This week's indictment of Atlanta Falcons star quarterback Michael Vick on charges tied to dogfighting has brought attention to what activists and law-enforcement agencies say is an increasingly popular, savage underground culture.
Federal investigators say Vick's Virginia estate, where 66 live dogs and the remains of seven were seized in April, was used as a dogfighting kennel and combat arena. The 18-page indictment alleges that Vick and his partners ran a brutal fighting ring, where losing dogs were often killed in the ring or executed by hanging, drowning or electrocution.
Vick's case is shining a spotlight on a bloody industry that is thriving in urban areas and the rural South — despite being outlawed in all 50 states.
In the Ring, Under the Law
In the brutal and secretive world of professional dogfighting, pit bulls are placed in a ring and goaded and cheered by their owners and the crowd while they tear at each other's faces and throats.
The practice is a felony in 48 states, but for years, the secretive network of trainers, breeders and owners have managed to avoid scrutiny from law enforcement.
In recent months, however, high-profile busts of suspected dogfighting kennels in Illinois, Texas, Virginia and Ohio have shed light on its resurgence.
John Goodwin, a dogfighting investigator with the Humane Society, works regularly with law-enforcement agencies on some of the country's most harrowing cases.
He says that during a dogfighting raid in March, investigators found a female pit bull with the entire lower half of her jaw broken off.
In some cities, Goodwin says, the number of pit bulls turning up at animal shelters with scars and fight wounds has risen tenfold.
"Up until 10 or 15 years ago, this was pretty much an entirely rural activity," Goodwin says. "Now, there's still a lot of dog fighters in the rural areas, but they've kind of been overtaken by an urban crowd."
An Accepted Tradition
Goodwin blames dogfighting's latest vogue on pop culture icons, including pro-athletes like Vick and hip-hop artists like Jay-Z and DMX, who've made pit bulls a part of their rebel image.
High-profile investigations are putting more pressure on dogfighters, but in some parts of the country, the illegal contests still enjoy a remarkable level of cultural acceptance.
Rebecca Corenfield is an animal control officer in Bay City, a rural town an hour outside of Houston. She says that before she became an animal control officer, she used to go to dogfights in abandoned homes.
In small towns where dogfighting is a tradition, Corenfield says top trainers and breeders are established members of the community.
"There's high-rollers, like real high-rollers, where you know they're doing it. It's so hard to prove, though," Corenfield says. "If we could get some money to get someone in there undercover, we could bust them. But you know there's not the money or the manpower."
Investigators say high-level dogfighting rings are harder to infiltrate than drug cartels.
Debating the Law
Despite the savagery of dogfighting, a public debate continues over the seriousness of the crime. In Idaho and Wyoming, staging a battle is still only a misdemeanor.
In Texas, where dogfighting is a felony, stiffer prison sentences have triggered controversy. In the spring, Congress debated new federal legislation banning interstate trafficking of fighting dogs and roosters; of the 32 representatives who voted against the bill, 11 were from Texas.
Most of the bill's opponents say they aren't fans of dogfighting but are conservative, pro-life Republicans. Iowa Rep. Steve King from Iowa says it's wrong for the federal government criminalize pit bull trafficking while allowing legal abortion.
"My vote says that human life needs to be elevated and stay above animal life. And I think it devalues all human life, when you set the life of an animal up above that of a human," King says.
But most Republicans — along with more than 500 law-enforcement agencies — did endorse the bill, which President Bush signed into law in May.
Still, veterinarian Tim Harkness says tougher laws and longer prison sentences won't help the pit bulls already being brutalized by fighting rings.
The thousands of fighting dogs recovered every year in the U.S. are kept alive only as long as they're needed for evidence, but they can never be adopted out as normal pets.
"They're unsociable, they're extremely dog-aggressive," Harkness says. "It would be a liability to people if one of these animals were to attack a child, which has happened in Houston. They will be euthanized."
A History of Dogfighting
Dogfighting was banned in Afghanistan under the Taliban but is now a popular spectator sport.
Paula Bronstein, Getty Images
Paula Bronstein, Getty Images
The genesis of dogfighting as a sport can be traced to a clash of ancient civilizations. When the Romans invaded Britain in 43 A.D., both sides brought fighting dogs to the battlefield for the seven years of warfare that followed. The Romans may have won the war, but the British dazzled the victors with the ferocity of their dogs, which were far more battle-ready than their Roman counterparts.
Thus emerged a canine market of sorts. The Romans began to import British fighting dogs for use not only in times of war, but also for public amusement. In Rome's Colosseum, large audiences would gather to watch gladiator dogs pitted against other animals, such as wild elephants. The vicious dogs, thought to have been crossbred with the Romans' own fighting breed, were also exported to France, Spain and other parts of Europe, eventually finding their way back to Britain.
The Evolution of a Sport
By the 12th century, the practice of baiting — releasing fighting dogs into the ring with chained bulls and bears — had grown in popularity in England. For several centuries, baiting was considered a respectable form of entertainment among the English nobility. The practice, during which the dogs scratched and bit the bulls, was also used to tenderize meat for consumption. But by the early 19th century, the increasing scarcity and rising cost of bulls and bears, as well as growing concern about the issue of animal cruelty, damped the appeal of the sport. In 1835, the British Parliament outlawed all baiting activities. Following the law's passage, dog-on-dog combat emerged as the cheaper, legal alternative to baiting. Fighting dogs were crossbred with other breeds to create a fast, agile and vicious animal capable of brawling for hours at a time.
Dog Fighting Around the World
Fighting dogs were imported to the United States shortly before the Civil War and were crossbred in hopes of creating the ultimate fierce canine fighter: the American Pit Bull Terrier. Dogfighting quickly became a popular spectator and betting sport in the U.S. and parts of Europe, Asia and Latin America. But concern about the humaneness of dogfighting grew, and by the 1860s, most states had outlawed the sport. Nonetheless, it continued to flourish into the 20th century, with widespread support from the general public and police officials.
Though legal in Japan and parts of Russia, dogfighting has been outlawed in most of the world. Still, it remains popular. Legal or not, dog fights are held openly in parts of Latin America, Pakistan and Eastern Europe, and clandestinely in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, estimates that at least 40,000 people are involved in the industry domestically. He calls today's dogfighting the modern-day equivalent of the ancient Roman Colosseum battles.
In Afghanistan, too, the dogfighting industry has seen a resurgence, after virtually disappearing under the Taliban, who outlawed the sport to prevent betting – which is not permitted in Islam. Animal cruelty arguments don't carry much weight in Afghanistan, where dogfighting is a big business and a source of income for the owners of champion dogs.
Rescuing Fighting Dogs
The industry is also booming in the U.S., concentrated in urban areas and the rural South. Nationally, about 30 percent of all dogs in animal shelters are pit bulls, the breed used for dogfighting; in some areas, that figure can climb to 60 percent.
Not all rescued pit bulls are involved in the practice, but John Goodwin of the Human Society of the U.S. says that many bear the hallmarks of the industry: a fight-crazy disposition and the scars to prove it.
Rescued dogs are kept at animal shelters until a judge makes a determination on the dog's fate. Because fight dogs have been bred to attack and kill other dogs, almost all of them are euthanized. There are no definitive figures on how many fight dogs are rescued in the U.S. annually, but Goodwin says that about 4 million dogs in shelters are euthanized each year.