In Maine and across the country, investigations into dogfighting are yielding evidence, but few charges

DURHAM, N.C. – As Karen Tiller slowly cruises the side streets and alleys of this city, she trolls for signs of an elusive felon, the urban kinsman of that traditionally rural Southern outlaw, the dogfighter.

Her search doesn’t center on the high-stakes canine combat that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick hosted at his rural Virginia home. Tiller focuses on the “street fighter,” a spectral, city-based player who dwells at the lower levels of an already cruel blood sport.

These fights aren’t bound by the rules that govern – and often cut mercifully short – the formal matches of dogfighting’s upper echelons. And the dogs aren’t the top-dollar pit bulls carefully bred and rigorously trained for the cash-heavy clashes. They’re backyard fighting dogs of indifferent breeding and haphazard conditioning – mostly pit bulls and pit bull mixes, unpapered mutts whose bloodlines can’t be traced to the fifth generation.

Street fighters match their dogs in snarling, lock-jawed and bloody scraps, spontaneous frays that take place in a shed, a vacant lot or an abandoned house. In these back-street battles common to many cities, the bet might be $100 or a pack of cigarettes compared with the thousands wagered on elite fighting dogs.

Sometimes there is nothing more on the line than the street cred of having the meanest, toughest dog on the block.

When it’s over, dogs, owners and spectators get long gone, leaving little other than scuffled dirt and bloody spoor in their wake. Maybe there’s also a bloodstained carpet or panels of plywood used to form an instant fighting pit.

Seven dead

Or, in the case of former Auburn and state animal control office Bentley Rathbun, it’s discarded dog carcasses, left swirling in eddies of the Androscoggin River.

About eight years ago, Rathbun retrieved the mutiliated bodies of seven pit bulls from the river, close to the South Bridge, on the New Auburn side. He believes the dogs could have been tossed into the Androscoggin from Lewiston, as the natural current would have washed the bodies to that area.

“It was a mess … it was obvious something did happen,” said Rathbun recently. The dogs bore the slashing wounds indicative of fighting, through the organized and unorganized kind. Most of the dogfighting Rathbun investigated during his years of animal control was the “my dog is tougher than yours” sort of thing, he said.

He’s unsure of current troubles. “There’s still some in the area,” said Rathbun. “How prevalent it is, I can’t say.”

But Rathbun still clearly remembers the image of the bloodied black dog he fetched from the river. Investigations led into some Lewiston apatments, where evidence of fighting existed (like bloody carpets and impromptu rings).

His recoveries also steeled Maine law enforcement to the possibility that dogfighting existed in the state.

“It’s virtually impossible to get into one of these [dog] fights,” Rathbun said in 2000. “I’d be shot before I could get through the door.”

Timing

Tiller, a Durham County animal control officer, says hunting for street fighters is playing a shell game with ghosts.

“Bad thing about dogfighting is finding it and proving it,” said Tiller, 40. “We know it’s going on. We see signs of it every day. But you’d have to turn the corner at just the right time to bust a dogfight.”

The elusive nature of the street fighter’s game means Tiller and other Durham County animal control officers look for the footprints of a fighting operation. They try to pile up enough circumstantial evidence to get a search warrant and prove an owner is keeping dogs for fighting – a felony in North Carolina.

They hope to spot a pit bull with fresh gashes to the head, throat or legs, wounds consistent with dogfighting. A tangle of scars on the same body parts indicate ancient battles.

But they often must settle for more indirect evidence – a heavy logging chain a pit bull has to drag around, adding strength and bulk to its chest and legs; a “break stick” used to pry apart the jaws of pit bulls locked in combat; or a rope hanging a few feet above the ground used to encourage a dog to clamp down with its powerful jaws while hanging in midair.

Sometimes, all they get is a dirt yard packed with a dozen or more barking, lunging pit bulls chained to trees, telephone poles and pipes, their coats of brown, black, white or brindle coated with dust, the sour stench of their excrement overpowering in the hot, still air.

That was the scene Tiller and two colleagues rolled up on late last week as the mercury climbed toward the triple digits and they checked out a ramshackle clapboard house.

More than a dozen pit bulls were chained next to makeshift doghouses scattered across the front yard, side yard and steeply sloped back end of the property. When animal control officers accompanied police officers on a recent drug raid at the house, they counted 17 pit bulls and pit bull mixes and slapped the property owner with a $1,700 citation – none of the charges related to dogfighting.

They have had trouble pinning down the property owner to get permission to do a follow-up inspection to make sure the dogs have current rabies shots and are no longer living in unsanitary conditions – or bearing scars of battle.

That many pit bulls crowding a single property is a strong but indirect sign of dogfighting, the animal control officers say. Another telltale: on this trip, they spy different dogs in the mix, suggesting this might be a holding station for more than one street fighter.

“There’s no good reason for somebody to own 17 dogs – they can’t afford to,” said James Fitzherbert, a Durham County animal control officer.

But Fitzherbert can’t be sure. Pit bulls are also popular for protection, intimidation and status. They’ve become “accessory dogs” for people who want to cut a thuggish figure.

“If you’re looking to project a tough image, a Pomeranian on a leash doesn’t cut it – a snarling pit bull does,” said Dr. Kelli Ferris, a veterinary science professor at North Carolina State University who also campaigns against dogfighting.

Street fighters also abuse their pit bulls to make them aggressive toward both people and other dogs, Ferris said. And that makes them dangerous for neighbors and animal control officers who have to handle abandoned or seized pit bulls, which are flooding shelters, crowding out other, adoptable breeds.

“A dog like this is not rehabilitatable except for a special person who knows what they’ve got – a loaded gun,” said Cindy Bailey, Durham County animal control administrator, as she petted a seized pit bull, nicknamed Scarface, that will eventually be euthanized.

Tiller and her colleagues know they are tracking the lower-money and less-organized end of this blood sport, its players inspired by the songs and videos of rappers such as Jay-Z or DMX and other markers of hip-hop culture who glorify dogfighting.

But somewhere on her turf, she suspects there are bigger-money matches between players who started out on the streets but have worked their way up to high-dollar dogs and heavier betting.

“There’s got to be bigger rings around,” Tiller said. “It’s just tapping into it and finding out where.”

Money

The federal indictment against Vick and three associates illustrates how the high end of dogfighting is no longer a backwoods and largely Southern phenomenon.

The 18-page document accuses the four of operating “Bad Newz Kennels,” a dog-fighting operation based in a home Vick owned in rural Surry County, Va. But the charges also allege Vick or his associates traveled to dogfights in Maryland and New Jersey to match their pit bulls against dogs from New York and the Garden State.

This indicates dogfighting is now a big-money activity in such major cities as Chicago, New York and Dallas, said John Goodwin, manager of animal fighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States. Fueled by the growing number of urban dogfighters, it crosses lines of race, ethnicity, class and geography.

Nationwide, Goodwin estimates there are as many as 50,000 dogfighters, ranging from the serious pro to the street fighter. And where the urban and rural worlds of dogfighting collide in big-money matches, they tend to follow the traditional codes of the blood sport, including the Cajun Rules, a 19-point protocol for the proper conduct of a formal match drafted in the 1950s by G.A. “Gaboon” Trahan, the late police chief of Lafayette, La.

But the street-fighting game has few rules. It also has some particularly cruel twists, including “trunking,” a mobile battle where two dogs are thrown into the trunk of a car and bets are placed on which dog will emerge alive when the car stops and the lid is lifted.

Street fighting

As she combs the back streets of Durham, Tiller is aware the hunt for street fighters can be hazardous duty. One dog owner pulled a box cutter on her. Another owner swung a golf club at Bailey, Tiller’s boss. Other animal control officers have been cussed out and threatened.

All they carry is a badge on their belts and a long catch pole to snag a dog collar.

“There’s usually drinking and guns and drugs at a dogfight, so that’s why we wouldn’t go into one without pretty heavy police presence,” she said.

“There’s still some in the area,” said Bentley Rathbun, former Maine and Auburn animal welfare officer. “How prevalent it is, I can’t say.”
“If you’re looking to project a tough image, a Pomeranian on a leash doesn’t cut it – a snarling pit bull does,”

– Dr. Kelli Ferris, veterinary science professor, North Carolina State University


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