RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It was a pretty big deal when football star Michael Vick went to federal prison for running a brutal dogfighting ring. He's out and has been back on the field for the past two seasons, and he's trying to rehabilitate his image off the field.
Vick's team, the Philadelphia Eagles, has given money to the Humane Society for an anti-dogfighting program that it's just unveiled. Elizabeth Fiedler of member station WHYY went to Chicago to learn about how such programs work, and we warn our listeners that this report does contain graphic descriptions of abuse.
(Soundbite of barking dogs)
ELIZABETH FIEDLER: It's around noon on a Saturday. About a dozen people, many of them kids with dogs in tow, pile into an unassuming squat brick building on the west side of Chicago. The weekly pit bull training class is about to start.
Fourteen-year-old Terrence Murphy keeps his gray and white pit bull close by. He stops every once in a while to stare at the dog lovingly. Like Murphy, about 40 percent of the people in the classes used to fight dogs.
Mr. TERRENCE MURPHY: The guys that'd be on the block, they used to go in abandoned houses and fight dogs. Me and my cousin used to go in there and watch them, so we thought it was cool. So then we started getting dogs and started fighting dogs.
FIEDLER: Murphy has been bringing Cookie Monster here for about eight months, and before that, he brought another dog named Elmo.
Mr. MURPHY: We used to fight dogs. And the ones that was most injuries, we used to just hang them and kill them, beat it to death, set it on fire, drown it -all of that unhumane stuff.
FIEDLER: He says one day an outreach worker told him about the pit bull training team and convinced him to give it a shot. He says now he likes how Cookie Monster respects him.
Another former dog fighter named Anthony Pickett says he quit after he agreed to fight a dog named White Boy, a dog his kids loved.
Mr. ANTHONY PICKETT (Community Organizer, End Dogfighting): He won, but he came out real bloody and I couldn't take him back home to the girls. And they asked about this dog for a month, almost two months. But I had to hide him and sew him back up. That stopped me right in my tracks. I didn't want to hurt my kids. That was their favorite dog.
FIEDLER: Pickett says White Boy wasn't what he used to be after that fight.
Mr. PICKETT: His ear was damaged, around his face was damaged, his tail was kind of almost broke off from fighting - 'cause everything happens in a fight: Eyes get gouged out, ears get torn off, legs.
FIEDLER: Now, Pickett works for the End Dogfighting campaign, traveling the neighborhood recruiting former dogfighters and at-risk dog owners. It's a tough job since many of the fighters are making money and are suspicious he's with the police.
Tio Hardiman grew up in the projects on the West Side of Chicago and helped set up the End Dogfighting program about five years ago. He says kids like Terrence Murphy might fight their dogs for $100, but in a high-end operation similar to what Vick was involved in, the sums can be much larger.
He says Michael Vick represents a lot of young people across the country who are growing up in a culture of violence.
Mr. TIO HARDIMAN (Director, End Dogfighting, Chicago): He's giving his testimony to young men and women across America and educating these young guys, saying, Look, I fell from a high place in society, and you normally don't get a second chance.
FIEDLER: Hardiman says there's a connection between fighting pit bulls and struggling to live in a violent society. He says keeping guys out of the world of dogfighting is good for them, their dogs, their families and the rest of the community.
Mr. HARDIMAN: Now this guy is making sure his dog gets his shots. He's making sure the dog is eating a balanced diet. You know, all these things are very important. These guys are making sure the dogs get the proper exercise. It opens up a world of opportunity for these young men.
Mr. JEFF JENKINS (Lead Trainer, End Dogfighting): All right, listen up. Listen up, guys. Rule Number One: No hitting, kicking or screaming, yelling at your dogs. Rule Number Two: Both hands on the leash at all times.
FIEDLER: Back at the training class, Jeff Jenkins is laying out the ground rules. The dog owners are lined up along the walls, dogs at their sides. Orange cones and some hurdles for the dogs to jump over are set up around the room. Jenkins starts leading the group through basic skills.
Mr. JENKINS: You come around the cone and then you're gonna go right back to the box. Nice clean sit. And treat and praise. Okay?
Cookie Monster, let's see it.
(Soundbite of a whistle)
FIEDLER: Terrence Murphy leads Cookie Monster through the routine with ease. Murphy is proud of the dog, and Jenkins is proud of both of them.
Mr. JENKINS: He's an eight-month-old puppy, guys. But look at the focus he's getting; ears are up, tail is up, wagging - he's excited.
FIEDLER: Jenkins says it isn't easy to get kids like Murphy to come to the program. But once they try it, he says, it can change their lives. He hopes the skills Murphy and the other dog owners learn in class will help them excel in school, with their friends, and in other real-life situations.
For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Fiedler.
MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.