Of course they don't all die. Pit bulls are incredibly hardy animals that, some folks would have you believe, are impervious to pain. The majority of the pit bulls recover from their fights, which routinely last more than an hour and sometimes as long as three hours, and live to fight again.
Before each match, the handlers wash their opponent's pit bull, a tradition which started after some "gentleman sportsman" discovered that by putting poison on his own dog's coat, he could paralyze his adversary's animal. When the fight begins, the two dogs share the 16-foot-square pit with two handlers and a referee. It's close quarters in there, no place for a man-eating dog. And the bloodthirsty spectators, with fistfuls of cash, are separated from the participants by only a 30-inch-high wall.
"In the old days the fighting dogs were people-gentle," says Lockwood. "But that's not true any longer. It's not unheard of now for dogs to come out of the pit and attack spectators. Some of our investigators have seen it."
It has become a new game. It's commonplace these days for a dogfighting raid to turn up a veritable storeroom of illegal weapons and illegal drugs. "People who think they are dogfighters are into it now, but they have no concept what it's about," says one pit bull breeder from Ohio. "True dogfighters had a lot of money tied up in their dogs, and they didn't want to lose them. Today these clowns steal somebody's pet and put him in the pit without training him. Then they watch while the dog gets torn up. At best, they're sadistic."
Training a fighting pit bull terrier is something the Marquis de Sade certainly would have appreciated. Treadmills are the most commonly used apparatuses, and sometimes a kitten or a chicken is hung in a mesh basket at the top of the treadmill to hold the dog's attention. At the end of the hours-long workout, guess what the reward is? To increase the dog's biting power, trainers will hang tires from tree limbs, bidding their pit bulls to leap up and latch on, sometimes making them hang there for 15 to 20 minutes.
Those are the sophisticated methods. "In Toledo we arrested a guy who was paying kids to collect cats for him," relates Lapham of the Humane Society. "He'd throw them into the basement where he kept his pit bull, to let him taste blood."
Steven Creighton, a sergeant with the San Diego police department, recounts the gruesome tale of the arrest on Dec. 4, 1986, of 18-year-old James Madison. "We got a call that a guy put a noose around a live cat's neck and threw it over a branch so that it hung about eight feet off the ground," says Creighton. "Then the guy let a pit bull loose who attacked the cat while [a group of neighborhood children] watched in horror. He would let the pit chomp on the cat for a while, and then he'd lift the cat up out of the pit's reach. The dog was going crazy." The cat eventually died. Madison, who has pleaded not guilty, will go on trial next month for felony cruelty to animals and raising a dog for fighting.
"It's ridiculous," says Stratton. "The taste of blood doesn't make a pit bull a better fighter. But people write that kind of stuff about people who train pit bulls, and these kids read it and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
And in some instances, it is literally the kids who get involved. Last year in Philadelphia five boys between the ages of 11 and 14 were arrested and charged with participation in a dogfighting ring in which the losing dogs were thrown out the window and hanged. All five were found guilty. "They call it "gambling the dog,' " Sam McClain, a police officer with Philadelphia's 19th District, told reporters. In a follow-up article on Philadelphia street dogfighting, which appeared in the July 2 issue of Rolling Stone, writer Mike Sager described the training regimen of a pair of pit bull handlers, brothers aged 13 and 14: "They'll starve him to make him mean, fatten him on twenty-five-cent-a-can dog food and leftover beans and rice, run him around the block behind their bicycles, feed him chicken blood, take him on a safari around the neighborhood looking for cats and strays, shoot him up with black-market penicillin and vitamin B12 to help heal his wounds, and rub him with used motor oil to make his fur grow back over his scars."
Some feed their dogs hot sauce to make them mean, while others subscribe to a dosage of gunpowder. It is not clear whether these dogs, when they die, do so with their tails up and wagging.