Dogfighting Rings: Still Prevalent And As Bloody, Horrific And Inhumane As Ever

June 7, 2021

By Deepti Govind

Even in the bloody world of the most violent crimes, dogfighting is considered particularly heinous. Why? First, dogs used for fighting are brought up and trained in rather cruel ways. They are typically kept in isolation and spend most of their lives on short, heavy chains. Often, they are kept just tantalizingly just out of reach of other dogs, says the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Sure, many professional fighters invest time and money into their animals and provide basic veterinary care, but not really for the right reasons.

Often the dogs are given a cocktail of legal and illegal drugs, including anabolic steroids to enhance muscle mass and encourage aggressiveness; they may even be given narcotics to increase their aggression and reactivity, and mask pain or fear during a fight, according to the ASPCA. Then, of course, comes the fight itself – it may not be until death, but many dogs succumb to their injuries afterwards anyway. A more cruel fate may lie in store for those that lose fights in what their handlers may consider an embarrassing manner: They are executed in a particularly brutal fashion as part of the so-called “entertainment” of the event.

There are those who consider themselves “hobbyist” dogfighters, and those that call themselves professionals. Either way, one of the main reasons for people engaging in this is money. “Major dogfight raids have resulted in seizures of more than $500,000, and it is not unusual for $20,000 – $30,000 to change hands in a single fight. Stud fees and the sale of pups from promising bloodlines can also bring in thousands of dollars,” the ASPCA says.

In this piece, we will go into more details of how these dogs are brought up, what breeds are used, what happens in a typical dogfight, laws related to dogfighting and how you can help these animals. But at the outset, it is crucial to mention that dogfighting is a violent and highly secretive type of crime, and investigating such cases requires “many of the same skills and resources as a major undercover narcotics investigation,” according to the ASPCA. Unfortunately, dogfighting rings are still prevalent, as several news reports from recent times show.

On June 3, seven dogs were rescued from an alleged dogfighting operation in Gaston County, North Carolina, CBS 17 reported. The dogs were found covered in fleas and visible scarring consistent with injuries typically seen in dogfighting cases, officials with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) said. Just two days before that report, on June 1, four defendants pleaded guilty to federal dogfighting and conspiracy charges for their roles in an interstate dogfighting network that spanned the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said in a statement. What’s more, one of the defendants in this case even took a child under the age of sixteen to attend one of the fights.

“Organized dogfighting — whether on a professional, hobbyist or street fighter level — has no place in our society. Dogfighting is an extremely violent and secretive venture of animal abuse, and bringing young children to these fighting events exposes another generation to indifference towards animal cruelty and disrespect for the law against this ruthless and illegal activity,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Jean E. Williams of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said in the June 1 DOJ statement.

In many cases, dogfighting rings are only one among various types of crimes that perpetrators engage in. On Jan. 28, the DOJ said in a statement that 11 people were charged in a 136-count federal indictment including for violations of drug conspiracy, drug possession and drug possession with the intent to distribute, and violations of the dogfighting prohibitions of the federal Animal Welfare Act, and conspiracy to commit the same. “Dog fighting is brutal and illegal; it is particularly troubling when combined with drug trafficking,” Peter D. Leary, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, said in the statement.

On March 4, 2020, the DOJ said that a federal jury had convicted the last of the defendants in a Pensacola-based dogfighting investigation of felony conspiracy to violate the dogfighting prohibitions of the federal Animal Welfare Act. One of the defendants in this case ran an operation that arranged dogfights and trafficked in fighting dogs with others outside Florida, too. Another co-defendant acted as a “makeshift” veterinarian and performed surgeries on the dogs, even though she had no license, treating injured dogs and removing dogs’ ears to prepare them for fights.  Two dogs in her “care” died from their fighting injuries. 

There are several other examples from recent times on dogfighting rings being busted, including one in March 2018 in Georgia, where federal agents seized 63 animals from a suspected dogfighting ring, and discovered the buried remains of seven others. Law enforcement agents have repeatedly stressed over time that dogfighting is a “barbaric spectacle” that ought to have no place in “any civilized society.” Still, it continues and, for reasons we have already mentioned above, remains tough to discover, investigate and bust. In 2019, a BBC investigation showed the illegal trade of fighting dogs stretched from Eastern Europe to Wales. In Iraq, for instance, dogfighting is advertised, discussed and even streamed live on Facebook, according to a VICE News video report from March 31, 2021. In India, instances of dogfighting rings have been reported, largely in northern states like Punjab and Haryana.

Dogfighting: History, Breeds, Routines And Laws

Historically, dogfighting is said to trace its origins back to the Roman conquest of Britain in around 43 A.D. when dogs were used during wars. In the United States, it can be traced back as far as the 1750s, with professional fighting pits proliferating in the 1860s, according to the ASPCA. “While organized dogfighting activity seemed to decline in the 1990s, many law enforcement and animal control officials feel that it has rebounded in recent years, with the Internet making it easier than ever for dogfighters to exchange information about animals and fights,” the ASPCA says.

So why do dogfighting rings still exist, nearly 2,000 years after it first began? As we said before, money is a major factor for most people engaging in this barbaric activity. The animals are viewed as an extension of themselves, i.e., as a way for handlers to “demonstrate” their strength. And for some, it is just the sadistic enjoyment of a brutal and bloody spectacle.

Across the world, there have been a few key dog breeds that are used for the purpose of fights, both legal and illegal. Most countries seem to have a preferred breed, but typically it involves those that are large, Mastiff-types, with powerful bones, muscles and jaws. In Japan, for instance, it is the Tosa Inu, which was specifically bred for fighting. In America, of course, top of the list is the Pit Bull Terrier. Like the Tosa, the Pit Bull was also selectively bred to promote the best possible fighting characteristics. The Spanish Presa Canario was the prey of choice for humans who wanted to settle their disputes and disagreements through dogfighting. Then there are others like Dogo Argentino, Fila Brasileiro, Rottweilers and varied mixed breeds. It is important to pause here to note that it doesn’t mean these dog breeds are unsuitable as family pets.

“Any dog can behave aggressively, depending on the context, his genetic background and his upbringing and environment. When a dog is treated well, properly trained and thoroughly socialized during puppyhood and matched with the right kind of owner and household, he’s likely to develop into a well-behaved companion and cherished member of the family,” the ASPCA says.

Video Source: FBI’s YouTube channel, showing the story of a puppy named Porkchop and its siblings who were adopted after their mother, who had been raised to fight, had to be euthanized.

Apart from raising dogs that are trained for fights in isolation, and by using drugs, many victims of dogfighting also go through the painful procedure of having their ears cropped and tails docked close to their bodies. What’s worse is that the fighters, or handlers, usually perform the procedure themselves using crude, inhumane techniques. Why are the dogs’ ears clipped and tails docked? First, it limits the areas of the body that another dog can grab onto in a fight, and second, it makes it more difficult for other dogs to read the animal’s mood and intentions through normal body language cues, says the ASPCA. Healthy dogs who are born “cold” or won’t fight are often used to sic other dogs on as training, HSUS says.

What Happens In A Typical Dogfight?

The location of the fight can be anywhere: A street tussle in a back alley, or staged operations by more organized groups at venues that are specifically designed and maintained for the purpose. The fights take place in pits that are cordoned off in some manner so that the animals can be contained to the space. Dogs are typically released from opposite corners in a fight, usually meeting in the middle and wrestling to get a hold on each other. Fights can last from a few minutes to hours, and both dogs involved in the fight can sustain injuries from puncture wounds, lacerations and blood loss, to crushing injuries and even broken bones.

Many die later, often of blood loss, shock, dehydration, exhaustion or infection, hours or even days after the fight, HSUS says. Those that don’t and end up “losing” the fight are often discarded, killed or simply left with their injuries untreated, says the ASPCA. If the losing dog comes from a valuable bloodline or has a good performance history, it may fare better. Earlier, even when fighting operations were busted, most dogs had to be euthanized, in part because they could not be adopted until a criminal case ran its lengthy course, leaving the animals to languish, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) says in a post from 2019.

Anti-Dogfighting Laws

Dogfighting is a felony in all 50 states, in the District of Columbia and in the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In most states, the possession of dogs for the purpose of fighting is also a felony offense. Being a spectator at a dogfight is also illegal in all states, although in some states it is considered a misdemeanor and not a felony.

In North Carolina, for instance, the state House unanimously passed House Bill 544 just last month, according to CBS. It prohibits minors from attending dogfights or cockfights, and discussions are already underway to strengthen the bill in the state Senate by including a ban on the manufacture, possession and sale of dogfighting paraphernalia and training equipment. “Over the years, law enforcement raids have unearthed many disturbing facets of this illegal bloodsport. Young children are often present at these events, which promotes insensitivity to animal suffering, enthusiasm for violence and disrespect for the law. The Humane Society of the United States supports felony charges for spectators of dogfights. Spectators provide much of the profit associated with dogfighting and, with it, the motivation to continue the cruel practice,” HSUS says on its website.

From a federal perspective, the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 prohibits certain animal fighting-related activities when they involve more than one state or interstate mail services, including the U.S. Postal Service. In 2007, the act was amended to provide felony penalties for interstate commerce, import and export relating to commerce in dogs abused for profit, roosters who are forced to fight and cockfighting paraphernalia. Each violation can result in up to three years in jail and a $250,000 fine. In 2014, elements of the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act were signed into law as part of the Farm Bill and made attending an animal fight anywhere in the U.S. a federal offense, in addition to imposing further penalties for bringing a child under 16 to an animal fight.

When dogs are seized in federal animal-fighting busts, they are basically considered evidence and have to be held until the cases have made their way through the court system. But unlike stolen property like cars and jewelry, animals have to be taken care of. Drawn-out waiting periods often causes extreme stress and behavioral problems in rescued dogs. Caring for and holding seized animals for long periods of time is also expensive. Animal welfare agencies house, feed and provide veterinary and behavioral care to seized animals, and it is these agencies and taxpayers who are left to foot the bill. In April, U.S. Rep. John Katko reintroduced the Help Extract Animals from Red Tape (HEART) Act along with U.S. Rep. Judy Chu. The HEART Act aims to expedite the disposition process for animals, allowing them to be quickly placed in a home, and also to hold the perpetrators responsible for the cost of the victims’ recovery. 

How Can You Help?

Anyone who comes across a probable case of dogfighting can report it on the basis of animal cruelty. You can find out how to report animal cruelty on the ASPCA website. You can also alert local law enforcement agencies and get the HSUS involved. But the most important thing is to know what signs you need to look out for when it comes to dogfighting.

  • Keep an eye out for multiple Pit Bull-type dogs kept in the same area, and notice whether they look injured or unsocialized.
  • They may also be constantly chained or tethered to a tire axle or dog house/barrel. Some cases involve dogs that are chained inches apart from one another.
  • Check if there’s any equipment such as treadmills, breeding stands (used to immobilize female dogs), breaking sticks used to pry open the dog’s jaws after they lock it in a fight, and training springs like tires swinging from a tree. But equipment makes for a more tenuous link to dogfighting because some can be used by regular trainers too. So it would need to be combined with other signs before you can draw conclusions.
  • Dogs with multiple scars, possibly with their lips or ears ripped off.
  • Dogs kept in secluded areas, where it seems like they are intentionally kept out of public view. In places like New York City, for instance, dogs used for fighting are often found living in secluded, indoor areas such as basements.

Those who are up for it can also help by adopting dogs that are rescued from these illegal fighting rings, of course, and save them from a lifetime of extreme cruelty.