Avoid the damage; fix the dogs
Animal advocates cheered on November 19, 2015 when Judge Wayne Durden of Polk County, Florida sentenced alleged dogfighter Hewitt Grant II, 48, to serve 20 years in prison.
Convicted on 84 counts of cruelty, Grant is to serve at least 16 years before becoming eligible for parole, and is banned for life from keeping animals.
Polk County sheriff’s deputies in October 2014 seized 69 pit bulls from Grant’s home in Bartow and another property near Fort Meade. Grant had already been barred for life from keeping dogs, after a 2006 bust for alleged dogfighting.
Another perp got 25 years
Heavy as Grant’s sentence was, it was lighter than the 25 years in prison that Highland County Circuit Judge J. Dale Durrance meted out to James Thomas Reed in February 2015, after finding Reed guilty of 11 counts of dog fighting and 11 counts of animal cruelty. Reed is also to serve 30 years on probation, and––like Grant––is never to own another dog.
Just two days after Grant was sentenced, animal advocates cheered again after the Daily Sabah and Ihlas News Agency, of Istanbul, Turkey, reported that “A woman in Turkey’s northern province of Samsun was punished with a record fine of 12,547 Turkish liras ($4,430),” for repeatedly setting her pit bull on other animals. The woman had reportedly posted to social media photos of the fatal maulings of three cats and a dog in just two days.
Victories often more symbolic than substantive
But courtroom victories against dogfighting remain few and far between, both in the U.S. and abroad. Worse, what victories are won are often more symbolic than substantive.
For instance, the American SPCA and the Humane Society of the U.S. led electronic rounds of applause for themselves in January 2015 after U.S. District Judge Keith Wilkins, of Montgomery, Alabama, ordered participants in a multi-state dogfighting ring, who had pleaded guilty to related charges, to cough up $2 million in restitution for the care of 451 pit bulls. A series of raids in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi during August 2013 netted 367 of the pit bulls; another 84 pits were later born to some of those who had been impounded, much to the annoyance of animal advocates who wondered why the mothers were allowed to give birth before being spayed.
The ASPCA and HSUS were to receive the $2 million. “But even if all the money is paid,” reported Phillip Rawls of Associated Press, “which they doubt, it won’t come close to covering the $5.5 million they reported spending on the dogs’ care. Tim Rickey, vice president of field operations for the ASPCA, said some of the defendants are on payment plans that would require them to be 300 years old to pay the full amount.”
Few get prison time
At least 52 people were charged with various offenses in connection with the raids. Convicted “kingpin” Donnie Anderson was in November 2014 to serve eight years in prison. Another key participant, Ricky Van Lee of Biloxi, Mississippi, drew four years in prison. Michael Martin of Auburn, Alabama, was sentenced to serve five years.
Few of the other participants are known to have received prison time. Nor was this an unusual outcome. Following up on another 2013 multi-state dogfighting bust, John Diedrich of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that of a dozen defendants who were charged, alleged ringleader Thomas Zollicoffer received a five year sentence in state court, while “Several other cases handled in federal court are headed for lighter terms.
“More than 100 law enforcement officers took part in the operation, executing 10 search warrants, seizing nearly four dozen dogs,” Diedrich wrote in September 2015. “The defendants appeared to face years behind bars in a first-of-its-kind crackdown in Milwaukee on an underground activity associated with gambling, drugs and illegal guns.
Federal penalities not higher
“But 17 months later, the prosecution has delivered only two significant terms behind bars and both were in state court,” Diedrich continued, “defying the idea that federal court delivers tougher penalties. Two defendants in federal court received probation and a third received 90 days. Federal charges against a fourth are likely to be dropped, records show.
“Five people are awaiting sentencing. All are expected to get a year or less behind bars, according to the prosector, and they may get probation,” Diedrich added.
But faulting either federal courts or anyone else in the justice system for the disappointing outcomes of many dogfighting cases is difficult. The U.S. already has the world’s highest incarceration rate, with 716 people in custody per 100,000 residents, as of October 2013. We have 4.4% of the global human population, but 22% of the prisoners, and still have more than four times as many murders per capita as Japan, Germany, Britain, and France, even taking the recent terrorist attacks in Paris into consideration.
Ounce of prevention worth pound of cure
Just locking people up does not seem to be solving our crime problems, and seems to be no more likely to stop dogfighting than it does homicide.
Deterring crime by making crimes more difficult to commit has proved to be vastly more effective than punishing criminals after the fact for as long as anyone has tabulated and compared crime statistics.
This is for an obvious reason: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It is much easier, faster, and vastly less expensive to use a padlock than to catch, try, and punish a thief. As the seriousness of crimes increases, both the consequences of crime and the effort needed to catch criminals and bring them to justice tend to increase exponentially.
Guns & murder
Regardless of where anyone stands as regards the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, easy access to firearms clearly fuels the U.S. gun-related murder rate, which is higher than that of any nations outside of Latin America except South Africa and Swaziland.
Easy access to pit bulls––many of them “free to good home” after failing as pets due to dangerous behavior––comparably fuels dogfighting. And, unlike possession of firearms, possession of pit bulls and related fighting breeds is not protected by any constitutional amendment. Indeed, the constitutionality of pit bull bans has been upheld at least four times since 1920 by the U.S. Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, including in 2006, 2007, and 2008.
Back to Elizabethan times
Available crime data gives only a ballpark idea of the recent growth of dogfighting. Even veteran humane investigators had rarely if ever encountered either pit bulls or dogfighting as recently as 1990, when KCNC-TV/Denver reporter Wendy Bergen was caught staging a dogfight, since actual video of dogfighting could not be found, to illustrate a ratings week exposé.
Just 25 years later, dogfighting has regained at least the public prominence that it had circa 500 years ago, when Queen Elizabeth I attended dogfights and bull-and-bear baiting, while others of her court enjoyed original plays by William Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre next door to the Paris Gardens, as the fighting arena styled itself.
Images evocative of dogfighting are now used even in “family-oriented” store displays and media to sell trucks, tools, shoes, beer, clothing, music, and even political candidates.
Post-Vick busts soared, then fell
The numbers of pit bulls known to have been seized in dogfighting raids soared over 1,000 for three years in a row, after the April 2007 arrest of football player Michael Vick for dogfighting briefly made busting dogfighters a prestige pursuit of law enforcement.
Yet only five years later, the numbers of pit bulls impounded, dogfighting busts reported by news media, and alleged perps arrested all fell to the lowest totals since 1997, ten years before Vick got caught.
The slippage in the crime stats hardly meant that dogfighting had been successfully repressed. Rather, other crimes took priority, as illustrated when the numbers of pit bulls seized, dogfighting busts reported, and alleged perps arrested all rebounded in 2013, 2014, and 2015 to approximately the 2011 level.
How much goes unreported?
How much more dogfighting occurs than cops can stop is almost anyone’s guess. Estimating how often any type of crime that often goes undetected and unreported is inherently difficult. Criminologists, however, have developed formulas that tend to put the frequency of unreported crime at anywhere from 10 to 100 times the amount that is reported, depending on the nature of the offense.
For crimes such as dogfighting, involving many participants and spectators, plus the use of animals and locations especially built or adapted for the purpose, the number of cases going unreported is thought to be much lower than the incidence of under-reporting of crimes such as rape and assault, that usually involve just one perp and one victim at a time.
Accordingly, the number of pit bulls actually used in dogfighting in the U.S. each year may run as low as 16,000, or as high as 160,000, but is typically guesstimated by veteran dogfighting investigators to be circa 40,000––about twice as many as were estimated by the American SPCA in April 1961.
Back in the KKK era
Then, when the Ku Klux Klan remained firmly in control of rural Southern law enforcement, running dogfighting and cockfighting as fundraising protection rackets, the ASPCA could only deplore to the Ruston Daily Leader and United Press International that Ruston, Lousiana openly hosted––and welcomed––a dogfighting convention.
Further, the Ruston Daily Leader and United Press International felt obliged to explain to readers who had never seen a pit bull what they are: “The fighting dog, properly called the American Pit Bull, is a heavy-chested, round-headed, short-eared animal developed in England. It averages 44 pounds in weight and fights by instinct.”
Altogether, more dogs appear to have been fought in the U.S. in each of the past 15 years than the annual total of dogs impounded in most U.S. cities, and in 40 of the 50 states.
Back in 2007, which seems longer ago in the evolution of pit bull advocacy and mayhem than it really is, much of the public seemed surprised that Vick had been able to run a dogfighting ring in an upscale suburban neighborhood in Surrey County, Virginia, almost a bedroom community to Washington D.C., the national capital.
Yet many other dogfighting rings in recent years have popped up in affluent communities, from the Boston suburbs to the streets of San Francisco. Pre-Vick, by contrast, there had been scant precedent for dogfighting in “good” neighborhoods since the Puritan regent Oliver Cromwell drove both dogfighting and baiting underground in England, a generation after Elizabeth I.
How Britain blew 1830 ban on dogfighting
The suppression of dogfighting won by Cromwell unfortunately did not last. Indeed, dogfighting made a striking comeback parallel to the late 18th century and early 20th century rise of the humane movement.
Among the first achievements of the Royal SPCA of Britain was winning passage of national legislation in 1830 to ban dogfighting and baiting.
Yet humane organizations then as now held back from prohibiting the breeding and sale of fighting dogs. This was and is largely through the influence of kennel clubs, who have lent funding and political support to efforts to prosecute cruelty to dogs, on condition that ear-cropping, tail-docking, excessive inbreeding, and other cruel proclivities of the “dog fancy” be exempted from critical notice.
Of parenthetical note, ear-cropping and tail-docking were both introduced by dogfighters to give opponents’ dogs less to pull fighting dogs down with. Declawing kittens by hatchet before tossing them to fighting dogs as “bait” appears to have begun in the same circles at about the same time, albeit with less documentation.
Mad dogs & Englishmen
As the British Empire expanded in early Victorian times, British soldiers and sailors exported pit bulls and dogfighting to port cities worldwide, including in India, where the “bully khutta” pit bull variant emerged in the 19th century. The New York Times in an 1857 in-depth account of the global spread of rabies and evolution of rabies control methods “credited” British dogfighters with bringing rabies to Crete, from whence rabies spread to India, probably also with fighting dogs.
Dogfighting in the 18th and 19th century U.S. was done mostly in waterfront taverns, including the notorious Kit Burns’ Tavern in New York City, which became the model for a brief and somewhat sanitized dog-against-rats fighting scene in the 2002 Martin Scorcese/Leonardo DiCaprio film Gangs of New York.
How the Klan cashed in
Rousted from most of the U.S. by the rise of the humane movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dogfighting continued in the rural South.
Dogfighters, cockfighters, pigeon-shooters, moonshiners, gamblers, addictive drug dealers and pimps protected their profits by donating heavily to fraternal lodges fronting for the Ku Klux Klan. Klan influence within law enforcement and politics in turn ensured that those who kept up their payments were seldom raided.
The Humane Society of Greater Birmingham nonetheless broke up the World Series of Dogfighting in 1935. The alleged dogfighters, however, escaped and were never prosecuted. Carey H. Falwell, the father of race-baiting evangelist Jerry Falwell (1933-2007), was in 1938 twice convicted of hosting dogfights in Lynchburg, Virginia. But the frustration of humane observers at the 1961 dogfighting convention in Louisiana was more the norm.
Guarding the dope
After law enforcement pressure and evolving public opinion broke up the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s and 1970s, dogfighting (and cockfighting) might have faded out even in the South. But the Vietnam War draft and pursuit of economic opportunity helped to translocate many young Southerners who had been introduced to animal fighting in boyhood to the West Coast.
Marijuana growers by the late 1970s were documentedly using pit bulls to guard their plots in California, paying protection money to skinheads and motorcycle gangs who operated much like the Ku Klux Klan––who re-introduced dogfighting to most of the rest of the country.
Within another decade dogfighting had spread into inner city African-American and Hispanic street culture, mostly through prison gangs, and had begun to be celebrated in “rap” music lyrics.
Cajun rules & the Taliban
From there, U.S.-style “Cajun rules” dogfighting spread with drug trafficking throughout the rest of the world, revitalizing what remained of the earlier dogfighting culture introduced by British military personnel.
The one successful crackdown on dogfighting of the past few decades was waged in Afghanistan by the Taliban between 1996 and 2001––but all that really accomplished was to enable U.S. troops to supplant the traditional body-slamming matches that had been conducted between working sheep dogs with “Cajun rules” pit bull fights to the death.
For more than 200 years animal advocacy attention to dogfighting has tended to invert the economic realities of the pit bull industry––and therefore fails both to suppress dogfighting and to effectively address the other outcomes of pit bull proliferation.
“All dogs go to heaven”
The “blame-the-deed-not-the-breed” theory trumpeted today by many and perhaps most humane societies holds that the proclivity of pit bulls to pursue mayhem results chiefly from “training” by dogfighters.
Suppress dogfighting, the “blame-the-deed-not-the-breed” theory holds, and all pit bulls will magically become safe “nanny dogs,” the pit bulls now transforming shelters into violent rescue missions will soon find homes, and all doggies will go to heaven, or at least to dog parks where if a pit bull happens to kill a Chihuahua, the Chihuahua-walker will apologetically excuse the killer.
Dogfighters can certainly be blamed for much. Pit bulls are the scions of centuries of line breeding in a multi-century arms race to develop the most deadly weapon dogs, who will maim 300-pound pigs in so-called hog/dog rodeo, maul bulls and bears without qualms, massacre huge numbers of rats in pits without pausing to eat any, dismember runaway slaves as a warning to others, and––among the Spanish conquistadores of Mexico, kill their own diet of captured Native Americans.
Pit bull identification
Because pit bulls were ancestrally bred to perform a variety of gruesome tasks, and because fighting dog breeders tended to produce and refine their own bloodlines, typically named after themselves, considerable diversity in pit bull appearance evolved, albeit that pit bull behavioral traits tend to be much the same across bloodlines.
Thus superficial differences often confuse would-be regulators who try to regulate by form, or breed standard. The many bloodline names and nicknames used by pit bull fanciers add further confounding factors.
Yet a 2013 study done at the Richmond SPCA in Richmond, Virginia, directed by Emily Weiss of the ASPCA, found that shelter workers can accurately identify a pit bull or close pit mix 96% of the time––albeit that another study, published in the March 27, 2014 edition of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, found that 41% of shelter workers are willing to lie about pit bull breed identification to try to rehome more pit bulls.
Until dead or dismembered
Much as summarized in 1961 by the Ruston Daily Leader and United Press International, the common distinguishing traits of pit bulls are that they are mesomorphic muscular dogs, disproportionately large-jawed, apt to explode from calm demeanor to idiopathic rage without issuing a long repertoire of warning signals first, and inclined to attack and keep on attacking, without relent and regardless of injury to themselves, until their victim is dead and dismembered.
Though the sustained effort of fighting dog breeders to develop these traits must be recognized, the argument that dogfighting produced all present pit bull problems is at best just a half-truth.
Dogfighting imagery helps to promote pit bulls, much as imagery borrowed from auto racing helps to sell cars. Meanwhile, the big money in dogfighting, as in most other competitive pursuits that involve animals, is in breeding and selling the offspring of the winners.
But this is not new. As of 1961, dogfighting had been nominally illegal in every state for 40 years, yet dogfighters still openly advertised their “champions” and “grand champions” in breed fancy media, sometimes listing by name the dogs the studs had defeated.
More breeding now than ever
What has changed is that the pit bull breeding industry is now exponentially bigger. The 20,000 pit bulls per year said by the ASPCA to have been used in dogfights in 1961 were then about 10% of all the pit bulls in the U.S.: barely 200,000, as projected from classified ad counts. This was so few that almost the entire pit bull population was barely a generation away from dogs who had been fought, or from culls bred to fight, but sold as pets after being judged insufficiently “game” (eager to fight littermates) in puppyhood.
The 40,000 pit bulls per year whom HSUS suggests are used in dogfights today amount about 1.2% of the present pit bull population. Breeders advertising “champions” and “grand champions” on the web are easily found, but unlike in 1961, they rarely post information that might lead to criminal indictments. Not many pit bulls today can be verifiably traced to recent fighting ancestry––or to any ancestry, since backyard breeders rarely register their output.
Some high-end speculative pit bull breeding for combat continues. Those customers who come to the notice of law enforcement, however, tend to be––like Michael Vick––affluent outsiders trying to buy their way into the inner circles of dogfighting.
Reputed high-end pit bull breeders are rarely caught actually fighting their dogs. Some have been hauled into court in recent years, but mostly to pay nominal fines on charges other than dogfighting. The biggest names actually charged with dogfighting have almost always been acquitted.
Pit bulls rose to popularity through the sale of castoffs from fighting dog breeders, a practice pioneered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by dogfighters John P. Colby of Newburyport, Massachusetts, and Charles Werner of New Orleans, Louisiana. Colby, founder of the Staffordshire Club of America, produced dogs who in 1909 killed his own two-year-old nephew, Bert Colby Leadbetter, and later injured several other children.
But the times have changed. Today most dogfighters make use of the seemingly endless supply of abandoned pit bulls bred and sold as pets.
Dozens of suspected––and often convicted––dogfighters have now been caught running bogus “rescues” to acquire giveaway pit bulls. Many more remain in the false-front “rescue” business without having been caught yet.
Unlike in Colby and Werner’s time, and in 1961, when dogs sold to fight were often identified in print with long pedigrees, most fighting dogs impounded in recent years have been about as anonymous as dogs could be. Many, perhaps most, have not even had names until names were given to them by rescuers. Often the dogs were stolen, picked up free-to-good-home after failing as pets, or were bought for a song from backyard breeders who had already dealt their most aggressive pups to people who sought them to guard drug operations, to help in other criminal activities, or just to strut around their neighborhoods.
Soaring shelter intake
Even as the number of pit bulls who are actually fought has apparently doubled since 1961, shelter intake of pit bulls has soared from under 1% of the dogs received then to more than a third from 2010 through 2015, and from less than 2% of the dogs killed in shelters then to more 60% since 2010.
U.S. shelters have since 2000 taken in more than a million pit bulls per year: nearly 1,000 times more than the total impounded from dogfighters.
Most of these pit bulls have been bred to feed what in Britain is called the “status dog” market. These tend to be purchasers who want to show off that they have a scary dog, but prefer that the dog will not do anything that actually lands them in court.
Almost a third of the U.S. pit bull population have been surrendered to animal shelters, or have been impounded for dangerous behavior, each and every year of this century. At any given time about a third of the pit bulls in the U.S. are under a year of age. About half of all adult pit bulls in homes right now will not be in those homes a year from now.
(See Pound dog inventory down, no-kill inventory up, in 2015 shelter survey.)
Swamped with pit bulls just as public expectations have risen that shelters should go “no kill,” many humane societies promote the very myths––including as the fiction invented in 1971 by pit bull breeder and advocate Lilian Rant that pit bulls were once used as “nanny dogs”––that often lead to fatal and disfiguring accidents.
Shelter adopters in the post-Vick era have been sold on taking home pit bulls at about three times the rate at which people buying dogs from breeders choose pit bulls. This has had grim results.
Only two dogs rehomed by U.S. animal shelters killed anyone between 1858 and 2000. These were a pair of wolf hybrids who were rehomed in 1988 and 1989.
Forty-three shelter dogs have participated in killing people since 2010, 29 of them pit bulls, and nine of them mixes of pit bull with mastiff, along with three Rottweilers, a Lab who may have been part pit bull, and a husky.
Shelter outcomes in rehoming pit bulls reflect the experience of the nation. As of 1961, pit bulls had killed nine of the fifteen Americans who had been killed by dogs since 1930. The U.S. pit bull population has increased twelvefold since then, but pit bulls since 2010 have killed an average of 30 people per year, an increase of more than 60-fold in the rate of fatal attacks.
(See also many case accounts under Links to 53 reasons why breed-specific legislation needs to be enforced and reinforced.)
Pits may kill 1,000 other dogs for each person they kill
Parallel to the rising fatalities, pit bulls have in 2013, 2014, and 2015 disfigured more than 420 Americans each year , more than twice as many as in any previous year. Yet only one of the 334 human fatalities inflicted by pit bulls since 1982 and just a handful of the nearly 3,000 disfigurements have involved dogs kept by anyone who was ever charged with dogfighting.
Of further concern to people who care about animals, pit bulls in the U.S. alone are now killing about 31,000 other dogs per year and 20,000 animals of other species.
(See How many other animals did pit bulls kill in 2014.)
Low sterilization rate
The pit bull problem began with dogfighters. Today, however, it is perpetuated mostly by the low rate of sterilization among pet pit bulls––below 25%––and by backyard breeders of “status dogs,” not by aspirants to producing “grand champions.”
Unfortunately, sterilization does not really make pit bulls, or any dogs, safer to any measureable degree. (See also Does castration really alter male dog behavior? .)
As of 1960, only 1% of all the dogs in the U.S. had been sterilized. Pet dogs were rarely kept tethered or confined. Canine rabies remained decades from eradication within the U.S.
Yet only 611,000 Americans required medical treatment for dog bites.
Making dogs safer
Almost no dogs run free today, no dog has become infected with canine rabies in the U.S. since before 2000, and more than 70% of our dog population are sterilized, despite the low rate of pit bull sterilization (under 25%).
Nonetheless, more than 4.5 million Americans per year require medical attention for dog bites. Serious bites have risen eightfold while the numbers of dogs in the U.S. have only doubled.
But while sterilization does not make dogs safer, it does make them fewer. Mandatory pit bull sterilization, required in San Francisco since 2006, could empty shelters of pit bulls; end the rehoming of dangerous dogs; and end the flow of abandoned pit bulls to dogfighters.
Once pit bull proliferation is curbed, bringing dogfighters to justice should become considerably easier.
Jamaka Petzak says
You know you’re preaching to the choir here, Merritt — and I’m sharing to social media, with gratitude and eternally, hope.
I cannot muster up any pity for fools who lose money ‘rescuing’ fight bust dogs. They are not fit to be adopted out as pet animals and they and the public are best off if they are euthanized when they get in the door. Why it is that the people who *claim* to love these dogs stand in the way of every reasonable measure to end the glut of pit bulls that are euthanized yearly?
It’s very difficult to escape the tsunami of pit bull idealization if you involve yourself in animal rights and welfare. Everyone from the biggest national groups to the smallest local SPCA uses social media to promote these dogs. I’ve even seen pit bull promotion on the Facebook pages of cat rescues. Fighting breeds are heavily promoted in general-interest animal media like Animal Planet and The Dodo.
Nearly every collection of animal rights memes includes anti-BSL content. Most collections of animal rights and welfare message shirts, jewelry, purses, etc. include pit bull and anti-BSL items. I’ve seen it at the national Animal Rights Conference merchandise tables–there are entire displays of necklace charms and car magnets celebrating pit bulls, but none for any other breed. There are even pit bulls who are fed a vegan diet and are featured on animal rights websites such as Our Hen House. A dog created to kill other animals has become the unofficial symbol of our animal rights and welfare movement.
If you try to talk about the flipside of all of this, you will be bullied, harassed, and even threatened. I’ve left “vegan” groups on social media because one or two people would not stop harassing me on this subject, and I suspect some people end up leaving social media entirely. I had a person associated with a national vegan group (that has nothing to do with pet animals) “like” a post in which a pit bull advocate called me a stupid idiot because I stated that many pit bulls are unsafe to have around other animals.
This is the world we live in now, and unlike some other controversial issues in our movement–such as abolitionism or feeding pets meat-based food–you aren’t even ALLOWED to express a contrary opinion. There is no conversation because it is always shut down immediately.
Annoula Wylderich says
Thank you for this informative article. I can empathize with the comments provided by Lindsay. While I am an animal advocate and a vegan, I have to agree that we need to keep our minds open and constantly educate ourselves. I’m wholly sympathetic to the fact that this breed is maligned and often the victims of bad owners. However, the breed does have certain tendencies bred into them, which is why they are so sought after for fighting. They are purported to be the most abused dog in the world, unfortunately. Perhaps we can best help them by acknowledging their predisposition, instead of dismissing it, and limit their breeding.