Dogfight on the western front
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2000
BRUSSELS––Germany, France, Italy, and
Britain are battling again in Belgium, and invading
bloody Americans are again ensnarled in the thick of it.
That’s American pit bull terriers this time.
Like the doughboys of World War I and the G.I.s of
World War II, they are said to be over-large, overdosed
on testosterone, and over here, looking for a fight.
This time they are seen as allies of neo-Nazis
and Huns––Attila’s Huns, who ravaged Europe from
434 to 453, when the notoriously reactive Attila’s brain
burst as he celebrated his honeymoon.
The Justice and Home Affairs Council of the
European Union on September 29 heard a German proposal
to ban throughout Europe the breeding or import of
any kind of “fighting dog,” defined as any member of
14 breeds with American pit bull traits. As well as the
American pit bull and Japanese tosa, who have been
banned in Britain and The Netherlands since 1991, the
German proposal would ban Rhodesian ridgebacks,
Neopolitan bulldogs, Staffordshire terriers, English bull
terriers, and bull mastiffs.
The latter three breeds are longtime British
favorites, popular throughout much of the former British
empire. In theory they are easily distinguished from
American pit bulls and other authentic fighting
breeds––but dogfighters long since learned to evade
breed-specific pit bull bans by breeding pit bulls with the
Staffordshire black-and-white coloration, instead of the
traditional pit bull brindle.
Bull mastiffs, meanwhile, are also turning up
with greater than historical frequency in reports of lifethreatening
dog attacks. But English bull terriers seem
to be caught in the crossfire mainly due to their name.
Legislation was rushed into effect in most of
the 16 German states during July and August 2000, soon
after an American pit bull terrier named Zeus and a black
Staffordshire terrier named Gypsy leaped a fence to
attack 10 children who were waiting in a Hamburg
school yard to be taken swimming. A six-year-old boy
of Turkish immigrant parentage tried to run. Zeus tore
his throat out. Gypsy severely mauled another child.
Police shot both dogs on the spot.
The tragedy had racial overtones, not just
because the dead boy came from Germany’s darkest and
most often abused ethnic minority, but also because
barely two months earlier an assembly of pit bull
fanciers planned to pin yellow stars on their dogs, like
those the Nazis compelled Jews to wear during the
Holocaust, and parade the pit bulls through Berlin to
protest a proposed breed-restrictive city ordinance.
Only after Central Council of Jews president
Paul Spiegel threatened to take legal action against the
fanciers for alleged defamation did they back off slightly,
apologizing for offending Holocaust survivors.
The Berlin ordinance, now in effect, became
the model for the ensuing German state legislation and
the proposed EU legislation. Owners of the 14 designated
“fighting dog” breeds are not required to get rid of
them, but must keep them leashed and muzzled
at all times when they are in a public
place; must take an examination of their
knowledge of dog-rearing and dog-training;
and may not have any criminal history.
A rash of “fighting dog” abandonments
followed, as owners rushed to avoid
liability. A flurry of Internet postings and
some media accounts also blamed public panic
for instances of pit bulls and similar dogs
being burned alive, shot, hanged, and so
forth. Not clear from the evidence, however,
was that many of these cases actually involved
anything more than dogfighters’ routine
vicious dispatch of dogs who won’t fight, or
lose––as in the U.S., where Boston-area
investigators learned in 1999 that some dogfighters
skin losing dogs right in the ring, possibly
still alive, and keep the pelts as trophies.
France since January 2000 has
required that all pit bulls and dogs of several
other high-risk breed be neutered, with the
intention of eliminating them entirely by 2010.
But demands for stronger and faster action
rose in June after five pit bulls escaped from a
yard and bodily dismembered Maria Berthelot,
86, during an evening walk.
The hue-and-cry continued when
panhandler Jeremie Acquemin, 20, of Rouen,
was convicted in August of setting his pit bull
on three people who refused to give him spare
change, plus a police officer who intervened.
All four victims were hospitalized.
Similar incidents occur in the U.S.
almost every day, but are so common that
they rarely attract more than local notice.
Police officer Didier Lecourbe, in
the depressed Paris suburb of Aubervilliers,
warned Manchester Guardian c o r r e s p o n d e n t
Jon Henley in September that just banning
some dog breeds wouldn’t solve the problem.
“Now that the authorities have
cracked down on pit bulls and the rest, apes
look like the new weapon of choice,”
Lecourbe explained, estimating that as many
as 500 Barbary apes––actually a subspecies of
baboon––have been smuggled into France
within the past two years. Native to Gibraltar,
Morocco, and Algeria, they are brought back
by ethnic North Africans now living in France,
after visits to relatives still in North Africa.
“There are dozens of them,”
Lecourbe continued. “Kids take them out on
leads, and even carry baby monkeys around in
nappies. But they can be very dangerous
indeed,” tending to make leaping facial bites.
“We’ve heard of monkey-fights
being run in housing project basements,”
Whether or not baboon-fighting
catches on, dogfights have gone global, and
seem to be far bigger business now than at any
time since 1905, when Jack London used the
success of his novel White Fang, about a wolf
hybrid who is stolen and forced to fight, to
lead a successful drive to expell dogfighting
from respectable sports pages.
Dogfighting had been a staple of
early sporting sheets since advent of mass literacy
and high-speed web printing coincided
with the heyday of Kit Burns’ Tavern at 273
Water Street, Manhattan. Burns’ Tavern was
the Madison Square Garden of dogfighting,
but was also recently recalled by New York
T i m e s historian David W. Dunlap as “one of
the foulest grog shops within staggering distance
of the East River wharves.”
According to Edward Winslow
Martin in his 1868 illustrated tract Secrets of
the Great City, Burns’ Tavern nightly attracted
“a crowd of brutal wretches whose conduct
stamps them as beneath the struggling beasts.”
But despite Martin’s outrage, even
the American SPCA, founded nearby in 1869,
couldn’t close Burns’ Tavern or accomplish
much else to stop dogfighting until Jack
London loaned his two-fisted influence to the
Band of Mercy children’s crusade against animal
fighting of all kinds begun by Massachusetts
SPCA founder George Angell.
At that, dogfighting before rowdy
crowds of gamblers remained legal in much of
the U.S. beyond London’s death. As late as
1921, along the route that the fictional White
Fang was dragged from Santa Clara,
California, to the dogfighting pits of Alaska
and the Yukon, touts built The Doghouse, a
dogfighting stadium on the waterfront at
Langley, Washington. The dogfights reputedly
ended at that location within just a few
years, as they drew too much attention to the
building’s parallel role as a speakeasy.
The Doghouse saloon is still in business,
many ownership changes later.
The modern history of organized
crime in the U.S. began with Prohibition-era
rumrunning. The major criminal syndicates
diversified from the liquor traffic into gambling,
loan-sharking, prostitution, and drugs,
and became seriously involved in dogfighting
only recently, as an apparent outgrowth of
acquiring pit bulls for guard dogs.
The Old Country mafia historically
focused on extortion––but mobsters in Naples
and Sicily have readily copied each U.S.
“In recent years, the [Italian] mafia
has organized illegal horse races, trafficked in
exotic species, and even rustled cattle,” San
Francisco Chronicle foreign service correspondent
Adolfo Sansolini reported from
Rome on September 15. “But the most lucrative
mafia activity is dogfighting, which law
enforcement authorities say is now an estimated
$500 million-a-year business.”
As many as 5,000 dogs per year are
reportedly killed in Italian fighting rings.
Countless more dogs––and other animals––are
torn apart by fighting dogs in training.
Gangsters heading south for the winter
have also brought increasing levels of organization
and sophistication to dogfighting in
South Africa, where it has long been practiced
by the underclasses, of both African and
Afrikans descent, and Honduras, where it is
legal and occurs at public stadiums.
Organized dogfighting has spread as
well from the U.S. into Canada, as an adjunct
to drug trafficking. The Ontario Provincial
Police found perhaps the biggest Canadian
dogfighting training center to date during a
mid-July 2000 search for narcotics at a seemingly
abandoned farm in Percy Township,
north of Cobourg. The Ontario SPCA took 29
pit bull terriers into custody, who had not
been given food or water in at least two days,
along with rabbits who were evidently raised
to be live bait, while the OPP seized exercise
equipment and a stash of steroids.
Veteran U.S. dogfighting investigators,
like chief dog warden Tom Skeldon of
Lucas County, Ohio, learned long ago that
related drug charges bring offenders the most
prison time––so Skeldon wasn’t disappointed
in August 1999 when Lucas Country sheriff’s
deputies ended his multi-year surveillance of
suspected dogfighter Otha Jones Jr., 30, by
busting Jones for cultivating marijuana that
they spotted from a helicopter.
Already serving a four-year sentence
for felonious assault, Jones on July 21 drew
another four years and six months on the marijuana
charges plus illegally possessing a
firearm and dogfighting. The dogfighting conviction
was made possible by discoveries
made during the drug raid.
An air search for marijuana plantations
in early September nabbed previously
convicted marijuana dealer Benjamin Donald
Butts, 39, of Surry, Virginia––along with 29
allegedly mangy, malnourished adult pit bulls
and four puppies.
Hit with 33 counts of dogfighting,
33 cruelty counts, drug charges and a charge
of carrying a gun as a convicted felon, Butts
on September 6 confessed that he had organized
dogfights and trained fighting dogs.
The number of dogs seized from
Butts was not unusually high.
On August 13, for example, in
Booneville, Mississippi, Prentiss County
sheriff’s deputies seized 30 pit bulls while
arresting alleged dogfighting trainers Wilson
D. Watkins, 38, and Edward Haddox, 41.
On August 30, a multi-agency law
enforcement task force nabbed 36 pit bulls
while busting Darell Hunter, 27, on 41 counts
of dogfighting and one count of cruelty to his
allegedly neglected 18-month-old son.
SUSPECTS KEEP DOGS
What happened next in the Butts
case, however, was unusual: Surry County
District Court Judge Larry Palmer, at request
of prosecutor Gerald G. Poindexter, released
Butts’ 33 dogs back into his own custody,
––though Butts may be facing life in prison.
There was, however, one recent
Virginia precedent. An April 12 raid by the
Roanoke County Sheriff’s office found 73 pit
bulls chained to trees and old car axles on
property owned by North Carolina “pet psychiatrist
Tom Garner”––and another 19 pit
bulls on neighboring land belonging to alleged
dogfighting trainer Kyle Arthur Pearce.
Evidence found during the Pearce
bust led U.S. federal agents in late September
to the home of his former housemate, Philip
William Reynolds, publisher of the underground
American Gamedog Times m a g a z i n e
plus an accompanying web site.
Five pit bulls and alleged dogfighting
paraphernalia were seized from Reynolds,
against whom charges are reportedly pending.
Back in April, however, during the
initial raid, “Garner showed up at the site
where the dogs were chained while police
were investigating,” wrote Matt Chittum of
the Roanoke Times. “Garner claimed ownership
of most of the dogs,” Chittum continued,
“and said he raised them to be sold as pets. An
affidavit filed with the search warrant that
authorized the raid, however, said Garner is
known to the USDA as ‘a breeder of pit bull
dogs sold to dogfighters.’ Veterinary records
found during the investigation indicate Pearce
had several dogs treated for ‘injuries consistent
with those inflicted in organized dogfighting,’
the search warrant says. Garner paid those
bills, according to the warrant.’”
Yet Garner was only charged with
not licensing the dogs on his property. Two
dogs were held as evidence. The rest
remained on chains. Garner kept 71 of them,
after paying $2,026 in fines.
THE COST OF CARE
Accused Humane Society of the U.S.
program specialist Pat Wagner in a September
14 alert on the Butts case, “The city doesn’t
want to take financial responsibility for caring
for these dogs while awaiting the trial.”
It was a plausible claim.
On May 6, the Humane Society of
the Huron Valley in Superior Township,
Michigan, received 12 pit bulls seized from
dogfighting suspects Ronald J. Wroble, 33, of
Canton, and Jeffrey D. Pepper, 36, of
Belleville. The pit bulls were held for six
weeks as evidence. A dozen animals were
killed to clear cage space for them, cutting
into anticipated adoption revenue, and the pit
bulls’ upkeep cost $500 a week, HSHV cruelty
investigator Stacie Dugas told Ann Arbor
News staff reporter Susan L. Oppat.
That was cheap, as pit bull holding
goes. In Pueblo, Colorado, Pueblo Animal
League director Shelley Tipple told D e n v e r
P o s t staff writer Jim Hughes, the kenneling
bill for 41 pit bulls seized in June from alleged
dogfighter Brian Speer was expected to reach
$14,000 within six weeks, and $90,000 if the
case remained in court for a year.
“They’ve chewed up about 20 hoses.
They’re bored,” Tipple explained. “They’re
also tearing holes in the sides of their cages to
get to the other dogs. Soon they’ll figure out
how to dismantle the cages and it will be a
The Speer case pit bulls were initially
housed in rented space at a greyhound track,
but security concerns eventually forced the
Pueblo Animal League to bring them into the
A hidden cost of keeping fighting
dogs as evidence is physical risk. In
Asheville, North Carolina, for example, 12
pit bulls seized last spring from alleged dogfighter
Darrell Durham, 27, bit animal services
director Jim Medford and four of his
staff. Durham drew 120 days in jail. The dogs
HSUS and PETA drummed up a
storm of mail to Judge Palmer about the Butts
case. Someone in Florida reportedly offered
$500 to underwrite care of the dogs by anyone
except Butts. The letters swayed Palmer several
days later to vacated his own previous
release order, and to take the care of the dogs
under advisement until October 3.
PETA senior caseworker Daphna
Nachminovitch recommended killing all the
dogs immediately. Prosecutor Poindexter,
however, called the pups “people-friendly,”
and hoped they could eventually be adopted.
The 33 pit bulls temporarily taken
from Butts were held at three different shelters.
Four were stolen almost immediately
from the shelter at Isle of Wight, Virginia.
That too is a familiar pattern.
Several times per month ANIMAL PEOPLE
hears of “fighting” breed dogs vanishing from
shelters, sometimes with the collusion of corrupt
shelter staff. In early September someone
even took a pair of pit bulls from the Dog
Adoption League shelter and the county animal
control shelter in Santa Barbara,
California; apparently fought them, possibly
against each other; and brought the wounded
dogs back after the weekend.
HOT IN FLORIDA
A July 14 raid on a dogfight in West
Palm Beach, Florida, encapsuled all the elements
of dogfighting as it continues, 95 years
after Jack London hoped to end it forever.
The raid came three days after one
Kendall Gadsen surrendered to sheriff’s
deputies in East Fort Myers, Florida. An
investigation of skeletal remains of dogs discovered
along a road in East Fort Myers had
led to the seizure of videotapes from an undisclosed
location, which according to Charlotte
County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Chuck
Ellis, “showed at least four different fights at
different parts of the day and different parts of
different counties. We identified Mr. Gadsen
as a participant, actually inside the ring, baiting
and fighting the dogs.”
Sixty-five people were apprehended
in the West Palm Beach raid, of whom 53
were charged only with watching a dogfight, a
misdemeanor. Among them were Palm Beach
County corrections deputies Alton Harrell, 31,
and Reginald Mickens, 32.
Palm Beach County Judge Cory
Ciklin on September 25 offered to allow any
defendant without prior convictions to plead
guilty in exchange for a sentence of 12 months
on probation, 200 hours of community service,
a prohibition on keeping any pet or
being around a pet except in the presence of
another adult, and a donation of $1,000 to an
approved animal rescue charity. Only one
defendant immediately accepted.
Six other defendants were charged
with felony dogfighting.
Two pit bulls seized as evidence
against the six were stolen from the West Palm
Beach Animal Care and Control shelter during
the night of July 29- July 30.
No charges have been announced
against the remaining six attendees.