Inside the Grisly World of Dog Fighting
June 4, 2007 – The recent discovery of dozens of dogs and dog-fighting paraphernalia at a house owned by NFL superstar Michael Vick has drawn much media attention to this centuries-old blood sport. Illegal in all 50 states, dog fighting still has a loyal underground following. Millions of dollars are wagered annually on the outcomes of these outlaw matches, and the Humane Society of the United States estimates that participants and spectators number in the tens of thousands.
NEWSWEEK’s Steve Tuttle talked to Detective C. R. Beals of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to better understand just exactly what goes on at one of these gory fights. Beals, who has focused on this type of crime for over a decade, has been an expert witness in a number of dog-fighting cases and is his department’s blood sport authority, which also includes cockfighting. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What happens at a typical organized dog fight?
C. R. Beals: There are three basic types of dog fighting. There are the professional dog fights—I hate to use the word professional and dog fighting in the same sentence. There are the hobbyists, or the persons who aspire to be professional dog fighters, and then there are the street-level fighters, the gangbangers who torture their dogs into being mean and they’ll fight anything.
What about the professionals?
On the professional level it’s very well organized. The secrecy is very, very heavy. They will fly dogs across the United States. The matches are set up either by phone or by Internet and the meet can be a neutral place for both parties. The dogs are fought in a very strict weight class. If your dog doesn’t come in at the weight it’s supposed to for the match, you forfeit the entry fee, which can be pretty heavy sometimes. At a fight back East several years back the police took over $500,000 from the participants and spectators there. Let’s be honest, if I’m willing to put my dog on a plane to fly to a neutral spot to fight your dog, I’m not going to do it just for grins.
Describe the start of a fight.
The handlers say, “Face your dogs!” At that point, the dogs are turned around and faced toward each other. There is what they call the scratch line, and when the dog crosses that line he is “scratched,” meaning he has full intent to get involved in the fight. The dogs are released from the corner, they “scratch,” and then engage. At times the impact of the dogs blocking up is audible, you can hear them collide with one another. It’s unbelievable. There is no collar, nothing. They’re completely void of any type of control or restraint.
How do you know who wins?
If a dog refuses to scratch, or if the dog jumps out of the ring or refuses to fight, it’s over. If a dog gets a lucky shot, if you get a dog that zips in and hits just right and takes out a jugular, the dog is all done. If you get a dog with a broken limb or a broken leg, it’s over. Broken limbs are common. You just see how much punishment the other dog will take until he just gives up or he’s incapacitated so he can’t fight any more.
How long can a fight last?
It varies; it’s like a boxing match. But there are timed rounds and they have rest periods and go at it again.
How big do the crowds get?
For security reasons, the crowds are kept as small as possible.
What are the venues like?
The venue can be anything, anywhere. It can be a barn, a commercial building. I have actually seen where they have gone into a housing tract and they broke into a new home and used one of the rooms for a pit. It can be any place that will afford the secrecy they need to prevent getting apprehended.
How are the dogs isolated from the people at a fight?
In the professional world, a man-eater, or a dog that will bite other people, cannot be tolerated and will most likely be destroyed. There are two handlers, either the owner or designated handler, and a referee in the pit with the dogs. The dog has to concentrate on the other dog.
Don’t they have a wall?
They do separate and contain the dogs, because they lock up and start tumbling around. The walls are usually 18 to 25 feet, round or square, and usually two and a half to four feet high. They use plyboard, hay bales, any type of barrier. The preference is dirt floor but they also use carpeting to allow dogs to get good traction.
How do they separate them if they’re locked up?
They use what they call a “breaking stick.” It’s a misnomer that the pit bull’s jaw locks, but they have such hellacious tenacity that once they get a hold they are not going to let go. Both handlers will have a breaking stick in their pocket, nine to 15 inches long with a flat point on one end of it. It’s generally something rigid made of wood or white nylon like cutting boards or plastic. They pry the jaws apart and pull the dogs back to the corner and sponge them like a boxer.
How many dogs are killed in the fights?
Most likely the dogs will be stopped short of death, however there are a number of other things that go beyond that and it just depends on how good of a vet the owner is. You can’t go to the neighborhood vet with a dog that you fought because you’d be turned in. Most of them practice their own style of veterinary medicine. Dogs die of infection, they die of shock after the fight, or they’re injured so bad they just expire. The actual death in the ring is probably not as often as one might think.
What do they do with dogs that aren’t good fighters?
They think, why waste dog food on them. We’re talking dollars and cents. If it isn’t going to make a yield there’s no reason to feed it. That sounds cold, but I’m being bluntly honest. I have actually gone to a place where one of the ways to get rid of a dog was simply attaching a raw electrode to the dog’s tongue and a raw electrode to his testicles and then plugging it into the wall. That’s sick.
How do they train the dogs?
These dogs are conditioned, not trained. That entails such things as treadmills, or cat-mills—they’ll either use a caged cat or a rabbit. They’ll simply tie a cat or rabbit to a hot walker like for a horse—it’s a big thing that looks like a merry go round with spokes on it. They’ll tie a dead cat or a live cat to one of the spokes and tie the dog to one of the other spokes and let him tug that around all day. They use weight training where they have the dogs pull weighted sleds. Then they have the spring pole, which is simply either a tree or a large pole with a spring or a cable or tire on it and the dog will jump up and grab it. He will actually hang on to it and bounce and have his own personal tug of war.
What is the “keep?”
The keep is the intense conditioning period in prep for the fight. During that period of time the dog is handled regularly, exercised regularly. His diet is monitored, he is given vitamins, and his weight is monitored.
What is the rape box?
These dogs are trained to be nasty towards another dog, so consequently if you’re going to breed you don’t want a female that’s in heat tearing up your stud. So you put her in a rape box, which means you basically tie her to a barrel. Then you put him in there with a muzzle on and he does his thing and leaves.
How do bets get placed?
There will be an entry fee into the thing. That comprises the purse and the winner gets that. Then the owners of the dogs will have side bets between themselves. They’ll probably cover some action with other people in the audience, and there will be side bets between people in the audience. Sometimes they take outside action and actually film the fight, so you can view it at a later date if you disagree about how your money was won or lost and you weren’t among the chosen few who attended.
Are the fights moving away from pit bulls to other breeds?
You hear that from time to time. Over history there have been a number of dogs tried—the Shar-Pei was raised as a pit dog but now they’re a trendy pet. But pound for pound they always come back to the little pit bull terrier because they’re more bang for your buck, they’re the best things going. They’re small, they’re compact, and they work well for that kind of scenario. The only reason for dog fighting is gambling, period. It’s just like cock fighting. It’s strictly a gambling scenario, nothing more. They raised Rhodesian Ridgebacks for fighting; Rottweilers are something you’d see on the street level.
How big is this subculture?
The level that garners the most attention is street level because it’s in your face and it’s practiced by gangs. They’ll use anything that has four legs, preferably if it looks like a pit bull, but they’ll use Rots or anything else. But professional dog fighting is also there, and it’s very, very hard to stumble on. It’s real hard to say exactly how big it is, but it is prevalent.
How do you catch these guys?
We use informants, we use people in the neighborhood that call in, we use something as simple as somebody driving by who saw a bunch of dogs staked out. People love animals and when they see something that doesn’t look right and they’re likely to tell someone and it filters back to us. There are informants, people who didn’t think they got a fair shake at a fight who will turn in folks.
Why do you think professional athletes would be into something like this?
I will be very honest—and I hate to say it—but there have been law-enforcement officers involved, professional athletes, professional people, blue-collar people, gangster people. It’s a mixed bag.
Where do they house these dogs?
Wherever they can. Sometimes warehouses, garages, sometimes “on the yard” as they refer to it. That means they drive a car axle into the ground, put a piece of chain on the axle, and put a dog on the end of the chain, and that’s where the dog lives.
Is it bigger than cockfighting?
I wouldn’t say which is largest; it depends on where you are geographically in the country. It’s a gambling "sport," and wherever they can do either one they will.
How do they keep the fight locations secret?
They use countersurveillance—or as we call it dry cleaning—they use background checks, phone calls. There’s secrecy, mystique. You might make an arrangement for a fight and they say show up at the Howdy Doody Motel at 6 o’clock Wednesday evening on the 24th. And when you go there and you check in pretty soon you get a phone call in your room that says go to this corner. A car will pick you up, take you someplace else, and then you’ll be offloaded out of the car and onto a bus or something. It’s very, very cloak and dagger.
I guess they feel like they have to do all that?
Yes, because there are people who are animal lovers who would do everything up to and including put a bullet into some of these clowns.