Dogfight `culture' reaches to Baltimore

Officials link bloody pastime with drugs, gun dealing, gangs

June 01, 2007|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

Somewhere in Baltimore this weekend, men will probably herd two pit bulls, both heavily muscled from weight training and both driven mad by recent starvation, into an abandoned field or the cellar of a vacant rowhouse. They'll toss another, weaker animal - a cat, rabbit or maybe a blinded dog - in between the canine gladiators and then set them loose to tear one another apart.

The dog that inflicts more puncture wounds might win hundreds of dollars for supporters and be hailed as a champion. The loser might be left to die in an alley.

If this sounds like a far-fetched hypothetical, it's not, according to Baltimore veterinarians and animal control experts. They say the allegations of links between Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and dogfighting highlight a culture of violence that stretches to Baltimore and surrounding areas.

A source close to Vick with links to the NFL told Sports Illustrated that the quarterback is "heavily influenced by a dogfighting culture that travels to Baltimore, [Washington] D.C. and Virginia for fights."

The possibility of such a ring doesn't surprise authorities who have studied the issue.

"There's definitely a lot of dogfighting in Baltimore," said John Goodwin, deputy manager of dogfighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States. "There's certainly probably a dogfight going on in Baltimore every weekend, but they're hard to find."

Baltimore animal control officials have noted an increase in dogfighting in recent years. They say they are receiving more calls from residents complaining of dogfights, as well as an increase in dogs with injuries linked to dogfighting. They are also finding more carcasses of dogs killed in such matches - some of which were used as "bait" to entice dogs to attack.

"It's been slowly rising," Robert Anderson, director of animal control for Baltimore, said of complaints related to dogfighting. "And part of that is that neighbors are starting to stand up."

City officials - aware of the uptick in dogfighting and other issues related to animal control - are seeking a $136,500 increase in the division's $1.78 million budget that would allow for three additional animal control officers. The City Council's Budget and Appropriations Committee held a hearing yesterday on a funding resolution. The resolution could be reviewed by the full council as soon as Monday; however, only the mayor can make the decision to increase spending.

The need, according to council members, neighborhood groups and animal advocates, is great.

"Our animal control inspectors are responding to more than a request an hour, no wonder they are so backlogged," said Councilman Robert W. Curran, who produced data at the hearing that show the division handled 30,864 calls in 2006, with an average resolution time of about four days, a delay that city officials find unacceptable.

Goodwin said that based on tips from informants, his agency knows that cities such as Baltimore, New York, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles are centers for the blood sport.

He said that in some cities, pit bulls, the breed of choice for dogfighting, represent a third of admissions to animal shelters. That's up from 2 percent to 3 percent 15 years ago. The humane society estimates that 40,000 owners and 250,000 pit bulls are involved in fighting nationwide.

The "sport" was most prevalent in the rural South in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Goodwin said, but it has become popular enough that underground magazines have sprung up to cover it. Dogs that win three times are classified as champions and often retired to stud like elite thoroughbreds. Some fights can draw pots of $10,000 or more.

Authorities find the fights concerning not just because of the animal cruelty involved but also because they're linked to other criminal activities such as drug dealing, gun running and gambling.

Dogfighting is worrisome enough to Baltimore's Health Department that the agency keeps a pamphlet explaining the issue on its Web site.

The pamphlet says that illegal drugs are sold at fights and that dogs trained for fighting are often vicious in other contexts. It notes that children are often present.

"Children are exposed to exhibits of extreme brutality, illegal gambling, drugs and guns associated with these cruel events," it reads.

A person who arranges a dogfight in Baltimore can be charged with a felony, subject to a $5,000 fine and three years imprisonment. A person who attends a dogfight can be charged with a misdemeanor and subject to $1,000 fine and 90 days imprisonment. The city and Baltimore County each offer $1,000 rewards for information on dogfighting.

It's unclear how often police catch owners in the act. Spokesmen for the Baltimore and Baltimore County police departments said they could not find any recent cases involving dogfighting.

But local veterinarians see the severe injuries that result from the fights.

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