Additional Note: The following blog was cited in a paper, History of Dog Fighting in the World, which appeared in 2015 the Journal of Animal Science Advances, 5(4), 1234-1237, by Dr. Orhan Yilmaz of Ardahan University, Turkey, Dr. Fusun Coskun of Ahi Evran University, Kirsehir, Turkey, and Dr. Mehmet Ertugrul of Ankara University, Ankara, Turkey. It was also cited in a paper, Human Factor in Dog Fighting, in the Journal of Veterinary Advances, also in 2015, by the same authors.
A detailed and disturbing description of dog fighting has appeared in a sentencing memorandum filed by the district court for the Southern District of Illinois. The memorandum does not mention the actions of the defendants who were being sentenced, but describes dog fighting in the United States. U.S. v Berry, 2010 WL 1882057 (S.D. Ill., May 11, 2010).
The memorandum was written by Judge Michael J. Reagan of the Southern District of Illinois, a former police officer appointed to the federal bench by President Clinton. It must have been hard for him to write this memorandum as it is hard to read it, but dog lovers owe him a debt of thanks for putting this history into a judicial context and describing how much of a social cancer this dark sport is becoming.
Dog fighting came from England and existed in colonial America as early as 1750. Parliament passed the Humane Act of 1835 to ban bating sports in which dogs fought larger animals, such as bears and bulls tethered to a stake, but dog fighting remained legal. The sport was for a time endorsed by the United Kennel Club. Laws against dog fighting began to be passed by states in the 1860s, but enforcement was lax for decades. The sport began to go underground in the 1930s when the United Kennel Club and other organizations withdrew their support but it still had considerable appeal in certain places and two magazines, Dog Journal and Pit Dog Report, helped keep interest alive.
Although long illegal in the United Kingdom, the sport has been growing even there in recent years. It is popular in Latin America, Pakistan, parts of Europe, including Eastern Europe, and is estimated to bring in nearly $1 billion annually, about half of which goes to organized crime. The Taliban banned the sport in Afghanistan as un-Islamic, but it has come back with a vengeance in American controlled areas. (One would rather agree with one’s friends than one’s enemies but it is not always so.)
Dog fighting is legal in most of Russia and in parts of Japan, but in Japan dogs are taught to pin their opponents to the floor in a sort of canine version of Sumo wrestling.
Dog breeders that specialize in raising and training fighting dogs often keep upwards of 50 dogs and have a “keep journal” for each dog that describes the training, feeding, and drugs injected into the dog. Dog fights often draw participants from several states and notices are sent in code, which makes infiltration by law enforcement difficult. An article by Julie Bank and Stephen Zwistowski in an ASPCA journal estimated there were 40,000 professional dog fighters in the United States, but that this number has grown. There may be 100,000 gang members and street fighters participating in informal, sometimes spontaneous, fights occurring in poor neighborhoods, often in public view.
Breeds preferred by professionals include Fila Brasileiros, Dogo Argentinos, Presa Canarios, and pit bulls (American Pit Bull Terriers and the American Staffordshire Terriers). Mixes of these are also used. The increasingly common anti-pit bull legislation is in large part due to this culture, but is most unfortunate given that the dogs were once referred to as “nanny dogs” because of their gentle disposition and protectiveness of children in a household.
Judge Reagan describes the life of a fighting dog as follows:
"[F]ighting dogs spend the majority of their lives in filthy conditions, pinned in small cages or chained up with heavy chains across their neck. As the dog grows, owners will add weights to the chains in order to increase the dog's strength. Generally, the dogs are kept in close proximity to other fighting dogs in order to further antagonize and increase anxiety levels. The dogs are also beaten and goaded on a daily basis in order to raise the dog's tolerance towards pain and increase the 'fight' within the dog. At the professional level, fighting dogs receive better care in that they are at least fed on a daily basis and their exercise is monitored. However, these dogs are often injected with steroids, and various other legal and illegal drugs to increase the size, strength, and aggressiveness in the dog…. To increase aggression, these dogs may be starved, have lit cigarettes burned into their coats, or may be beaten with a variety of crude instruments including broken bottles, pipes, or even machetes."
Ears and tails are sometimes removed so that another dog cannot bite the appendages in a fight. Teeth may be filed to make them sharper and more dangerous. Leg strength may be developed by leashing the dog to a car and making it run alongside the vehicle at ever higher speeds. Dogs are often to attack “bait” animals, which may be rabbits, cats, and small dogs stolen from back yards.
In more formal fights, rules may be imposed, most commonly Cajun Rules, which were devised by a former Lafayette, Louisiana, police chief, G.A. Trahan, known as “Gaboon.” These rules are posted (“for historical purposes only”). The last rule reads: "Should the police interfere the referee to name the next meeting place." A curious rule to have been written by a police chief. When I signed onto the page, a pop-up screen offered pit bulls for sale with contact provided only through an untraceable email programmed into the website. So much for “historical purposes.”
Purses can go as high as $2 million. Fights last an hour or more. Losing dogs are usually killed or abandoned after a fight. The cost of medical care is considered too high given the dog’s poor performance. Also, wounded animals provide evidence of the horrors that have occurred. They also damage one’s reputation in the dog fighting world.
"[I]t is not uncommon for losing dogs to be drowned, hanged, electrocuted, burned alive, doused with corrosive chemicals or beaten to death with blunt objects.This list is not exhaustive, however, and animal rescuers are constantly surprised at how grisly these deaths are as handlers resort to more disturbing tactics to reassert their tough image. No matter the reason for disposing of the losing dog, the torture and ultimate death of the dog is almost always done in front of the crowd, who view this simply as part of the sport."
Torturing and killing a wounded and helpless animal means you're a real man in some places.
Law enforcement officers describe dog fights as convenience stores for criminals, with drugs, weapons, explosives, and prostitutes for sale along with the illegal gambling opportunities. For a list of 30 crimes often associated with dog fighting, see Hanna Gibson, Dog Fighting Detailed Discussion, Animal Legal and Historical Center (2005).
When dogs are abandoned, they sometimes survive and increase the feral dog populations of certain areas, including Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans, Cleveland, New York, Baltimore, Houston, Indianapolis, Santa Fe, and Pittsburgh. Abandoned fighting dogs are more dangerous than most other feral dogs and are known to attack livestock, pets, children, and even adults.
Various studies have found that exposing children to dog fighting has lasting consequences on what they become when they grow up. Some fathers think they are teaching their children to be tough, but they may be teaching them to be violent, and some association with serial killers has been argued. (Criminal Minds script writers, take note.) This is certainly more likely than their becoming professional football players, an unfortunate belief among some fans of this dark sport and of Michael Vick.
The defendants and their sentences were William Berry (one year and one day), Derrick Courtland (18 months), John Bacon (16 months), Julius Jackson (18 months), Joseph Addison (24 months), James H. Milburn III (one year and one day), and Ricky Stringfellow, Jr. (12 months). A small price for the souls they tortured but on the high side historically under sentencing rules given that dogs are personal property by the law, including the criminal law. Descriptions of other people indicted in this case have been posted on anti-animal abuse websites.
I'll be discussing some of the consequences of classifying our best friend as property with some other panelists at the Ford Hall Forum on September 16.
Forsyth, C.J., and Evans, R.D. (1998). Dogmen: The Rationalization of Deviance. Society and Animals, 6(3), 203-208.
Twining, H., Arluke, A., and Patronek, G. (2000). Managing the Stigma of Outlaw Breeds: A Case Study of Pit Bull Owners. Society and Animals, 8(1).