Dogfighting is on rise, but arrests are rare
Martin Van Der Werf
Of the Post-Dispatch
"Chew that nose! Chew that nose off him, boy!"
In a dim barn, streams of light filter through cracks in the wood and the
doorjamb as an owner exhorts his pit bull to "the game," as dogfighters call
The other pit bull, pinned on its back, suddenly yanks its head out from
beneath its opponent, and latches on to the opponent's flank, eliciting a
It lasts for 20 minutes before the dogs are sponged off. They fight for
another 20 minutes before both dogs are exhausted, panting for air and
bleeding from their muzzles, mouths, ears.
The images from a videotape shot nearly a decade ago in Decatur, Ill.,
depicted part of a small, loosely aligned culture of dogfighters, mostly in
rural and Southern areas. But dogfighting has prospered and spread, and is
catching on in metropolitan areas, including St. Louis.
Dogfighting has become "the entertainment of choice" for gang members, says
Sgt. Troy Doyle of the St. Louis County Police Department.
When Humane Society officials speak to fifth-graders at schools around the
St. Louis area, many of the children say they have seen a dogfight.
"It's not unusual for a few of them to be wearing the big gold pit bull
medallion .?.?. It's a status symbol," said Suzanne Gassner, director of
education for the Humane Society of Missouri.
Some hip-hop stars like DMX have glorified dogfighting in their videos and
albums. His newest release, "Grand Champ," features a photo of a pit bull on
the cover. A Nike ad earlier this year showed two dogs about to go to
battle; the company pulled the spot in the face of complaints.
Nationally, as many as 40,000 people participate in organized dogfighting,
says the Humane Society of the United States. And at least tens of thousands
more are "street fighters," says Eric Sakach, director of the West Coast
regional office of the Humane Society. He's also an expert on dogfighting.
"Street fighters" are people whose dogs may occasionally fight for small
wagers or neighborhood bragging rights. The dogs are often shown off and
fought by gang members.
Dogfighting is a felony in 47 states, including Missouri and Illinois. But
arrests are rare, and so are prosecutions.
"I really don't think there is a concerted effort by police departments to
go after dogfighting," said Amy Maher, an assistant state's attorney in
She makes it a priority to prosecute animal abuse cases because "people that
can commit these kinds of *** crimes against animals could easily commit
*** crimes against people."
Even so, Maher has successfully prosecuted only one felony case of
dogfighting. John C. Riddlespriger, 35, of Alton, pleaded guilty in
September to promoting a dogfight. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
Two others were arrested in the same case. Their trials are pending.
"More than we think"
In the St. Louis area, only the Granite City police department has a unit
specially trained to investigate animal abuse cases.
For most area police departments, dogfighting is not on their radar screens.
Doyle, of the St. Louis County police, acknowledges that dogfighting is
prevalent in Castle Point, a community between Dellwood and Bellefontaine
Neighbors. He oversees community policing efforts in the area.
"I'm pretty certain it is taking place more than we think," he said, usually
involving gang members. But he rarely gets calls because "people there are
"They think the people engaged in the criminal activity will figure out that
it was them who called the police, and then they will be the targets."
Police in Chicago are waking up to the problems of dogfighting. Sgt. Steve
Brownstein commands the Animal Abuse Control Team there.
"I look at dogfighting, and animal cruelty, as being very much in the
embryonic stage in terms of police response," Brownstein said. His unit was
formed in May 1999. Since then, it has made at least 700 arrests, and
confiscated about 2,500 animals.
He declined to say how many people have been prosecuted. He would say only
that "once the seriousness of this activity is recognized, there will be a
more effective police response on all levels."
Dogfighters have been known to use Rottweilers and Akitas in matches, but
the dog of choice is the pit bull. Pit bulls actually are of three different
breeds: the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier
and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier.
They can be loving family pets, but they are also known for their strong
jaws, ferocity toward other dogs and the relentlessness of their attack.
Dogfighters have techniques to bring out the animal's aggressive tendencies.
They feed the dogs hot peppers or gunpowder and keep them in small cages or
chained to concrete porches. Some fighters train the dogs on treadmills with
smaller dogs or cats in a cage just out of reach.
Dogs are trained to bite into tires*** from trees and swing for as long
as possible to strengthen their jaws, or swim for hours to build up their
Pit bulls make up an increasing percentage of dogs brought into local
shelters - 20 percent to 25 percent in St. Louis County, said Mary Weeks, an
officer with the Department of Animal Control.
Many of the dogs have scars on their heads, apparently from fighting.
While the percentage of pit bulls has increased, the overall number of dogs
being picked up by shelters in the county and St. Louis is declining.
For example, in St. Louis County the number fell to 6,202 last year from
6,404 in 2001. At the end of September, the department was on a pace to pick
up 5,765 dogs this year, despite the fact that the county added four
officers to the department this year.
"We like to think that owners are just taking better care of their animals,
that our message is getting through," said Lori Rezzardi, supervisor of the
North County shelter, which is just outside of Florissant.
Prosecution is difficult
Animal activists have a different viewpoint: that the county is ignoring
problem areas and focusing on routine calls instead.
At dusk on a Wednesday afternoon last month, animal control officer Stan
Flowers sat in his idling pickup, and radioed the police department. He is
the only officer on duty at night in the county north of Page Avenue, an
area that covers about 175 square miles.
He had four calls: A dog bite in Jennings, a squirrel in the kitchen of a
Maryland Heights apartment, a bird in a Spanish Lake apartment, and a St.
Ann apartment where a stray cat had run in the door.
By the time he responded to those calls, it was 10:40 p.m. and he was
waiting at a Popeye's drive-through for his meal break.
His shift ended at midnight. Even on the quietest of nights, there's little
time to patrol for loose dogs or for fights.
"We have names in these files of people we know are dogfighters, but we have
not been able to prove it," Flowers said. "I'll get called out to Castle
Point or Wellston. You can tell there's been a dogfight. I find *** here
and there, a dog covered in ***. I'll ask for vaccination records, and
they won't have them. So I cite them, and say that dog needs to see a
"I have these cases 10 to 12 times a year. How many do I see through to
Dogfighting is hard to investigate because of the secretiveness of the dog
The appearance of a single unfamiliar face at a fight will cause the
organizers to call it off, said Curt Ransom, the chief of investigations for
the Humane Society of Missouri, but fights just go on somewhere else.
"It is everywhere. There is a lot of street fighting in St. Louis," Ransen
said. "There are a lot of organized fights in abandoned buildings."
Enforcement of dogfighting laws often falls into a gray area. Flowers, the
animal control officer, believes police should make it a priority to arrest
people for dogfighting and seize the animals. But Doyle said gaining control
over dangerous dogs is an animal control responsibility.
The problem is compounded by the fact that Humane Society officers are often
first on the scene of animal abuse cases but have no law enforcement powers.
"There is no other criminal activity where you have non-law enforcement
officers assigned to investigate it," Brownstein said. "If people are not
getting arrested and having their dogs seized, there is little disincentive
to just keep on doing it."
Arrests for dogfighting are on the rise around the nation, said Sakach, of
the Humane Society. Last April, police in New York arrested the publisher of
the Sporting Dog Journal, James Fricchione, one of 11 known national
magazines documenting the growth of the sport. There also are about 200 Web
sites that track dogfighting, such as www.pitdogs.org and www.gamedogs.com.
The Humane Society's Ransom said he hopes a task force of police officers
will be created next year to try to break up dogfighting rings. Ideally, the
task force would include officers from across the state and the attorney
general's office, the Highway Patrol and drug enforcement agencies.
"These are very dangerous people, judging by all the *** and firearms and
drinking that is involved," Ransom said. "They know it is a felony, and they
could go to prison, so they are not going to be easily deterred."
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