officials call this the "just dogs" mentality. "It's 'just
dogs,'" explains Strouse, "so why does it matter?"
There are three
types of dogfighters. One is the street fighter, who usually owns a single dog
and fights it "off the chain" in alleys or vacant lots. Another is the
hobbyist, who might own a few dogs, squaring them off against other animals
owned by close associates. And then there is the professional, who pays as much
as $40,000 for a dog, breeds animals from past champions and and participates
in well-organized, high-stakes fights often planned months in advance, with
purses of up to $100,000.
In one case
investigated by the HSUS, dogfight attendees were told to meet miles from the
fight's location. They then had to relinquish their car keys and cellphones
before being bused to the fight. Such secrecy explains why police are rarely
able to raid live fights. Most busts--including one in March in southern Ohio
involving 64 dogs--result from investigations of other crimes, typically
involving drugs or guns.
One of the few law
enforcement officials to penetrate a professional dogfighting ring is Jim Ward,
an agent for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The
operation he infiltrated involved former NFL running back LeShon Johnson, who
pleaded guilty in 2005 to dogfighting in a case in which more than 200 dogs
were seized and 20 people convicted. ( Johnson received a five-year deferred
sentence.) Ward attended two fights, the first a high-stakes match and the
second a series of training fights during which 30 to 40 people, including
Johnson, were "rolling" dogs--trying them out to determine if they were
"game" enough to fight. Both sets of fights were staged in a
greenhouse, in a pit made of hinged plywood so that the walls could be folded
down and the carpet rolled up in a moment.
"I was amazed
at how all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds went to these
fights," Ward, 36, says. "There was a kid there who was eight or nine
years old, and there were some teenagers and then older men. But there were
also women who had come with their boyfriends, as if on a date."
On the first night
of fights, Ward witnessed matches with purses as high as $10,000. The evening
was officiated by someone identified as a sanctioned "game dog"
referee, who weighed the dogs and ensured they were a good pairing. The dogs
were then bathed, a precaution against the practice of putting poison or other
substances on a dog's coat to debilitate or repel the opponent. The two dogs
were placed in opposite corners of the pit and released simultaneously.
"You know that
sound of a dog ripping into meat? That is what you hear, and it is
horrible," Ward says. "And a true fighting dog doesn't just bite. It
holds on and shakes." Ward considered calling in agents who were performing
surveillance to put an end to the carnage. "But I thought if I stayed and
we got everyone involved, then maybe we could really put a stop to these
During one fight
Ward watched as a red brindle female named Star was ripped apart. After her
defeat, her owner pulled out a gun and announced he was taking Star outside to
kill her. Concerned that his surveillance team would hear the shot and move in,
Ward quickly offered to buy the animal. He paid $60.
"I took her to
the vet that night, and she needed more than 40 stitches," Ward says. Once
home, he found her to be loyal and loving. But in the presence of another
animal--his Labrador retriever or one of his horses--she attacked. "It's
what the dogfighters call 'gameness,' that 'game blood,'" Ward says.
"Eventually I had to put her down."
Ward saw firsthand
how prominently Johnson, a 1994 draft pick out of Northern Illinois who played
five seasons for three NFL teams, figured in the dogfighting world. His
Krazyside Kennels had been a well-known and sought-after breeder; his dogs were
branded with a "5," which law enforcement officials say may have been a
reference to the number of victories a dog needs to be labeled a grand
champion. The kennel's most famous dog, Nino, is a legend. In a lengthy
testimonial on one breeder's website, riospitbull.com, Nino's exploits are
described in a laudatory narrative signed by "Krazyside Kennels." The
narrator writes of finding Nino in 1997 and fighting him in North Carolina,
Arkansas, Kansas and, finally, New York. In Nino's last match, according to the
account, he won a fight that lasted one hour and 48 minutes, despite having his
ankle snapped in the first 30 seconds. (Some dogfights last as long as four
hours.) "Everyone who doesn't believe this brutal stuff goes on should read
that essay," Ward says.