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U.S. Dog-Fighting Rings
Stealing Pets for "Bait"
For years the Pima County Sheriff's
Department found the chewed-up bodies of dead dogs in the
Arizona desert. But it wasn't until four years ago that the
truth behind the killings emerged: Stolen family pets were
being used in bloody training exercises by dog fighting rings.
for National Geographic
February 18, 2004
This Arizona fighting dog's
ears were so badly maimed that they had to be removed. Pets
throughout the country are frequently nabbed to test another
dog's fighting instinct, according to animal welfare groups
and law enforcement officers.
The problem is not confined to Arizona.
Animal-welfare groups and law-enforcement officers say pets
throughout the country are frequently nabbed for
"bait" - animals used to test another dog's fighting instinct.
The "bait" is mauled or killed in the process.
the Humane Society of Southern Arizona
Like all good detectives, Mike Duffey
of the Pima County Sheriff's Department pieced together the
clues. Four years ago he was assigned to investigate animal
Duffey knew the dead dogs found in the county's
rural areas weren't strays, because the pads of their feet and
their nails had not been worn down from a life on the streets.
So Duffey checked the lost-and-stolen-animal reports kept by
the local humane society.
"We found that a lot of the dogs found in these
desert dumping areas were in fact, at one time, [reported]
stolen," said Duffey, co-chair of the Animal Cruelty Taskforce
of Southern Arizona, an organization made up of
law-enforcement, criminal-justice, and animal-protection
professionals. "So we began looking for a connection."
That connection was made when the veteran detective
found a copy of the American Patriot. The journal, he
said, was filled with pictures of fighting pit bulls kept in
the very same areas where officers were finding the remains of
Duffey says a large number of animals are reported
lost in Pima County. Within the last six months, 3,396 animals
have been reported missing. Of that amount, Duffey estimates
50 percent may have been stolen.
"Animal control has enough people out on patrol, so
if [an animal] was truly a stray, they'd encounter it," Duffey
said. "But they never turn up as strays; they just turn up as
missing. Then somewhere down the line, we find one in the
desert that matches the description of four or five that were
In January the sheriff's department began to tally
local pets stolen by dog-fighting operations. Officers match
the descriptions of animals found dumped in the desert to
those reported missing.
National statistics on how many pets are taken each
year and used as bait by dog-fighting rings are not available.
"I think every state has a problem with it, whether
they know it or not," said Patricia Wagner, head of the
National Illegal Animal Fighting Task Force for the Humane
Society of the United States.
Wagner said news reports about stolen pets in the
U.S. have appeared in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois,
New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas, among other states.
To protect pets from being stolen, owners should
care for their animals like they would a four-year-old child
says Marsh Myers, director of education and community outreach
for the Humane Society of Southern Arizona in Tucson. Both
children and pets, he says, have similar levels of curiosity
"Pet owners need to play that role of parent," Myers
said. "We live in a society that has some dangerous people in
it, and they will target your pets if they're allowed to."
Small dogs, kittens, and rabbits are more at risk of
being stolen for bait, experts say. Pit bulls, though, are
commonly targeted by dog fighting rings for potential breeding
In Arizona state representative Ted Downing
introduced a bill last month that would make stealing an
animal for use in dog fighting a felony with penalties up to
two years in jail and fines as high as U.S. $150,000. If the
bill becomes state law, Downing says, it could be the first of
its kind in the country.
How to Protect Your Pet
your pet from being stolen, Last Chance for Animals, a
national animal rights organization, suggests the
-- Keep pets indoors, especially when
you're not at home.
-- Do not leave animals
unattended in the yard. It only takes a minute for
thieves to steal your pet.
-- Outdoor pets should
be kept in a fenced yard with a padlocked gate. Make
sure your dog cannot easily be seen from the
-- Do not leave your companion animal
outside of a store to wait for you.
-- Never leave
an animal unattended in a car.
-- Use microchip
IDs if possible, and keep current identification tags on
-- Be aware of strangers in the
neighborhood. Report suspicious activities or missing
pets to the police or animal control authorities.
Dog fighting is illegal in all 50 states and a
felony in 47. Still, law-enforcement officials and animal-care
professionals say they've seen a recent increase in the blood
"There's so much of it going on [nationally]," said
detective Mike Vadnal, who for 12 years has investigated
animal crimes for the Broward Sheriff's Office in Broward
County, Florida. "It's out of control."
Last April the alleged publisher of Sporting Dog
Journal, which is thought to be the largest underground
magazine for the dog-fighting industry, was arrested in New
York, according to Vadnal.
Vadnal said the last printed edition of the magazine
listed about a thousand fight reports. The fights were by
"professionals" who breed and fight animals throughout the
country for profit, Vadnal said. There are also other, less
organized groups who spar their dogs for bragging rights and
In such contests, according to law-enforcement
officials, two dogs are placed in a pit or similar area
enclosed with plywood walls. They attack each other while
crowds of up to 200 people watch and cheer. Bets ranging from
U.S. $10,000 to $50,000 are made on fights.
The bloody battle often lasts two hours or more,
ending when one dog is no longer able to continue. The breed
most often used is the American pit bull terrier. Experts say
dogs that survive often die hours, sometimes even days, after
the fight--usually of blood loss, shock, or infection.
The practice has been linked to other crimes. In
Arizona, for example, Duffey said spectators and dogfight
operators are often involved in auto theft, drug dealing, arms
smuggling, and money laundering.
The Humane Society of the United States keeps a
database of news reports on dog fighting. It estimates 40,000
people are involved in the blood sport and 250,000 pit bulls
The Internet has helped fuel dog fighting by making
it easier for criminals to communicate, says Wagner of the
Humane Society. At last count there were about 500 message
boards and chat rooms devoted to dog fighting, and the number
keeps growing, Wagner said.
As dog fighting proliferates, the number of stolen
pets has also grown. Whether the two are directly linked is
Sandy Christiansen, a program coordinator for the
Tallahassee, Florida-based Humane Society of the United
States, says his office receive reports almost daily from
animal shelters around the country about neighborhood pets
But Christiansen, a former animal control
investigator in Rochester, New York, says teenagers, not
professional dog fighters, may be to blame.
"My experience mostly has been in an urban
environment where the dogs that are being stolen are often
used by less sophisticated people who are looking for the
thrill of watching their dog beat up another dog,"
A Humane Alternative
Concerned by the increasing number of youths
involved in dog fighting, former animal control officer Sue
Sternberg decide to do something about it.
In 2002, Sternberg started Lug-Nuts, a program that
encourages inner-city teens to enter their dogs in
weight-pulling contests instead of fights.
"Weight pulling is a very macho sport, and it's
incredibly humane," said Sternberg, who now runs a boarding,
training, and adoption kennel called Rondout Valley Animals
for Adoption in northern New York State.
Owners encourage their pets--harnessed to plastic
sleds filled with dog-food bags--to move forward with words of
encouragement and tasty treats.
Monthly contests are held in Harlem's Marcus Garvey
Park, drawing about 15 entries and a large crowd of onlookers,
Sternberg said. Winners receive cash prizes and pet supplies.
Sternberg said the program also encourages owners to
neuter and spay their animals and offers to pay for the
Shelters in the Northeastern U.S. are filled with
dangerous dogs, Sternberg said, because teenagers involved in
dog fighting are breeding their animals every six months for
profit. Some teens are making between U.S. $1,500 and $2,000
each year selling puppies.
Consequently, shelters are filling with pit bulls
and pit bull mixes that are not adoptable, because they've
been trained to be aggressive toward other animals and
Sternberg is currently working on a Lug-Nuts
training manual and video for animal-care professionals
interested in starting the program in their areas. firstname.lastname@example.org