Philadelphia's dog-kill-dog world

Angela Messer, forensic case manager for the PSPCA, examines the scars and other damage caused by dogfighting on Paris, a pit bull who was seized during a raid in West Oak Lane.
Angela Messer, forensic case manager for the PSPCA, examines the scars and other damage caused by dogfighting on Paris, a pit bull who was seized during a raid in West Oak Lane.

Michael Vick's arrival has shed light on local dogfighting. It's a brutal subculture

Posted: September 15, 2009

MICHAEL Vick is just beginning to fulfill his promise to fight animal abuse, but experts say that he already has had a powerful effect on the world of dogfighting, both positive and negative.

When agents raided his rural Virginia property in 2007 and discovered his Bad Newz Kennels, a largely invisible world was pulled into public view.

It was a world where someone in the know could get you one of a dozen trade publications, like "Scratch Back" magazine, which offered advice on feeding your fighter ("raw meat cut into strips three or four times a week") and whether to use steroids ("you can burn up a dog's liver and kidneys if you don't know what you're doing.")

It was a world where tens of thousands of self-described "dogmen" bred and raised dogs to maul each other in refereed matches conducted with strictly enforced rules.

In the "Sporting Dog Journal," the dominant trade magazine, you could find ads for Hellz Comin Kennels, and read results of dozens of dog matches throughout the country.

It was a world where an unwanted dog might be dispatched by attaching one terminal of a live battery cable to his lip and another to his hindquarter. One former dogfighter said electrocution was considered relatively humane, since "it stops the heart quicker" than hanging.

And it was a world where less well-organized dogfighters were proliferating in cities like Philadelphia, raising pit bulls in basement kennels and fighting their dogs in empty lots, garages and abandoned buildings.

Vick brings a crackdown

John Goodwin, manager of animal-fighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States, said that Vick's 2007 arrest spurred a national crackdown on organized dogfighting.

"The number of raids doubled, and legislators stepped into action," Goodwin said. "There are 26 new laws increasing penalties for dogfighting."

Kennel sales fell. The "Sporting Dog Journal" was shut down and its publisher was arrested. Most other trade publications disappeared, though two new ones have appeared within the past year.

But although Vick's arrest launched a crackdown on organized dogfighting, many believe that his public association with dogfighting made it more popular among urban "street fighters."

"Absolutely, no doubt in my mind," said George Bengal, director of law enforcement for the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "It [dogfighting] became the thing to do. To young people who looked up to him, it was like, 'It's OK to do this.' "

Sean Moore, 28, a former Chicago dogfighter who now works with the humane society's campaign to end dogfighting, agrees.

"For the younger guys, it pretty much made it worse," Moore said. "Michael Vick was like a king to them."

Moore said that it seems that street-level dogfighting is more common now, and more out of control.

"There's no order now," Moore said. "We used to fight [dogs] in abandoned garages, basements. Today kids fight right at the bus stop, in school yards. Now, you see somebody talking tough, you fight him."

Barbara Paul, who prosecutes animal-cruelty cases for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, said that many lower-level dogfighters in Philadelphia and other cities are involved in drug dealing and other crimes.

Paul worries that Vick's quick return to celebrity-athlete status will send a message that dogfighting isn't that serious an offense.

"He did his time and lost some contracts, but his life isn't so different from when he went in," Paul said. She said she wants local courts to begin imposing tougher sentences in Philadelphia.

Paul said that many neighborhood dogfighters develop an interest in the wider world of competitive dogfighting and pit-bull breeding.

"It's an incredible underground society," Paul said. "They have their own kennel registration, and the wins and losses are registered. It's an incredibly well-developed system. I've seen their breeding certificates."

Angela Messer, forensic case manager for the local SPCA, recently knelt to comfort Paris, a pitiful-looking female pit bull rescued from a West Oak Lane dogfighting kennel raided a few days before.

The dog's face was visibly swollen. She had deep puncture wounds in her chest, neck and back. Nasty scars in her hindquarters indicated she'd been forcibly bred in a restraining contraption known among dogfighters as a "rape stand."

And her mammary glands bore infections from the premature departure of nursing puppies. "The milk curdles," Messer explained.

"It's very upsetting, and, unfortunately, Philadelphians are really just becoming aware of how serious a problem dogfighting is in Philadelphia," Messer said.

"Most of us here are pit-bull owners. They're the best dogs, and you wonder how someone can treat them like this, a dog who'll love to sleep in your bed at night."

A world unto its own

By one estimate as many as 40,000 Americans consider themselves dogmen - those who breed, train, and fight dogs competitively and adhere to a commonly shared set of rules and practices.

They're more numerous in Southern states, but are found in all parts of the country. The "Sporting Dog Journal" was published in upstate New York.

Beyond the world of organized dogfighting, an unknown number of "street fighters" match dogs in cities and towns around the country, with varying degrees of knowledge and connection to national dogfighting circles.

Dogfighting culture was described to the Daily News by several experts, including one former Philadelphia dogfighter who spoke on the condition that the dogfighter's name and identifying details be concealed.

The elite performers of the dogfighting world, known as champions and grand champions, are lionized in magazine photos and advertised for breeding.

A champion is a dog who's won three matches, a grand champion five.

There are relatively few grand champions because a match is a major event, agreed to months in advance and accompanied by wagering that can run into the thousands.

The preparation is intense.

"These dogs are trained like athletes," the SPCA's Bengal said. "They work out for hours on treadmills. They get the best food, and some of them steroids."

On the day of the match, each dog is washed and weighed at the site of the contest.

The match occurs in a 16-foot- square pit. Each dog has a designated corner and a handler, often the owner, who manages the dog during the match.

There's also a "corner man," chosen by a dog owner's opponent, who washes the dog before the match and provides water to sponge the dog during the match.

The corner men are chosen by opposing dog owners to ensure that no dog is bathed or sponged with a toxin that will poison an opponent that bites its fur. The corner man remains in his opponent's corner during the match as an observer.

Once the dogs are released to fight, the only person in the pit is a referee, who holds a "breaking stick" to pry apart the locked jaws of a dog in some circumstances.

A referee will interrupt a match if he sees a dog has "fanged," meaning that one of his canine teeth has punctured and hooked his lip, leaving him at a disadvantage. The handler will free the dog's lip from its fang, and the fight will resume.

"I've seen matches last 10 minutes," said the local dogfighter. "I've seen 'em run two hours."

The characteristic perhaps most prized among dogmen is "gameness," the willingness of a dog to keep fighting, no matter what.

"If a dog has heart, he'll keep coming, regardless of the pressure, regardless how tired, regardless of the damage they've had," the local dogfighter said.

Some matches end when a dog is fatally wounded. Sometimes a dog jumps the pit and forfeits. And sometimes a dog loses its will to fight.

If a weary dog turns its head and shoulders away from an opponent, the referee will raise his hand and call a "turn," instructing the handlers to take their dogs to their corners for sponging and a 25-second break.

If the dog that turned then fails to "scratch" - to cross the ring to engage its opponent - it is declared the loser.

Injured dogs are usually treated by their owners, who avoid veterinarians who might report suspicious wounds to authorities.

Many owners become amateur vets, learning to clean and sew wounds and administer medications. The Philadelphia dogfighter recalls being at a match when a friend's dog suffered an abdominal wound that the dogfighter knew would be fatal.

"I told him, 'I can't save him from that,' " the dogfighter recalled. "He needed to be rushed to the University of Pennsylvania [which runs a veterinary emergency center], and you do not bring a [fighting] dog there.

"He knew there was nothing he could do to save him," the dogfighter said. "So he was going to let his dog die with honor, which was to stay in there [and fight] till the end."

Seriously wounded dogs may be killed after a match, though far more puppies and dogs are killed by owners who judge them not good enough fighters to keep.

Randall Lockwood, a psychologist and vice president of the ASPCA, said that there's an old expression among dogmen: "Breed the best, bury the rest."

Methods of execution vary, and include hanging, shooting, and electrocution.

The local dogfighter usually managed to give away unwanted dogs, though it was sometimes hard finding a responsible owner. One reason for killing an animal, the dogfighter said, was when it became clear that the dog was a "man-eater" - a canine with a penchant for attacking humans.

"I never wanted to give a dog away and have him attack a child," the dogfighter said.

Several experts said that some owners have a hard time killing their dogs, but will pay someone else to do the job.

Audiences for matches are small, limited to those trusted by the dog owners in the match. Most matches are seen by fewer than 20 people.

The dogfighter said that many would be surprised at the mix of people who get into the business.

"There's gangbangers, cops and professional athletes, besides Michael Vick," the dogfighter said. "There was even a preacher."

Dogging the fighters

What's being done to combat dogfighting?

The Agriculture Department investigates violations of federal animal-cruelty laws. Special- agent-in-charge Brian Haaser, who worked on the Vick case, said that since his arrest the department has gotten more tips and has mounted more investigations than before his arrest.

"We've heard anecdotally that some of these people have been laying low, and changing their routines," Haaser said.

But they still find plenty of dogmen. Coordinated raids in six states in July netted 26 arrests, including a Little League coach, a registered nurse and a teacher. Four hundred dogs were rescued.

Goodwin, of the Humane Society, said that different strategies are required for young urban street fighters and organized dogfighting rings.

"The professionals among them are so ideologically committed, the only thing that will reach them is a good long prison term," Goodwin said. "They come up with all sorts of insane rationalizations for what they do."

But Goodwin said that many younger dogfighters in cities can be reached with the right kind of campaign to turn their thinking around.

Tio Hardeman, who grew up on Chicago's West Side, works with the Humane Society's Campaign to End Dogfighting in that city. He said that a lot of urban dogfighters raise pit bulls to cast a certain image.

"It's the symbol of having a pit with you and looking tough when you walk down the street," Hardeman said. "It makes you feel you better not mess with this guy. It's the street image."

The campaign uses former dogfighters like Sean Moore to find people fighting pit bulls and offer them alternatives.

Moore said that he talks to kids about the risks of being arrested, and tries to get them to bring their dogs to classes on Wednesday and Saturday.

"It's pit-bull training," Moore said. "They learn basic obedience and agility exercises, and see alternatives for their dogs."

It isn't clear how effective the program is, but the Humane Society has expanded the program to Atlanta and hopes to eventually bring it to Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the Eagles are planning a number of steps involving players and cheerleaders to assist animal-rescue groups and to fight abuse. Vick spoke to a school in Feltonville last week.

Bengal, of the local SPCA, said that he'd welcome a program like Chicago's here, and he hopes that Vick delivers on his commitment to help.

"He owes the younger generation a lot," Bengal said.

Staff writer Stephanie Farr contributed to this report.

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