TOPICS > Nation

Dog Fighting Still Prevalent Sport in U.S.

July 19, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty-seven-year-old Michael Vick is a star player with the Atlanta Falcons. Fast on his feet and with a strong arm, Vick is the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL and a favorite with fans. He still is, although the spotlight on him changed this week.

After months of investigation, including multiple searches of a property Vick owns in Surry, Virginia, authorities brought a federal indictment against him on Tuesday, charging that he was running a dogfighting operation. Dozens of pit-bull terriers, like this one, were found here.

The grand jury indictment alleges that Vick and three associates were running a kennel for breeding and training dogs for fighting. The indictment alleges that Vick and the men hosted dogfights, crossed state lines to sponsor dogs in fights for prize money, and executed several dogs that did not perform well. If convicted, the four men involved could face six years in prison and $350,000 in fines.

Michael Vick’s indictment has brought the disturbing dogfighting subculture to national attention this week. Dogfighting is illegal throughout the United States and is a felony in 48 states.

It is a brutal spectacle. Experts say a single bout can go on for hours. The victor is decided when one dog dies or is unable to continue fighting because of injury. As these photos suggest, dogs that do survive the battles often come away severely maimed and hurt.

And we take a closer look now at the world of dogfighting with Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, and Bobby Brown. He wrote and directed “Off the Chain,” a 2005 documentary about dogfighting.

Well, Mr. Pacelle, how big a phenomenon is this?

Training dogs to fight

WAYNE PACELLE, Humane Society of the United States: You know, when the Humane Society of the United States was formed in the 1950s, it was predominantly a rural phenomenon. We've seen in the last 10 to 15 years a real surge in urban dogfighting, with rap culture really driving interest in pit bulls and people kind of treating the dogs as a macho display.

It's very hard, because as you indicated, it's widely criminalized -- 50 states ban the activity -- to get solid numbers. We're estimating, you know, 40,000-plus people involved. So you have the participants, the handlers. Then you have people who are interested in it as spectators, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Mr. Brown, you did this documentary. The dogs themselves are specifically trained for this, correct?

BOBBY BROWN, Director, "Off the Chain": That's correct. I mean, the dog has the instinct, fighting instinct. I found that 90 percent of the time, the dog is animal aggressive, not people aggressive. You can walk up to any dog in the backyard and pet the dog. But the dogs are placed on chains in the backyard. And the only socialization that they have is their handler coming in and feeding them.

And the first test that they get is called a game test. It's called "off the chain," which is the documentary is named after, is when they, five, six months into the dog's life, they take the dog off the chain, and they put it on another dog for about five or six minutes. And if the dog wants to fight, they'll put it back on the chain and let it get a little older. If it doesn't want to fight, it doesn't pass the game test, and it's euthanized.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were just telling us before we started here that the longest fight you ever witnessed was two hours and 45 minutes. And these go on a while. What does it feel like? What is it like when it's happening?

BOBBY BROWN: Oh, it's horrifying. You know, the dogs are ripping apart at each other. They're like silent warriors. I mean, there's no sound at all. They're just engaged in a lock, and they bite, and they shake, and they take and engage on another part of the body, and they just stay there and lock for a long time, and they won't let go.

The match that I saw that was two hours and 45 minutes, the dogs actually were so exhausted they fell asleep engaged with one another. And they finally woke up. When one woke up, the other one woke up, and they started fighting again.

WAYNE PACELLE: And, you know, it's almost always pit bulls. They're 50 pounds, usually, sometimes a little less, but they're a mix of endurance and power and speed. And they can kill any other dog in the fight, so they match them against one another.

And as he indicated, it's just a horrific fight. They just keep going; they keep coming at each other. But the sad thing about it is less about the pit bulls but about the people. The people are enjoying this activity and being titillated by the blood-letting.

The organization of dog fights

JEFFREY BROWN: How well-organized is it? How professional are the people who breed the dogs, who put on these fights?

WAYNE PACELLE: Well, in the Humane Society of the U.S.'s taxonomy of the dogfighting world, we break it into three categories. There are professional dogfighters who pay attention to the blood lines, who really are focused on winning the fights and selling the dogs on a national and even international network. Then you have the hobbyist who also pay attention to the blood lines that are fighting locally and regionally.

And then you have street fighters. And that's the one that's really been surging are the street fighters. But it's organized. And I think the Internet has helped these folks coalesce. And you have 10 underground dogfighting magazines. You have Web sites typically advertising the kennels, but folks within the fraternity know about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You met with a lot of people doing it, talked to them. What do they say? Why are they doing it? And does this sound right, in terms of the level of organization?

BOBBY BROWN: I think it's a status symbol. It's a symbol of machoism. These people are proud to talk about their dogs. They're proud to try and have a stable full of dogs that they raise and groom and try to make a champion.

And it's very closely knitted. They travel to different states. You don't know where you're going until about 20 minutes before. They change locations all the time. And you have to know somebody to get in. And per dog, they only allow six people to come per dog to watch the show, so it's so very well-entrenched.

WAYNE PACELLE: And they've got to do that, because they know it's widely criminalized. There are serious penalties now. This is not some petty offense. This is a felony in 48 states.

Federal punishment for dog fighting

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, explain that, because it's a felony in 48 states, misdemeanor in the other two?

WAYNE PACELLE: Right, Idaho and Wyoming.

JEFFREY BROWN: But there's also this federal law.

WAYNE PACELLE: Right, and just in the -- Michael Vick actually got a little bit lucky at some level, because the Congress just upgraded the federal law, and it took effect in early May before his crimes occurred. So he's being charged under the previous statute as well as a couple of other federal statutes. But the penalty now is up to three years in jail and up to $250,000 fine per violation.

So we're telling young people, if they want to follow Michael Vick or if they want to some of the rap artists who glamorize dogfighting, this is a dead-end for you. You're going to get in serious trouble. Stay away from dogfighting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let's just say Michael Vick has not -- he'll be arraigned next week. That's when he'll offer a plea, so his case is still to be decided.

WAYNE PACELLE: Right, but there's no question that, on his property, dogfighting was occurring. No one disputes that. There were 13 bodies exhumed. There were pits, and there were kennels on the site.

JEFFREY BROWN: How about the enforcement? How uniform -- what have you seen, in terms of enforcement? Is there much now, or does it happen through luck? I read that in some cases it starts when they're looking at other things, like drug cases, and then they stumble upon something like this.

BOBBY BROWN: That's pretty much. I mean, drug use, guns, all of that is prevalent amongst these dog matches. When you go in, they search you to make sure that you don't have weapons or anything like that.

WAYNE PACELLE: But I think we've been stepping it up. I think that we've seen a real up-tick in enforcement, because we're so appalled by it. The public is so appalled that we're using more informants, and law enforcement is treating it more seriously. Now that it's a felony, law enforcement has more of an incentive to take action.

You don't want to have a very complicated, long-term investigation, at the end of the process, have a slap on the wrist because there's a misdemeanor penalty. Now that we have almost entirely uniform felonies, law enforcement is treating it seriously.

Plus, we know that folks who do this are dangerous folks often times. You know, you're not just an upstanding citizen six of seven days a week and then dogfighting another day. Narcotics traffic and violence against people are part of this subculture.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, Wayne Pacelle and Bobby Brown, thank you both very much.

BOBBY BROWN: Thank you.