Dogfights, attacks raise hackles Increase in pit bulls spurs legislation to restrict breed

July 16, 1998|By Gerard Shields and Peter Hermann | Gerard Shields and Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Michael James and Ernie Imhoff contributed to this article.

The contract resembled those signed by heavyweight prizefighters. The winner's purse? $10,000.

The opponents even hailed from different cities -- Baltimore vs. Detroit. But the match -- planned, but never held -- is a sign of a growing Baltimore sport that has alarmed political leaders, health officials and police: pit bull dogfighting.

Over the past year, city police have broken up numerous dogfight rings and have stumbled across the broad-shouldered dogs being raised and trained to protect drug dealers and their stashes. The bouts -- occurring mostly in Baltimore's poorer neighborhoods -- are scheduled weekends after payday, usually in vacant houses where owners, gamblers and spectators gather around what becomes a blood pit as the dogs try to maul each other.

"I was stunned," said Bill Brennan, the attorney for convicted drug kingpin Anthony Jones, who testified during his recent trial about setting up the inner-city match. "I hadn't heard about it. They had written contracts."

The only reason the fight didn't occur was that the Detroit opponent didn't show up, Jones said.

Dogfights in Baltimore have become so prevalent that the City Council recently passed a law prohibiting them. The law that went into effect this month also prohibits training attack dogs and allows the city to more easily destroy dogs involved in frequent attacks.

The increasing number of pit bulls is also a danger for police officers, who face the risk of being mauled. Take the recent domestic dispute call that Officer Tarshia Townes investigated on the city's west side.

"It wasn't people, it was pit bulls," Townes said. "There are a lot of pit bulls out there, and a lot of guys fighting them."

Used for protection

The dogs, which can cost up to $400, are also being used as sentries. "The pit bull has become an animal used to protect the drug dealers' drugs and guns," Maj. Elmer Dennis, the Southern District commander, wrote in one report after a recent incident.

In a South Baltimore incident in September, police officers fired their weapons several times against pit bulls. In a Brooklyn incident, a shotgun blast was fired into the chest of an attacking pit bull; the dog staggered but kept coming. Police pushed protective shields against it, but it continued snapping at their ankles. They fired a second blast that also failed to fell it.

Two more shotgun blasts finally brought that dog down, but drug dealers, shouting "Get him!", dispatched a second dog. A third dog, already wounded by a gunshot to the leg, "headed directly toward a small child" in a nearby alley. An officer ran past the advancing animal, stood in front of the child and shot the dog in the head.

Over the past two decades, pit bulls, which have vise-like jaw strength, have become notorious for mauling people, particularly children. Pure or mixed-breed pit bulls and Rottweilers were responsible for slightly more than half the 199 deaths attributed to dog bites in the United States between 1979 and 1996, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The dogfight matches involve a national network of opponents, usually hailing from the South or Midwest, but a growing number of local matches have gained police attention. Last month, Montgomery County officials reported a series of pit bull attacks that they believe show evidence of a growing dogfight ring there. Similar reports were made this month in Hartford, Conn., and near Durham, N.C.

Dogs seized usually have scars on their faces and necks from fights, and their ears have been trimmed to reduce areas that can be bitten.

"There have been seizures where eight, 10 or 12 dogs come through [the city pound] at a time," said Bob Anderson, director of Baltimore's Animal Control. "And it's not just once a week, it's sometimes several times a week."

Bans proposed

When confined, the dogs pose no threat to people. But roaming free or escaping their trainers, pit bulls can be dangerous. Baltimore's law was requested by Julia Matthews, a 73-year-old West Baltimore woman whose infant great-grandson was mauled to death by a free-roaming pit bull in 1994.

The frequency of such incidents has caused local governments to begin banning the animals. Prince George's County passed a law last year prohibiting the acquisition of pit bulls while Baltimore County passed a law making it easier to confiscate threatening animals.

As part of its animal control legislation, Baltimore has created a three-member board to determine whether dogs that have been involved in repeated attacks should be destroyed.

Two years ago, a Baltimore County man was convicted of running pit bull fights from the basement of his Essex home. Police raided the house in 1995 and reported finding 43 pit bulls, chained, underfed and exposed to their own waste.

Irresponsible owners

Dog experts note that although pit bulls and Rottweilers are considered naturally aggressive, breeding and training by irresponsible owners cause most of the problems.

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