A Look Inside the World of Dog Fighting

When NFL star Michael Vick was indicted on federal dog fighting charges, the illegal activity received national attention. Still, some are clueless as to what really happens in a dog fighting match. Eric Sakach, of the Humane Society of the United States, explains both the mechanics and profit of dog fighting rings.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

As we continue our examination of the Michael Vick case, we thought it might be helpful to give our audience some insight as to what goes on at a dog fighting match. We were unsuccessful in finding a dog fighting advocate to join us. But we wanted to share this call received by Radio One in Baltimore.

(Soundbite of radio program)

Unidentified Man #1: I used to fight dogs, right. The way they're making it seem right now is totally out of order, man. It's totally out of order. Reason being because a dogfight - they don't call them dogfights, they call them rolling right? First of all.

Unidentified Man #2: Uh-huh.

Unidentified Man #1: The second thing is each dog has a weigh-in category that he has to be in, right?

Unidentified Man #2: Okay.

Unidentified Man #1: And there's rules, just like a regular boxing match. But what's messed up is, is that they're not publicizing the white boys that started it. They're making it seem like, oh, Michael Vick is this barbaric person for doing it, right?

Unidentified Man #2: So, what type of dogs you used to fight? Pits?

Unidentified Man #1: No, I used to fight American bulldogs.

Unidentified Man #2: Okay. Why did you get out of it?

Unidentified Man #1: Why? I just got tired of it, you know, because you lose a lot of money.

Unidentified Man #2: Was it here in Baltimore?

Unidentified Man #1: No. It was all over. I mean, you could go from New York all the way down to Atlanta to fight.

KEYES: With us now is Eric Sakach, who spent 19 years as an undercover field investigator for the Humane Society of the United States. Sakach's work has led to the arrest of more than 500 people involved in illegal cockfights and dogfights, as well as to some of the first convictions under the Federal Animal Welfare Act. Sakach currently directs the Human Society's West Coast regional office, and he joins us by telephone from his home in Sacramento, California. Welcome, Eric.

Mr. ERIC SAKACH (Director, West Coast Regional Office, Humane Society of the United States): Thanks, Allison.

KEYES: I know you've attended some dogfights as part of your work. What was it like to be there? What's it look like and smell like?

Mr. SAKACH: The atmosphere is one of paranoia. Actually, the paranoia is so thick - and I'm talking here with respect to the people that are attending the fights - although my fear level was up there, too. A lot of the people there are - see themselves as being part of a highly secretive sort of fraternity, if you will. The preparations that go into putting one of these things together and eluding law enforcement are extraordinary.

KEYES: What kind of precautions do they take to keep people, well, investigators like yourself, out of there? And how much danger are you in if they identify you?

Mr. SAKACH: Well, in answer to the first question, everyone who's involved in these things is well aware that what they're doing is illegal, and that the penalties can be fairly severe, and that there are frequently other crimes involved at the same time. I mean, it's almost invariably we're going to encounter guns, narcotics.

KEYES: You mean from the people in the room?

Mr. SAKACH: Exactly.

KEYES: How much danger would you be in as an investigator if they looked up and caught you?

Mr. SAKACH: Well, if I had been discovered during the period of time that I was doing any of that, I think the outcome would have been something that I'd prefer not to imagine. There are certainly homicides connected to both of these activities around the country. It really just boils down to who's there and how badly they don't want to be caught.

KEYES: For our listeners that have never seen such a thing, what happens once the dogs are in the ring? How does it actually happen?

Mr. SAKACH: Well, the dogs are brought into the arenas from opposite sides after they've been washed. The arena usually consists of a plywood group of walls, about 20 feet square with a carpeted floor. There'll be lines indicated in the arena called scratch lines, usually applied with duct tape or spray paint. The dogs will be brought into the pit and faced into the walls, and they'll be held by their handlers. There are two handlers and a referee in the arena with the dogs during the fight.

The dogs will be faced on the command of the referee. And at that point, usually if the dogs are barking at all, that's when that would happen, as soon as they see each other. The command to face your dogs is quickly followed by let go or release. And at that point, both handlers release their dogs. The dogs will collide like a couple of freight trains. It's essentially a wrestling match with teeth, where the dogs are literally biting on each other, trying to get a better bite hold on their opponent.

And this will go on and on until one of the dogs turns its head and its shoulders away from its opponent. When that happens, the referee'll order the dogs be handled as soon as neither one is biting on the other or when they're free of holds. Both handlers will swoop in, pick their dogs up, and take them back to their respective corners.

KEYES: And this is not always a fight to the death. It's just a fight until one of the dogs can no longer continue.

Mr. SAKACH: I've not seen a dog actually die in the pit, although we're aware it does happen and there are plenty of accounts of that happening. I have seen dogs die afterward. Dogs often die from dehydration, blood loss and shock. And that's because these fights go on for an incredible period of time. On average, about 45 minutes.

KEYES: How were the dogs treated during the event? I've been reading a lot of things on the Internet where people who have been to dogfights claim that they have never seen the dogs tortured or treated inhumanely because that wouldn't make any sense. And they say that the owners often treat their own dogs after the fight since they can't take them to a vet because it's illegal. Are the dogs treated well?

Mr. SAKACH: Well, I think those are - it's compatible to use the term treated well in connection with the dogfight. They're treated like a moneymaking machine. And so, obviously, it's to your advantage to try to keep the dog well and in good physical shape. It's not unusual for characters to be injecting their dogs, putting IVs into their dogs right after a fight to try to recover them.

KEYES: Gambling is, of course, is a very big part of this. Did you see a lot of money changing hands at the fights that you attended?

Mr. SAKACH: Well, one of the fights that I attended, worked on undercover some years ago in Arkansas, involved over half a million dollars on 250 people.

KEYES: I'm curious, because a lot of people have been saying that this sport is a black and Latino sport these days. And I'm wondering, what was the racial makeup of the crowds that you saw at the fights that you attended, and were they mostly in rural areas?

Mr. SAKACH: The fights that I attended in an undercover capacity were almost exclusively white, middle-class, blue-collar types of affairs. So the idea that this is one that to any particular culture is a misnomer.

KEYES: I have been reading that many activists believe that dog fighting is moving from rural areas more into the cities now. Is this true, and if it is, why do you think so?

Mr. SAKACH: Well, I think certainly as we see, you know, more and more people moving into rural areas and more housing developments starting, we're seeing a lot of these activities take up in suburban areas, especially. But street-level dog fighting has been a part of crime-plagued inner-city settings for many years. It used to be Dobermans and German shepherds that were abused into fighting, your typical junkyard dog kind of situation. But, you know, virtually any city have size, especially where you have gang activity.

KEYES: You testified at trials involving this, right?

Mr. SAKACH: That's correct.

KEYES: How involved in the sentencing were you? I mean, how much time do people face for this on an average?

Mr. SAKACH: It's all over the board, and it depends on the state. One of the longest sentences that we've gotten out here in the case that I worked on personally was seven years, although one character in South Carolina has been sentenced to 40 years, there were 10 years added on for some of the booby trap devices that he placed on his property around his dogs, one of which discharged on a surveyor. These were booby traps that involved 12-gauge shotgun shells, and a surveyor tripped one. And this was all designed to keep law enforcement out of his dog area.

KEYES: Eric Sakach is a former undercover field investigator with the Humane Society of the United States. He now directs the organization's West Coast regional office and joined us by telephone from his home in Sacramento, California. Eric, thanks a lot for your time.

Mr. SAKACH: Thanks, Allison.

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