Dogfight 'culture' reaches to Baltimore

The Baltimore Sun

Somewhere in Baltimore this weekend, men will probably herd two pit bulls, both heavily muscled from weight training and both driven mad by recent starvation, into an abandoned field or the cellar of a vacant rowhouse. They'll toss another, weaker animal - a cat, rabbit or maybe a blinded dog - in between the canine gladiators and then set them loose to tear one another apart.

The dog that inflicts more puncture wounds might win hundreds of dollars for supporters and be hailed as a champion. The loser might be left to die in an alley.

If this sounds like a far-fetched hypothetical, it's not, according to Baltimore veterinarians and animal control experts. They say the allegations of links between Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and dogfighting highlight a culture of violence that stretches to Baltimore and surrounding areas.

A source close to Vick with links to the NFL told Sports Illustrated that the quarterback is "heavily influenced by a dogfighting culture that travels to Baltimore, [Washington] D.C. and Virginia for fights."

The possibility of such a ring doesn't surprise authorities who have studied the issue.

"There's definitely a lot of dogfighting in Baltimore," said John Goodwin, deputy manager of dogfighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States. "There's certainly probably a dogfight going on in Baltimore every weekend, but they're hard to find."

Baltimore animal control officials have noted an increase in dogfighting in recent years. They say they are receiving more calls from residents complaining of dogfights, as well as an increase in dogs with injuries linked to dogfighting. They are also finding more carcasses of dogs killed in such matches - some of which were used as "bait" to entice dogs to attack.

"It's been slowly rising," Robert Anderson, director of animal control for Baltimore, said of complaints related to dogfighting. "And part of that is that neighbors are starting to stand up."

City officials - aware of the uptick in dogfighting and other issues related to animal control - are seeking a $136,500 increase in the division's $1.78 million budget that would allow for three additional animal control officers. The City Council's Budget and Appropriations Committee held a hearing yesterday on a funding resolution. The resolution could be reviewed by the full council as soon as Monday; however, only the mayor can make the decision to increase spending.

The need, according to council members, neighborhood groups and animal advocates, is great.

"Our animal control inspectors are responding to more than a request an hour, no wonder they are so backlogged," said Councilman Robert W. Curran, who produced data at the hearing that show the division handled 30,864 calls in 2006, with an average resolution time of about four days, a delay that city officials find unacceptable.

Goodwin said that based on tips from informants, his agency knows that cities such as Baltimore, New York, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles are centers for the blood sport.

He said that in some cities, pit bulls, the breed of choice for dogfighting, represent a third of admissions to animal shelters. That's up from 2 percent to 3 percent 15 years ago. The humane society estimates that 40,000 owners and 250,000 pit bulls are involved in fighting nationwide.

The "sport" was most prevalent in the rural South in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Goodwin said, but it has become popular enough that underground magazines have sprung up to cover it. Dogs that win three times are classified as champions and often retired to stud like elite thoroughbreds. Some fights can draw pots of $10,000 or more.

Authorities find the fights concerning not just because of the animal cruelty involved but also because they're linked to other criminal activities such as drug dealing, gun running and gambling.

Dogfighting is worrisome enough to Baltimore's Health Department that the agency keeps a pamphlet explaining the issue on its Web site.

The pamphlet says that illegal drugs are sold at fights and that dogs trained for fighting are often vicious in other contexts. It notes that children are often present.

"Children are exposed to exhibits of extreme brutality, illegal gambling, drugs and guns associated with these cruel events," it reads.

A person who arranges a dogfight in Baltimore can be charged with a felony, subject to a $5,000 fine and three years imprisonment. A person who attends a dogfight can be charged with a misdemeanor and subject to $1,000 fine and 90 days imprisonment. The city and Baltimore County each offer $1,000 rewards for information on dogfighting.

It's unclear how often police catch owners in the act. Spokesmen for the Baltimore and Baltimore County police departments said they could not find any recent cases involving dogfighting.

But local veterinarians see the severe injuries that result from the fights.

"There's no question that it exists and that it's pretty prevalent," said Kim Hammond, chief veterinarian at the Falls Road Animal Hospital. "We see these big, mean, muscular pit bulls and they look like they've been mugged. They've been bitten all over the face and body, and they're very aggressive with other dogs."

In such cases, the Falls Road hospital reports the owner to police.

"We don't mess around," Hammond said. "We try to nail them. The problem is that the police have limited resources to investigate. But we try to make it not so fun for these folks to come to our hospital."

Hammond said the hospital sees a few animals a month that appear to have been in fights. He said that rate has remained steady for many years.

The Baltimore-based Adopt a Homeless Animal rescue specializes in saving pit bulls, and volunteers see the grisly effects of dogfighting every week, said Russell Ashton.

"We sadly see it all the time," she said. "Dogs who've been used to fight, dogs used as bait."

Ashton said fighting pit bulls are particularly muscular, often covered in scars or open puncture wounds and sometimes have theirs ears clipped to prevent opponents from grasping them.

She said dogs used as "bait," weaker animals set between two hungry fighters to get them riled, show up in even sadder states. Many have been declawed or intentionally blinded: "anything to make them as defenseless as possible," Ashton said.

She said that of the 500 to 600 pit bulls the rescue has handled, more than a third have been "bait" dogs and about 50 to 60 have been fighters. When she goes to the city pound, however, she sees far more former fighters than she could ever adopt.

"It's unbelievably prevalent," she said. "And it's all over, from the boondocks to the inner city to Hampden. It's big sport, big-money betting."

Evidence of the dogfighting culture sometimes flares up in court. In 1996, for example, a Baltimore County Circuit judge sentenced an Essex man to more than 10 years in prison after a police raid on his home found 43 pit bulls and a blood-smeared area of the basement apparently used for dogfights.

The city's connection to dogfighting even made it into an episode of HBO's The Wire. A drug lieutenant, "Cheese," shot his pit bull after the animal was wounded in a losing fight.

That highlights an important point about dogfighting for those who battle it.

"No matter how you feel about protecting animals, generally, the people involved in dogfighting are not good people," said Frank Branchini, director of the Humane Society of Baltimore County. "They're probably doing a lot of things wrong."

A Chicago Police study of dogfighting incidents between 2001 and 2004 found that in 382 cases, 59 percent of dog owners had known gang affiliations and 86 percent had been arrested at least twice.

Owners range in seriousness, Goodwin said, from those who put their pit bulls into hastily thrown-together scraps in neighborhood basements and warehouses to those who breed champions and use runners to ship dogs around the country for high-stakes battles.

Goodwin went on an Ohio raid in March that hit eight breeding houses and one fighting venue on the same night. Such stings are becoming more common, he said, as authorities realize they can nab drug and weapons dealers by tapping dogfighting rings. He hopes the Vick case will cause more people to call the police when they see evidence of dogfighting.

"Certainly, there's a spotlight on it right now," he said. "We can hope that people become aware that it's happening in their areas and turn the criminals in. Maybe some good can come of it."

Sun staff writer Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.

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