Police in Montgomery, Alabama on October 1, 2013 took custody of the last 16 of at least 386 pit bulls who were impounded after raids in August 2013 on an alleged multistate dogfighting ring. Thirteen defendants, from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas, are facing related charges.
Initiated by the Auburn, Alabama police department, the investigation and impoundments were assisted by at least 15 humane organizations, both locally and nationwide.
Few dogfighting cases have ever apprehended either more dogs or more alleged dogfighting trainers and organizers. The pit bull impoundments in this case brought the 2013 total seized in connection with dogfighting, throughout the U.S., to 803––on a pace to approximately equal the average of about 950 per year since 2000.
The numbers of pit bulls seized in dogfighting raids have soared as high as 1,612 in 2002 and 1,589 in 2009.
Just how much more dogfighting is done than law enforcement agencies are able to interdict is difficult to assess. Estimating the frequency of commission of any type of crime that often goes undetected and unreported is problematic, but criminologists have developed formulas that usually put the incidence of unreported crime at anywhere from ten to 100 times the reported amount, depending on the type of offense. For crimes such as dogfighting, which involve multiple participants and the use of animals and facilities built or modified for the purpose, the volume of unreported incidents is believed to be much lower than for crimes such as rape and assault, which most often involve only one criminal and one victim at a time.
Thus the numbers of dogs actually used in dogfighting in the U.S. per year may be as low as about 16,000, or as high as 160,000, but is usually guesstimated by veteran dogfighting investigators to be in the range of 40,000––about double the number estimated by the American SPCA in April 1961, when humane investigators found themselves unable to do anything more about a dogfighting convention held openly at Ruston, Lousiana than to deplore it to the Ruston Daily Leader and United Press International.
To put the currently estimated numbers of fighting dogs into context, more dogs appear to have been used in dogfighting in the U.S. in each of the past 13 years than the annual total of dogs impounded in all but a few of the biggest U.S. cities, and in forty of the fifty states.
Worse, despite all the difficult and often very dangerous investigative work done to bust dogfighters, the few possible hints that dogfighting might be declining are ambiguous. The one verifiable fact about dogfighting is that the volume of related arrests and impoundments has hovered in the same all-time high range for 13 consecutive years––a fact which may reflect the limitations of the resources available to combat dogfighting more than the amount of dogfighting actually going on.
Dogfighting today appears to be more culturally prominent than at any time since British queen Elizabeth I openly attended dogfights and bear-baiting events, more than 400 years ago. Dogfighting imagery is used to sell trucks, tools, beer, brands of apparel, popular music, and even, in the case of Sarah Palin, a presidential candidate––albeit a candidate whose campaign failed early in the 2012 race.
Some observers were surprised that football player Michael Vick was caught in 2007 running a dogfighting ring in an upscale residential neighborhood in Surrey County, Virginia, but many other dogfighting busts in recent years have occurred in affluent suburbs, from New Hampshire to Southern California. This is a relatively recent development. Before circa 2000 there was little precedent for dogfighting in “good” neighborhoods since the Puritan regent Oliver Cromwell drove dogfighting and baiting underground in England a generation after Elizabeth I.
British sailors and soldiers in the next few centuries introduced dogfighting to port cities worldwide, including in India, where the “bully khutta” pit bull variant emerged in the 19th century, and to Crete. The New York Times in 1857 “credited” British dogfighters with bringing rabies to Crete and perhaps to India.
Dogfighting in the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries occurred mostly in waterfront taverns. Eradicated from most of the U.S. by the rise of the humane movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dogfighting persisted chiefly in the rural South. Dogfighters, along with cockfighters, moonshiners, and promoters of other vices, donated heavily to fraternal lodges fronting for the Ku Klux Klan. Klan influence in turn ensured that relatively few dogfighters were ever raided.
There were exceptions. The Humane Society of Greater Birmingham broke up the World Series of Dogfighting in 1935, though the alleged dogfighters escaped. Carey H. Falwell, father of evangelist Jerry Falwell, was in 1938 twice convicted of hosting dogfights in Lynchburg, Virginia. But the inability of humane societies to raid the 1961 dogfighting convention in Louisiana was more the norm.
Following the break-up of the Klan by law enforcement pressure in the 1960s and 1970s, one might have expected dogfighting (and cockfighting) to disappear even from the South. Instead, motorcycle gangs, skinheads, drug dealers, and marijuana growers ––who documentedly began using pit bulls to guard their plots in California in the late 1970s ––re-introduced dogfighting to most of the rest of the country.
By the mid-1980s dogfighting had crossed over into inner city African-American and Hispanic street culture, via prison gangs, and had begun to be celebrated in “rap” music lyrics. Gradually thereafter U.S.-style dogfighting became visible in association with vice, especially the drug traffic, in Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, eastern Europe, and much of Southeast Asia, India, and Pakistan. The Taliban suppressed the relatively non-lethal Central Asian version of dogfighting in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, but over the past decade U.S. troops have helped to replace the traditional body-slamming matches between working sheep dogs with American-style pit bull fights to the death.
But with the resurging magnitude of dogfighting duly acknowledged, animal advocacy attention to dogfighting tends to invert the economic realities of the pit bull industry as it exists today––and, in so doing, fails both to suppress dogfighting and to effectively address the other consequences of pit bull proliferation.
The “status dog” market
The “blame-the-deed-not-the-breed” narrative often amplified by humane organizations holds that the many issues associated with pit bulls, beyond actual use in dogfighting, are primarily the result of misuse of pit bulls by dogfighters. Suppress dogfighting, the narrative goes, and pit bulls will become safe dogs, the pit bulls now flooding shelters will all find homes, and all will live happily ever after.
Indeed, dogfighters can be blamed for quite a lot. Pit bulls are the products of extensive line breeding in a multi-century arms race to develop the most deadly fighting dogs, dogs who will maim pigs in so-called hog/dog rodeo, bull-and-bear-baiting dogs, dogs who would kill rats in a pit in great numbers without pausing to eat any, dogs who would attack and kill Native Americans, and dogs who would dismember runaway slaves as a warning to others.
Reflecting the differing specialities for which pit bulls were bred, as well as the differing bloodlines developed by fighting breeders, diversity in pit bull appearance often confounds would-be regulators who seek to regulate by form, or breed standard. The multitude of names used by pit bull fanciers to distinguish among the range of pit bull types adds a further confounding factor
The common traits of pit bulls, regardless of other aspects of appearance and behavior, are that they are mesomorphic muscular dogs, disproportionately large-jawed, inclined to explode from calm demeanor to idiopathic rage without going through a long repertoire of warning signals first, and inclined to attack and continue attacking, without relent and regardless of injury to themselves, until their target is dead and dismembered.
With the role of fighting dog breeders in developing these traits acknowledged, the narrative that dogfighting underlies all present pit bull issues is at best a half-truth. Dogfighting provides imagery that helps to promote pit bulls, much as NASCAR auto racing provides imagery that helps to sell cars. Also, the big money in dogfighting, as in just about every other competitive pursuit that involves animals, is in breeding the winners and selling their offspring. But this is nothing new. As of 1961, dogfighting had been technically illegal in every state for 40 years, yet dogfighters still openly advertised their “champions” and “grand champions,” listing by name the dogs they had defeated.
What has changed are the proportions of the pit bull breeding industry. The 20,000 pit bulls per year believed to have used in dogfights in 1961 were about 10% of all the pit bulls in the U.S., then barely 200,000. This was a number low enough that practically the whole pit bull population could be traced back a generation to actual fighting dogs or culls sold as pets.
The 40,000 pit bulls per year believed to be used in dogfights today are about 1.2% of the present pit bull population. Breeders advertising “champions” and “grand champions” through electronic media have become ubiquitous, but unlike in 1961, they rarely post details that might lead to indictments. Relatively few pit bulls today can be verifiably traced to recent fighting ancestry.
Dogfights among high-priced pedigreed pit bulls may still be held. Certainly there is plenty of evidence of high-end speculative pit bull breeding––but those customers who can be identified tend to be affluent outsiders trying to buy their way into the inner circles of dogfighting, like Michael Vick. Reputed high-end fighting dog breeders, meanwhile, are rarely caught actually fighting their dogs. Several have been brought to a semblance of justice in recent years, but on charges other than dogfighting; the biggest names to be charged with dogfighting were acquitted.
Historically, pit bulls sold as pets were castoffs from fighting dog breeders. Today, however, most of the dogfighting industry thrives on the seemingly endless supply of low-end cast-off pit bulls bred to be pets.
Unlike 50-odd years ago, when authentic fighting dogs were often identified with long pedigrees in dogfighting newsletters, most of the 10,000-odd pit bulls seized in raids over the past dozen years have been about as anonymous as dogs could be, often not even having names until names were assigned by rescuers. Frequently the dogs were stolen, acquired free-to-good-home after having failed as pets, or were bought cheaply from backyard breeders who had already sold their most impressive-looking pups to people who wanted them to guard drug-dealing operations, as adjuncts to other criminal activities, or just to show off.
Dogfighters have often been caught operating bogus “rescues” to obtain cast-off pit bulls. Dozens more may still be in the false-front “rescue” business.
While the numbers of pit bulls used in dogfighting appears to have doubled since 1961, shelter pit bull intake has soared from less than 1% of the dogs received to 37% in 2013, and from less than 2% of the dogs killed in shelters to upward of 60%. Shelters have since 2000 received more than a million pit bulls per year, killing an average of about 930,000: nearly 1,000 times more than the numbers seized from dogfighters.
Most of these dogs have been bred by suppliers of what the British call the “status dog” market, meaning people who want to show off possession of a scary dog, but usually do not want the dog to do anything actually scary––at least not spontaneously, independent of a command to attack.
Nearly a third of the total U.S. pit bull population are surrendered to animal shelters, or are impounded for dangerous behavior, each and every year. About a third of the pit bull population are under a year of age, while half of all adult pit bulls now in homes will not be in those homes a year later.
Typically these dogs lose their homes because of traits inculcated by dogfighting breeders, but usually several generations after actual fighting dogs were part of their ancestry. Often the people surrendering pit bulls to shelters had no intention that they should ever be fighters, and no expectation that they might ever become dangerous.
If treated well, people acquiring pit bulls tend to believe today, pit bulls will respond as if ancestrally bred as pets or as reliable working dogs. This is a very different set of expectations from those of 50-odd years ago when hardly anyone acquired a pit bull except to fight or keep chained as a guard dog.
Overwhelmed by the pit bull influx at the same time that public expectations have risen that shelters should be “no kill,” the humane community has made unprecedented efforts to avoid killing pit bulls, including promoting the very myths––such as the fiction that pit bulls were ever used as “nanny dogs”––that tend to lead to fatal and disfiguring accidents.
Shelter adopters have in recent years been persuaded to take home pit bulls at about three times the rate at which people who buy dogs from breeders choose pit bulls. But this has had consequences. Only two dogs rehomed by U.S. animal shelters had ever killed anyone as recently as 2000, a pair of wolf hybrids who were rehomed in 1988 and 1989. Thirty-one shelter dogs have participated in killing people since 2010, 18 of them pit bulls and nine of them mixes of pit bull with mastiff. Not surprisingly, a recent survey funded by the Best Friends Animal Society found that public confidence in shelters as a good place to get a dog has declined.
The shelter record in rehoming pit bulls is in microcosm the experience of the nation. As of 1961, pit bulls had killed nine of the fifteen Americans who had been killed by dogs in the preceding 30 years. The number of pit bulls in the U.S. is now about 12 times greater, but pit bulls since 2010 have killed an average of 27.5 people per year, a more than 60-fold increase in the rate of fatal attacks. Along with the rising fatalities, pit bulls disfigured more than 400 Americans in the first 10 months of 2013, twice as many as in any previous year. In all the 31 years that ANIMAL PEOPLE editor Merritt Clifton has logged fatal and disfiguring dog attacks, only one of the 265 human fatalities inflicted by pit bulls and just a handful of the more than 3,000 disfigurements have involved dogs kept by people who were ever charged with dogfighting.
Of further concern to people who care about animals, there have been about 20 reported pit bull killings of other pets thus far in 2013 for every human fatality. If this attack ratio extends to disfigurements, and there is every reason to believe it does, pit bulls have in 2013 killed or disfigured at least 8,000 other pets––over and above whatever number have been killed in dogfighting and training fighting dogs.
Though the pit bull problem began with dogfighters, it is today mostly an exceptionally problematic aspect of pet overpopulation, perpetuated primarily by the low rate of sterilization among pet pit bulls––less than 25%––and by backyard breeding, not by people trying to produce “grand champions” so much as by people hoping to make a few hundred bucks selling “status dogs” around their neighborhoods.
Contrary to common belief, there is no documentation to support the notion that sterilization makes pit bulls, or any dogs, significantly safer. In 1960, when only 1% of all the dogs in the U.S. were sterilized, most pet dogs were not kept leashed or confined, and canine rabies had not yet been eradicated from the U.S., only 611,000 Americans required medical treatment for dog bites. Hardly any dogs run free today, no dog has contracted canine rabies in the U.S. in 15 years, and more than 70% of all dogs are sterilized, despite the low rate of pit bull sterilization. Yet 4.7 million Americans per year now seek medical attention for dog bites.
Serious bites have increased eightfold while the U.S. dog population has only doubled.
But though sterilization does not make dogs safer, it does make them less numerous. Mandatory pit bull sterilization, in effect in San Francisco since 2006, could prevent the impoundment and subsequent deaths of more than 900,000 pit bulls per year nationwide; end the desperation of shelter management to avoid killing pit bulls which has led to so many deaths and disfigurements by pit bulls who have been rehomed, eroding public trust of shelter adoption; and cut off the flow of cast-off pit bulls to dogfighters via bogus “rescues.”
With pit bull proliferation curbed, identifying and successfully prosecuting dogfighters should be considerably easier. And throwing the book at pit bull breeders would shut down those who trade on their reputations for producing “grand champions,” whether or not they can be caught at the pits.