just like a boxer does," he says. He claims that "90 percent" of dogfight matches don't end in death because of the money invested: "If you lose a good dog, that's $3,500 and then the litter you won't have."

The last match Fat Dog attended was in Sleepy Hollow, N.C., and there were only about 20 people there. The structure was built just for dogfighting, complete with bleachers and a concession stand. Modeled after boxing, there were three matches with timed rounds, an under-card and the big stars in the finale.

Leading up to the battle the dogs spend about six weeks in "the keep," or training period, according to police who have investigated dogfighting. Owners use expensive treadmills to get the dogs in fighting trim, and some use the carrot and stick approach—the carrot being a live cat suspended in front of the dog to keep it running.

After the bets are made, the fight takes place in a walled ring with a dirt or carpet floor. "Face your dogs!" is called out and the handlers wait to hear "Release!" The battle is on until one dog fails to cross the "scratch" line or is injured too severely to continue. Broken limbs are common.

If the dogs lock up, their jaws are pried open by a "break stick." Sometimes a dog will "fang" itself, or bite through its own upper lip. The handler will stick a pencil in the dog's mouth and stick it under the lip to free the tooth, Fat Dog says.

An average fight lasts less than 45 minutes, and fighters agree ahead of time to a specific weight and sex of the competitors. Because both males and females are trained to fight, breeding can be tricky. Some dog owners use what is called a "rape box" to secure the female, which essentially means tying her to a barrel until the male has mated.

Despite his past association with fighting, Fat Dog says he hopes it will eventually end. "I don't like the bad name it gives pit bulls—if you're an owner you might as well live with Satan or be a child molester."