America has never had a discussion about the reprehensible blood sport of dog fighting quite like the one that's going on right now. A dog-fighting operation may have been housed on a Virginia estate owned by Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, according to recent reports, and that has sparked speculation on talk radio and in the sports pages about whether Vick had a role in organizing fights, and if so what that might do to his sports career.
Vick, of course, is innocent until proved guilty. But the attention his name has brought to this issue should spur a deeper conversation about the troubling growth of dog fighting in America. Although 48 states call it a felony, dog fighting is undergoing a resurgence, transformed from a once largely rural and illicit sport into a fashionable pastime with a certain outlaw cache in many urban neighborhoods.
ALL THE VOGUE AMONG ATHLETES
Embraced by street gangs starting in the late 1980s, who were drawn to it for their own sport then discovered it could be a profitable enterprise, the new world of dog fighting ranges from highly organized, well-attended matches featuring tens of thousands of dollars in betting pools and prize money to impromptu bouts on street corners and in playgrounds. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that as many as 40,000 people participate in dog fighting either as spectators, organizers or breeders of dogs, and tens of thousands of dogs are bred for the ring.
Magazines and Internet sites openly sell training gear and display the "Cajun Rules," an intricate, 19-point system for adjudicating dog fights. Videos depicting dog fights are available for sale online, including recently at Amazon.com, according to a suit filed against the retailer by the Humane Society.
One reason for the growing popularity of dog fighting is that it seems to have come into vogue among professional athletes and entertainers, whose attentions have given the brutal pastime a certain street cred.
In 2005, National Basketball Association player Qyntel Woods pleaded guilty to animal abuse charges after abandoning a pit bull that had wounds consistent with dog fighting. That same year, former NFL running back LeShon Johnson pleaded guilty to possessing fight dogs and encouraging dogfights. And Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis, when asked about Vick, expressed an attitude that appears all too common among pro athletes: "It's his property; it's his dogs. If that's what he wants to do, do it."
Rap music also glorifies the blood sport. The rapper DMX, who appears with a snarling pit bull on the cover of his album "Year of the Dog Again," has sung: "Place your bets/You can imagine what the bloodline is like," and "All my pups is crazy, 'cause off the leash/ They can eat, stand a match for three hours at least."
Madison Avenue has been quick to seize on such attitudes to instill a certain street cred in its own advertising. In 2003, the clothing company Nike, which has endorsement deals with numerous top athletes including Vick, released a gritty-looking TV ad dubbed "The Battle" which featured a brief glimpse of a growling pit bull and Rottweiler about to face off. A Nike representative denied that the ad encouraged dog fighting, but explained, "People have to understand the youth culture we cater to. Our market is the urban, edgy, hip-hop culture."
CREATING BIGGER PROBLEMS
That culture has reached down to schoolchildren, who increasingly seem to think that two dogs at each others' throats is cool. A survey of schoolchildren by the Anti-Cruelty Society of Chicago in 2001 found that 20 percent had witnessed a dogfight. Earlier this year, Los Angeles police arrested a 13-year-old boy who had organized a dog fight in an alley.
We ignore the surging popularity of dog fighting and its related activities, such as breeding dogs for aggressiveness, at our own risk. Profits from matches now fund other illicit gang operations, including drug buying. An analysis by the Animal Legal and Historical Center, a project of the Michigan State College of Law, of more than two dozen raids on dogfights found that in virtually every instance the police also seized illegal narcotics and weapons.
The presence in neighborhoods of so many dogs bred and trained to be aggressive is also a growing danger. Just a few months ago in England, which has witnessed a similar growth in urban-centered dog fighting, 5-year-old Ellie Lawrenson was mauled to death by a dog allegedly bred by her uncle for the ring.
Dog fighting has also become a nightmare for America's lawful pet owners. Although many fighting dogs are bred, gangs steal neighborhood dogs and cats to be used as 'bait' in training the fighters and developing a blood lust in them. Several years ago, investigators in Pima County, Ariz., began finding the remains of disfigured dead dogs dumped in the desert and determined that many were stolen pets.
Dogs bred to fight are victims, too, usually living short, cruel lives. Most are so aggressive that they must be chained or caged in isolation, apart from other animals and humans. And even if they are rescued by authorities and heal from sometimes terrible wounds, these dogs most often must be put to sleep because they cannot be adopted as family pets.
PROSECUTORS GO EASY
Despite such horrors, dog fighting thrives in part because prosecutions are infrequent and penalties can be light. Prosecutors often plead dog fighting cases down to misdemeanor charges of animal cruelty to dispose of them quickly. Instead of jail time, probation and small fines are the norm â€” hardly deterrents to an activity that has become increasingly lucrative. In a 2004 raid in Covington, Ga., police seized $250,000 in cash.
Some cities have begun to recognize the seriousness of the problem. Seeing the connection between dog fighting and other gang crimes, Chicago has created a special police unit devoted to investigating cases of abuse. Two years ago, Los Angeles' police force formed an Animal Cruelty Task Force, which has led to several prosecutions of gang members for animal abuse.
But stepped-up police work and prosecutions are only part of the solution. We are in danger of raising a generation of kids who view animal abuse as a sport, and it is up to responsible adults to change that way of thinking.
Maybe we need to begin by pressuring our sports figures, entertainers and even our advertisers to reform their messages, too.
Steve Malanga is senior editor at the New York-based City Journal.