In light of the recent news concerning Michael Vick and his alleged involvement in dog fighting, the criminal sport is getting a lot of attention. People are beginning to ask if dog fighting is going on in their own neighborhoods, and those people for whom pets are coming up missing worry about those used as “bait.”
The question arose as to whether or not dog fighting was happening in my own city. There are parts of Kansas City that one might suspect, after all. I also wanted to know what happens to the dogs involved.
I first spoke with Karen of the Humane Society in Kansas City, Kansas. She confirmed that they had some dogs that came into their care that had been used in dog fighting. Apparently, it is very difficult to charge anyone in the Kansas City area with dog fighting, because those involved in this business – and Karen disclosed that it is a business, and a money maker at that – are very discreet and do not let outsiders into the activity. Dog fighting in Kansas City is very much an underground activity and it’s very well organized. It has thus far been impossible to get an undercover officer involved in those circles. There have been some instances in which neighbors have blown the whistle on some offenders.
Karen told me that in many cities in the Kansas City metropolitan area, it is actually illegal for a person to own a pit bull. In Kansas City, Kansas, it has been illegal for 16 years. Those who had suspected involvement in dog fighting in Kansas City Kansas would get Missouri drivers licenses in order to retrieve their pit bulls. However, other breeds have been popular as the pit bull ownership is illegal, and they involve boxers (popular for the reason they got their name; they will stand on their hind legs and ‘box.’) and rottweilers have been used, too.
When a dog comes into the Humane Society, it is evident if they have been used for dog fighting. Karen has adopted a dog that is suspected to have been used as ‘bait.’ The 1 ½ year old female dog is named “Freckles,” due to the white marks all over her face that are scars where deep bites once were speckled across her face. Other injuries include skin ripped off the face and legs.
Karen said that most of the dogs rescued actually are suitable to be placed in good homes. They are all put through a battery of tests to evaluate this suitability, however, and if they show signs of aggression, they do need to be euthanized. Freckles is now a therapy dog, which is one used in the community for education, sometimes for children, and often to make appearances in hospitals to visit the patients.
Bait dogs are often chosen for that purpose because of their temperament. These are the dogs that do not want to fight; some will, but most don’t have the drive to.
I asked Karen why people fight dogs; aside from the money involved, of course. Karen responded that in her opinion, it’s an insecurity issue. Couple that with the ‘status symbol’ it provides and the image set forth by the hip-hop subculture, and the problem escalates.
In an article published by the Kansas City Star just over a year ago about dog fighting, experts are referred to, citing the same cultural problems. Jay-Z, a rapper, has a video that shows a pit bull snarling and lunging at the camera; a DVD titled “Hood Fights Volume 2, The Art of the Pit,” shows several vicious pit bull fights, and rapper DMX has a toned pit bull gracing the cover of his CD “Grand Champ.” And those aren’t the only cases; references to pit bulls and dog fighting have a strong presence in these songs and videos. Karen and I discussed the similarity to the lack of respect toward these dogs and the degrading of women that has been such an issue in this music style for years.
In Kansas City, experts and law enforcement officers see the greatest increase in dog fighting in urban settings where as the owners gain ‘street cred[ibility]’ by having the winning dog. That confirms Karen’s suggestion of status symbol as a motivator. The problem in Kansas City in comparison to other cities is the relatively weak laws regarding dog fighting. One must be caught in the act to be prosecuted, where as in other cities, if a person has paraphernalia they can be charged. An incident in Louisiana was cited (in the Kansas City Star article) in which police officers arrested and charged 121 people with felony dog fighting between May of 2005 and May of 2006; they were able to do so because the law allows for it when people are found in possession of dog treadmills and other materials which is “being used or intended for use in the unlawful training of a dog to fight with another dog.” There are some areas in which dog fighting is seen as far less serious. For instance, in Idaho and Wyoming, the crime is still only a misdemeanor.
In a recent article published by NPR (National Public Radio), Rebecca Corenfield, an animal control officer in Bay City, a rural town an hour outside of Houston, said that in small towns, where dog fighting has been custom for years, top trainers and breeders are established members of the community. Also, Corenfield said, “There’s high-rollers, like real high-rollers, where you know they’re doing it. It’s so hard to prove, though…if we could get some money to get someone in there undercover, we could bust them. But you know there’s not the money or the manpower.”
According to investigators, high-level dog fighting rings are harder to infiltrate than drug cartels.
I also spoke with Lesly Forsberg, Manager of Animal Health & Public Safety, Neighborhood & Community Services Department, of the Kansas City Missouri Animal Control. Our interview in transcribed below:
* Is dog fighting a problem in Kansas City?
Yes, it is a problem here. We see more of the impromptu street fights than the organized fights. The organized fights are usually conducted at night and are difficult to gather information on until the fight is over. The police may arrest the participants for something other than dog fighting and notify us of possible dog fighting activity. We usually will find the paraphernalia and other evidence, such as blood spatters or a fighting ring, in a basement.
* In what area or parts of the city has it been most prominent?
It can occur anywhere, but we see more of the impromptu fights in the urban core.
* Are pit bulls the primary breed? Any others?
Pit Bulls are the only breed of dog used for fighting that we have encountered.
* Has anyone been convicted of criminal activity linked to dog fighting?
We’ve been working with the police to make them aware that it is a felony crime. Many were unaware of the seriousness of this activity. We’ve written ordinance violation tickets, but have yet to have someone charged in criminal court. We just haven’t had enough evidence to proceed with criminal charges.
* What happens to the dogs, either at the hand of the owner, or after they are rescued?
Many of the dogs we see are not well cared for and have to be euthanized. I can’t speculate on what their owners do to them, but typically the loser of a dog fight loses its life. Dogs that have been fought are not suitable for adoption. They have been trained to attack other dogs and domestic animals. They cannot be put back in the community because the risk is too high.
* Is this an activity for sport, or for gambling?
* When dogs are rescued from this activity, what happens next? Are they put to sleep? Are they ever suitable for pets?
All dogs rescued from this activity are humanely euthanized. They cannot ever be pets.
Karen hopes that the message that people get from all of this is that this is not a dog problem. For years now the Humane Society has been dealing with the issue of banning pit bulls. In Kansas City, pit bulls are banned in cities such as Independence, Missouri, Kansas City, Kansas, and more recently Overland Park, Kansas. They are legal in Lansing and Leavenworth Kansas, Olathe, Kansas, and others. Karen points out that pit bulls have an unfair bad reputation, points out that in many cases they are better pets than labs, that actually bite more often (but with a less viscious bite).
The problem, Karen continues, is a person problem, not a dog problem. If a pet owner is responsible, spays or neuters their pit bull and doesn’t keep them on a chain (which makes any breed aggressive – do keep the dog behind a six foot fence) then one would be surprised how good a pit bull can be. The ‘Dangerous Dog Law’ is fairer than banning pit bulls; this law dictates that any dog that is aggressive and bites is put down, and is not breed specific.
Interview with Karen of the Humane Society in Kansas City, Kansas. Conducted by Jennifer Thompson on Tuesday, July 24, 2007.
DOG FIGHTING: As many as a million animals involved nationally: IS INCREASE IN PIT BULL BITES LINKED TO A RISE IN FIGHTS?
Whether it be at highly organized events or at improvised encounters for ‘street cred,’ the activity is growing nationwide and goes largely unpunished in Missouri and Kansas.
By STEVE ROCK, July 16, 2006
Published in the Kansas City Star
Illegal Dogfighting Rings Thrive in U.S. Cities
by Brian Mann
NPR Morning Edition, July 20, 2007
Interview with Lesly Forsberg
Manager of Animal Health & Public Safety
Neighborhood & Community Services Department
Kansas City Missouri Animal Control
Conducted via email by Jennifer Thompson on Friday, July 27, 2007