Disaster & Cruelty
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These questions and answers provide helpful, factual information about this vicious and much too common "sport." Learn more about how to combat dogfighting through The Dogfighting Toolkit for Law Enforcement.
History: Then and Now
Q. When and how did dogfighting come to America?
Although there are historical accounts of dogfights going back to the 1750's, widespread activity emerged after the Civil War, with professional pits proliferating in the 1860's, mainly in the Northeast.
Ironically, it was a common entertainment for police officers and firemen, and the "Police Gazette" served as a major source of information on dogfighting for many years. Although many laws were passed outlawing the activity, dogfighting continued to expand throughout the 20th century.
Q. Where did these animals come from?
Many of the animals were brought from England and Ireland, where dogfighting had begun to flourish after bull-baiting and bear-baiting became illegal in the 1830's.
Q. How has the ASPCA combated dogfighting through the years?
Henry Bergh, founder of the ASPCA, was particularly repulsed by the brutality of the dogfighting he saw in New York and elsewhere. His 1867 revision of the state's animal cruelty law made all forms of animal fighting illegal for the first time, including bull, bear, dog, and cockfighting. The involvement of regular police in dogfighting activities was one of the reasons Bergh sought and received authority for the ASPCA Humane Law Enforcement Agents to have arrest powers in New York.
Q. What has been the role of the ASPCA in combating dogfighting over the years?
Henry Bergh, founder of the ASPCA, was particularly repulsed by the brutality of the dogfighting he saw in New York and elsewhere. His 1867 revision of the state's animal cruelty law made all forms of animal fighting illegal for the first time, including bull, bear, dog and cock fighting. The involvement of regular police in dogfighting activity was one of the reasons Bergh sought and received authority for the ASPCA to have arrest powers for his own humane law enforcement agents to enforce these tough new laws.
Throughout its history, the ASPCA has fought for stronger laws against all forms of animal cruelty. A 1981 report commissioned by the ASPCA entitled "Dogfighting in America: A National Overview," concluded that dogfighting was more widespread than the public or law enforcement imagined and that stronger laws at the state and federal level were needed.
Q. How does the ASPCA combat dogfighting today?
Today, the ASPCA incorporates information on blood "sports" in the animal cruelty trainings it provides in New York's police academies as well as in police officer trainings around the country.
It also provides training on a national level to animal control officers and veterinarians on how to identify the signs of animal cruelty, as well as in crime scene investigation (CSI).
The ASPCA anti-cruelty e-learning program offers law enforcement and animal welfare professionals free online coursework on combating dogfighting and investigating animal abuse.
In addition, the ASPCA regularly provides training and assistance to prosecutors on how to build an effective case against those charged with these crimes, and its experts often serve as witnesses in such cases.
The ASPCA Humane Law Enforcement (HLE) Department is active in enforcing New York City's animal cruelty laws and has played a vital role in raising awareness of animal cruelty.
Who Is Involved?
Q. Are there different levels of dogfighting?
Most law enforcement experts divide dogfight activity into three categories: street fighting, hobbyist fighting, and professional activity:
- "Street" fighters engage in dogfights that are informal street corner, back alley, and playground activities. Stripped of the rules and formality of the traditional pit fight, these are spontaneous events triggered by insults, turf invasions or the simple taunt, "My dog can kill yours." Many people who participate in these fights lack even a semblance of respect for the animals, often starving and beating them to encourage aggressive behavior. Many of the dogs are bred to be a threat not only to other dogs, but to people as well — with tragic consequences. "Street" fights are often associated with gang activities. The fights may be conducted with money, drugs, or bragging rights as the primary payoff. There is often no attempt to care for animals injured in the fight and police or animal control officers frequently encounter dead or dying animals in the aftermath of such fights. This activity is very difficult to respond to unless it is reported immediately. Professional fighters and hobbyists decry the techniques and results of these newcomers to the blood sport.
- "Hobbyist" fighters are more organized, with one or more dogs participating in several organized fights a year as a sideline for both entertainment and to attempt to supplement income. They pay more attention to care and breeding of their dogs and are more likely to travel across state lines for events.
- "Professional" dogfighters often have large numbers of animals (as many as 50 or more) and earn money from breeding, selling, and fighting dogs at a central location and on the road. They often pay particular attention to promoting established winning bloodlines and to long-term conditioning of animals. They regularly dispose of animals that are not successful fighters or breeders using a variety of methods, including shooting and blunt force trauma. Unlike professional dogfighters of the past, both professionals and hobbyists of today may dispose of dogs that are too human-aggressive for the pit by selling them to "street" fighters or others who are simply looking for an aggressive dog — thus contributing to the dog bite problem.
In recent years, a fourth category of dogfighters seems to have emerged, with some wealthier individuals from the sports and entertainment worlds allegedly using their financial resources to promote professional dogfighting enterprises, which essentially use the philosophy and training techniques usually associated with street fighting.
Q. How widespread is dogfighting in America?
As with any other illegal underground activity, it is impossible to determine how many people may be involved in dogfighting. Estimates based on fight reports in underground dogfighting publications, and on animals entering shelters with evidence of fighting, suggest that the number of people involved in dogfighting in the U.S. is in the tens of thousands.
While organized dogfighting activity seemed to decline in the 1990's, many law enforcement and animal control officials feel that it has rebounded in recent years. Street fighting has reportedly continued to grow as a significant component of urban crime. The Internet has also made it easier for dogfighters to rapidly exchange information about animals and fights.
Q. Is dogfighting more prevalent in one part of the country or another?
No. Dogfighting has been reported in urban, suburban, and rural settings in all regions of the country.
Fighters were traditionally attracted to states with weaker penalties for dogfighting and animal cruelty, many in the South — but laws continue to be made stronger throughout the country. As a result, this activity is no longer limited to any single area, but it is more likely to thrive wherever enforcement of anti-fighting laws is weak.
Q: Are there any statistics that address the prevalence of dogfighting in the United States?
Over one thousand dogfighting arrests have been made in the United States between 2003-2008. This data is based on statistics from pet-abuse.com and was obtained from press reports of animal fighting arrests, not law enforcement records which are not standardized for animal crimes. For more information about dogfighting statistics, visit pet-abuse.com.
Q. What types of people are involved in dogfighting?
Just as dogfighting cuts across many regions of the country, participants and spectators at dogfights are a diverse group. While some might typify dogfighting as a symptom of urban decay, not every dogfighter is economically disadvantaged. There are people who promote or participate in dogfighting from every community and background. Audiences contain lawyers, judges, and teachers and other upstanding community leaders drawn in by the excitement and thrill of the fight.
Q. What other crimes are associated with dogfighting?
Many of the practices associated with the raising and training of fighting dogs can be prosecuted separately as animal abuse or neglect. In addition, dogfighting, by its very nature, involves illegal gambling. Dogfighters often face additional charges related to drug, alcohol, and weapons violations as well as probation violations. Arguments over dogfights have also resulted in incidents that have led to charges of assault and even homicide. Other charges might include conspiracy, corruption of minors, money laundering, etc.
Q. Why do people get involved in dogfighting?
There are many reasons people are attracted to dogfighting. The most basic is greed. Major dogfight raids have resulted in seizures of more than $500,000, and it is not unusual for $20,000 - $30,000 to change hands in a single fight. Stud fees and the sale of pups from promising bloodlines can also bring in thousands of dollars.
For others, the attraction lies in using the animals as an extension of themselves to fight their battles for them, and demonstrate their strength and prowess. However, when a dog loses, this can cause the owner of the dog to lose not only money, but status, and may lead to brutal actions against the dog.
For others, the appeal simply seems to come from the sadistic enjoyment of a brutal spectacle.
The Dogs Used in Fighting
Q. Which dogs are used in dogfighting?
In the early days of dogfighting in England, the Old English Bulldog and the Bull and Terrier Dog, both now extinct, were the breeds of choice for this brutal blood sport. These breeds were replaced in the early twentieth century by the American Pit Bull Terrier — the Americanized version of the bull-baiting dogs from England.
There are many breeds of dogs used for fighting worldwide, including the Fila Brasileiro, Dogo Argentino, the Tosa Inu, and the Presa Canario. Occasionally other breeds and mixes are reportedly used in street fights or as "bait" dogs used by some to train fighting dogs.
Q. Does this mean that pit bulls don't make suitable family pets?
Though bred for fighting other dogs — or perhaps because of that — the American Pit Bull terrier has long been a popular family pet, noted for his strength, intelligence, and devotion.
It's important to remember any dog can behave aggressively, depending on the context, his genetic background, and his upbringing and environment. When a dog is treated well, properly trained and thoroughly socialized during puppyhood, and matched with the right kind of owner and household, he's likely to develop into a well-behaved companion and cherished member of the family. However, some pit bulls and pit bull mixes may be more inclined to develop aggression toward other dogs.
Q. Where do the dogs who are used in dogfights come from?
For "professional" and "hobbyist" dogfighters, the sale of pups from parents who have won several fights is a major part of their activity. Underground dogfighting publications and websites are commonly used to advertise pups or the availability of breeding stock. Many "street" level fighters think they can also make money by breeding and selling dogs, but a great number of these animals are killed or abandoned if they fail to perform.
Q. How are fighting dogs raised and trained?
Fighting dogs must be kept isolated from other dogs, so they spend most of their lives on short, heavy chains, often just out of reach of other dogs. They are usually unsocialized to any other dogs and to most people. However, many "professional" fighters invest much time and money in conditioning their animals. They are often given quality nutrition and basic veterinary care. The dogs are exercised under controlled conditions, such as on a treadmill or "jenny."
The conditioning of fighting dogs may also make use of a variety of legal and illegal drugs, including anabolic steroids to enhance muscle mass and encourage aggressiveness. Narcotic drugs may also be used to increase the dogs' aggression, increase reactivity, and mask pain or fear during a fight. Young animals are often trained or tested by allowing them to fight with other dogs in well-controlled "rolls." Those who show little inclination to fight may be discarded or killed. Some fighters will use stolen pets as "bait dogs" or sparring partners.
There are many other common techniques used in the training and testing of dogs, but these methods vary widely among different fighters and may range from systematic to haphazard. "Street" fighters usually make little investment in conditioning or training their animals. Instead, they rely on cruel methods to encourage their dogs to fight, including starvation, physical abuse, isolation, and the use of stimulants or other drugs that excite the dogs.
Q. Why do fighting dogs sometimes have their ears cropped and tails docked?
Fighting dogs used by all types of fighters may have their ears cropped and tails docked close to their bodies. This serves two purposes. First, it limits the areas of the body that another dog can grab onto in a fight, and second, it makes it more difficult for other dogs to read the animal's mood and intentions through the normal body language cues dogs use in aggressive encounters.
Fighters usually perform this cropping/docking themselves, using crude and inhumane techniques. This can lead to additional criminal charges related to animal cruelty and/or the illegal practice of veterinary medicine.
What Happens in a Dogfight?
Q. What goes on in a dogfight?
As noted above, fights can take place in a variety of locations and at any time. They may be impromptu events in a back alley, or carefully planned and staged enterprises in a location specially designed and maintained for the purpose. Usually the fight takes place in a pit that is between 14 and 20 feet square, with sides that may be plywood, hay bales, chain link or anything else that can contain the animals. The flooring may be dirt, wood, carpet or sawdust. The pit has "scratch lines" marked in opposite corners, where the dogs will face each other from 12 to 14 feet apart.
In a more organized fight, the dogs will be weighed to make sure they are approximately the same weight. Handlers will often wash and examine the opponent's dog to remove any toxic substances that may have been placed on the fur in an attempt to deter or harm the opposing dog. At the start of the fight, the dogs are released from their corners and usually meet in the middle, wrestling to get a hold on the opponent. If they do, the dogs grab and shake to inflict maximal damage. Handlers are not permitted to touch the dogs except when told to do so by the referee. This can happen if dogs when, as described below, one dog "turns."
If a dog turns away from his opponent without renewing his attack, the referee may call a "turn" and require that the dogs be returned to their corners. The handlers collect their dogs and tend to them briefly before returning to the scratch lines. The dog who turned is released first. If the dog who committed the "turn" fails to cross the pit and engage his opponent, the match is over and the other dog is the winner. A draw may occur if both dogs fail to "scratch" several times in succession, i.e. repeatedly fail to cross the scratch lines and re-engage in the fight. This is an unusual and often unpopular end for the dogs involved.
Q. How long do dogfights last?
Fights can last just a few minutes or several hours. Both animals may suffer injuries, including puncture wounds, lacerations, blood loss, crushing injuries, and broken bones. Although fights are not usually to the death, many dogs succumb to their injuries later.
Q. What happens to the losing dog?
Losing dogs are often discarded, killed or left untreated, unless they have had a good history of past performance or come from valuable bloodlines. If the losing dog is perceived to be a particular embarrassment to the reputation or status of its owner, it may be executed in a particularly brutal fashion as part of the "entertainment."
Laws and Community Response
Q. What are the laws relating to dogfighting?
As of 2008, dogfighting is a felony in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In most states, the possession of dogs for the purpose of fighting is also a felony offense. Being a spectator at a dogfight is illegal in all states except Montana and Hawaii. See a chart of state dogfighting laws and their penalties, which vary widely.
On the federal side, the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 prohibits certain animal fighting-related activities when they have involved more than one state or interstate mail services, including the U.S. Postal Service. In 2007, Congress passed the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act with strong bipartisan support. The Act amended the Animal Welfare Act and provides felony penalties for interstate commerce, import and export relating to commerce in fighting dogs, fighting cocks and cockfighting paraphernalia. Each violation can result in up to three years in jail and a $250,000 fine.
Q. What happens to dogs who are seized from dogfighting operations? Can they be rehabilitated?
Dogs from professional fighters have been bred and trained to inflict injuries on other dogs, so they can be difficult to house and care for safely. They are usually very friendly to people - they've been bred for this trait so that they can be easily handled during fights - but, unfortunately, these dogs can be extremely dangerous to other dogs. That is why the ASPCA recommends that all dogs seized from fighting raids be assessed by professional behaviorists.
Each dog should undergo a standardized evaluation that is designed to gauge the dog's reaction to a range of experiences common to most companion dogs, including being handled by a stranger, playing with people and toys, having a bowl of food and a chew bone taken away, meeting a doll that looks and sounds like a child, and meeting other dogs. In some cases, dogs that demonstrate mild to moderate levels of aggression or fear may be candidates for rehabilitation if such resources are available. Concerns about liability, public safety, and the animal's well-being mean that dogs exhibiting extreme fear or severe aggression toward people or other dogs are not adoptable and often have to be euthanized.
All dogs from fighting raids that are placed in foster or adoptive homes must be carefully monitored over the long term because we still don't know how likely these dogs are to develop aggressive behavior in the future.
Confiscated fighting dogs are also at high risk of being stolen from shelters, foster care or other placements and returned to the fight trade. Therefore, it is especially important for shelters to put solid security measures in place while housing fighting dogs, to spay and neuter dogs who are adopted out, and to educate foster groups and adopters about why it is best not to disclose the identity of these dogs to their friends and acquaintances.
Q. If dogfighting is so widespread, why don't more cases come to light?
Dogfighting is a violent and highly secretive enterprise, which is extremely difficult for law enforcement and investigative professionals to infiltrate. A dogfight investigation requires many of the same skills and resources as a major undercover narcotics investigation, and challenges the resources of any agency that seeks to respond to it.
An additional complication is that the evidence likely to be seized includes living creatures, who must be taken care of and maintained while the judicial process unfolds. Most prosecutors would be happy to take on every dogfight case they could, but they are limited by the human and animal care resources available to them.
Q. What can communities do to combat dogfighting?
The first step in combating dogfighting is for individuals to alert the authorities to any suspected or actual dogfighting activities in their area — identification of the problem is the first step to a solution.
In addition, the ASPCA recommends the formation of local or state task forces to address dogfighting. These groups should include members from all the major stakeholders in that community: law enforcement, prosecutors, animal control, animal welfare groups, veterinarians, public health officials, housing authorities, the neighborhood watch, and others. The group should identify the nature of the problems in the area, the laws that could be applied to these problems, and the resources that are available. Dogfighting is most effectively addressed by a collaborative approach to this heinous crime.
Q. What can citizens do?
The enforcement of animal cruelty laws begins with the individual. If you see something, please say something — notify your local police and/or humane law enforcement of any suspicious activities that suggest dogfighting is taking place in your community.
Dogfighting in New York City
Q. How prevalent is dogfighting in New York City?
In general, dogfighting is difficult to detect. ASPCA Humane Law Enforcement (HLE) Agents report seeing the peripheral effects and elements of dogfighting - these include injured dogs who had extensive wounds consistent with injuries of a "bait dog," such as scars and cuts in various stages of healing, as well as multiple, and often serious, bite wounds.
Paraphernalia associated with dogfighting such as treadmills, break sticks, steroids, pain-numbing drugs, syringes and weapons, large amounts of cash or other evidence of gambling is occasionally discovered, but not often enough to consider the blood sport prevalent in New York City.
Q. What kind of injuries do fighting dogs most often show?
In general, fighting dogs are less likely to have access to veterinary professionals for treatment of their injuries. Veterinarians should be watchful for some of the typical injuries in fighting dogs, including unprofessionally cropped tails and ears, multiple bite wounds, heavy scarring, missing and torn ears and lips, and previously broken limbs that healed improperly. Several states (including Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and West Virginia) specifically require veterinarians to report suspicions of dogfighting when confronted with animals with such injuries.