23 min read

Michael Vick May Have Actually Made Dogfighting MORE Popular

Let's start at the beginning: Michael Vick. There's almost no question that, however you feel about the NFL quarterback, Vick is pretty much responsible for blowing the doors wide open on America's dogfighting scene.

The football star launched his Bad Newz Kennels in Surry County, Virginia, in 2001. For years, he and three associates housed, trained and bred dogs for organized dogfighting. Bad Newz Kennels hosted fights at the Virginia property and also transported dogs to other states to participate in matches, which would most frequently occur late at night or in the early morning and would last a number of hours, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF). Some of the dogs who lost their fights died in the fighting pits.

When Vick's property was eventually searched in 2007, police reportedly found more than 50 dogs - mostly pit bulls - scared, injured, underfed and chained to various items like car axles. The authorities also found treadmills, commonly used to condition animals for fights, and performance-enhancing drugs, used to keep them going. They discovered "break" or "parting" sticks, used to pry open fighting dogs' mouths. They found a blood-stained fighting area. And they also found what is explicitly called a "rape stand" - a device in which a female dog is strapped down in a restraining device to be bred.

Authorities also discovered the fate of some of the dogs who did not "perform" well: They were shot, electrocuted or hanged.

Essentially, the police, prosecutors and investigators found all the accoutrements of a standard, organized, massive dogfighting operation.

Given the brutality of the scene, and the subsequent collective outrage about Michael Vick's actions across the nation, it would be fair to speculate that the discovery of Bad Newz Kennels would have suppressed similar dogfighting operations across the U.S.

But it did not.

In fact, some believe the opposite has happened.

Dogs at a dogfighting operation in LouisianaALDF

Dogs at a dogfighting operation in Louisiana | ALDF

"I don't think people have seen the Michael Vick case and stopped fighting," Scott Heiser, head of the criminal justice program at ALDF, told The Dodo. "It just polarized the issue. Those who are filled with empathy are a lot more passionate. But I don't think Vick's arrest or prosecution stopped those who are predisposed to engage with fighting."

"In fact," Heiser adds, "some could argue that the lack of accountability and the fact he is still playing for the NFL showed no real consequences at all."

Dogfighting in the U.S.

The roots of dogfighting go back to the 1750s, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and boomed after the Civil War, especially in the northeast United States. (Ironically, the ASPCA notes, dogfighting was common entertainment for police officers and firemen.) Although many laws were passed outlawing the activity, dogfighting continued to expand throughout the 20th century.

Today, the organization estimates there are tens of thousands of people involved in dogfighting in the U.S. The practice is technically against the law in every state, but some have better laws to prevent its occurrence than others.

Dogfighting intersects with a lot of other criminal activity, Heiser says, including gambling, money laundering, firearms offenses, drug possession and distribution, and tax evasion. With the implementation of the FBI's agreement to now include animal abuse cases (including animal fighting) in its crime database, he hopes more data might be able to address the volume of dogfighting that still occurs in the country.

But the bottom line is that, despite some fairly decent laws, people in every state are engaged in some sort of dogfighting activity.

The Sunshine State's dogfighting problem

One state where dogfighting is especially thriving is Florida.

"Dogfighting is huge here," Vianka Diaz, co-founder of That Black Dog Rescue, a two-woman rescue group in Miami, told The Dodo. Diaz, a Miami native, says just two weeks ago, her foster-based organization rescued two dogs. Both of them, she says, had been used in dogfighting.

SaintThat Black Dog Rescue

Saint | That Black Dog Rescue

One of the rescued dogs, Saint, was found dumped at a construction site. He was emaciated, had wounds and old scars across his body and his tail had been docked. But he was also very human-friendly, says Diaz. "These are all signs of a fighter dog."

CosmosThat Black Dog Rescue

Cosmos | That Black Dog Rescue

Cosmos, the second dog, was found in Boca Raton, near Miami, dumped in the backyard of someone's home on a Saturday morning. "He was torn up head to toe. His tail had no hair," she says. "He was skin and bones, with abscesses on his face. His ears were cropped. And he was extremely depressed."

Based on the way Cosmos looks, Diaz suspects someone wanted him to be a fight dog, but he wasn't "good enough."

"If a dog doesn't do well in a fight, sometimes [dogfighters] will starve them and make them work for their food," she says. Eventually, Diaz believes, the dog's captors just discarded him.

CosmosThat Black Dog Rescue

Cosmos | That Black Dog Rescue

Both of the dogs' teeth were ground down, another characteristic of bait dogs, Diaz says. This technique is used so fight dogs can't retaliate, and is often carried out with a Dremel tool. The same tool, Heiser says, can be used to sharpen a dog's teeth before a fight.

Part of the problem associated with dogfighting is simply the way those involved view animals as objects. "You can drive through any area of Miami and see multiple dogs in yards with no water because they are merely used for protection," Diaz says. "There's just no real connection to these animals."

Undercover in the dogfighting world

Richard "Kudo" Couto, founder of the Florida-based Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) Investigations, also names the state a hotspot for dogfighting. "Florida is unlike any other state in the U.S.," he told The Dodo." Anything and everything goes here - and some of the most brutal forms of illegal activity in this state revolve around animal cruelty."

Since Vick, says Kudo, dogfighting - if anything - has only increased. "It was a great case because it spotlighted the issue. But it also brought people into the dogfighting realm."

Partly, fighters are able to get away with their exploits simply by shrouding their activities. Vick, for example, operated his animal-fighting syndicate under the moniker, "Bad Newz Kennels." That was no mistake. It is common among dogfighting operations to use the term "kennel" as a cover for illegal fighting operations, says Heiser. "Offenders seem to enjoy developing and using a specific vernacular that is teeming with euphemisms." For example, fighters typically describe a fight as "a show" or "a match." They may refer to dogs who fight well as having "game," and the dogs killed for not having the willingness to fight as "cur." The phrase, "breed the best and bury the rest," is the approach dogfighters take to weed out the puppies who lack "game."

Warning: Graphic Image

Female dog discarded by a dogfighting operation in Miami last yearARM

Female dog discarded by a dogfighting operation in Miami last year | ARM

Kudo says in Florida - and in other areas where dogfighting is prevalent - there are basically two kinds of dogfighters: the highly organized, professional, monied dogfighters; and the street-level fighters.

ARM investigators at a recent animal cruelty investigationARM

ARM investigators at a recent animal cruelty investigation | ARM

ARM investigators have spent months undercover at the more professional dogfighting rings, Kudo says. "The minimum [number of] spectators on a weekly basis is 500 people. They have valets. They have a casino type of atmosphere. They have roulette wheels, backgammon, dominos. There can be a minimum bet of $5,000 per fight."

In one operation, he says, almost a million dollars changed hands on a daily basis.

Kudo says his organization will work diligently to create the appropriate friendships in order to get on the inner circle of a dogfighting operation. "The only reason we knew [at one operation] they were fighting dogs is that we were seeing the cockfighting ring, and as we were looking at the carpet - all rings are lined with carpet on the inside walls - we could see bloody paw prints on the ring's carpeted area. So, we knew they were fighting dogs." (It's not uncommon for dogfighters to also engage in cockfighting, where roosters are held in a ring and forced to fight in a similar manner to fight dogs. Cockfighting is illegal in the U.S.)

Only VIPs are invited to the upscale dogfights, says Kudo. "You have to be able to throw down serious money," he says. "That can be about $20,000 a pop. Everyone is wearing guns." Some of ARM's own investigators have been checked for wires and "borderline strip-searched," says Kudo, before entering a fight.

Street-based fighting is decidedly different, he says, and more culture-based. Kudo says these sorts of dogfights predominantly take place in U.S. inner cities, inside warehouses and small venues. "They move [their location] on fight night because they are in populated areas and they don't want people to hear."

In fact, in Miami, he says, dogfighters have recently created a new way of fighting dogs. They call it "trunking."

"They throw two dogs into a trunk and drive the car around town while they blast music," Kudo says. "Then they come back to the location where they have their betters, open the trunk and see which dog is alive."

Sometimes in "trunking," small dogs are put in a trunk with a larger dog "just to see if it will be killed," says Kudo. "For fun."

A dog used for "trunking," who later diedARM

A dog used for "trunking," who later died | ARM

How the dogs are trained

As Kudo's team has continued to go undercover into dogfighting syndicates, ARM is learning more clearly how the dogs are trained to be fighters. Different breeds of dogs are used in fighting: rottweilers, German shepherds, boxers. But, mostly, fighters train pit bulls.

"Dogfighters will take, say, four or five dogs and put them on three-foot chains, or tie them together and starve them," he says. "Then they will take a meaty bone and make the dogs fight for the bone."

Dogs being trained to fightARM

Dogs being trained to fight | ARM

Dogs trained to fightARM

Dogs trained to fight | ARM

Sometimes smaller dogs are so frightened they actually try to climb over chain link fences, says Kudo. "This isn't something often seen by investigators because it isn't actually part of the 'fighting.' This [happens inside] the training operations."

Dog trying to escape by climbing over a chain link fenceARM

Dog trying to escape by climbing over a chain link fence | ARM

The fights are usually stopped by water, according to Kudo. "The [fighters] have someone with a hose standing over the [dogs] to break up the fight."

Still, not all dogs want to fight, says Kudo, so they must be taught how. Aggression techniques like forcing them to fight over food are the first stages of training - how dogfighters determine which dogs will become bait and which will become fighters.

The bait dog, he explains, is the weaker dog. And the larger dogs, trained over and over again, will eventually get used to killing the bait dogs.

Dogs recently rescued by ARM from a large bust involving hundreds of animalsARM

Dogs recently rescued by ARM from a large bust involving hundreds of animals | ARM

Heiser says ALDF also sees cases where fighting dogs are rewarded for their efforts with strategic "kills." As part of the training process, or "keep" - a slang term fighters use to refer to the training protocol - he says fighters will sometimes put a small animal in a cage just out of reach of a dog who is training on a treadmill.

Treadmill used to train dogs for fightingALDF

Treadmill used to train dogs for fighting | ALDF

"They will run the dog hard and then reward the workout by letting the dog kill the animal in the cage," says Heiser. Cats and small dogs are often used as bait for this purpose.

In one dogfighting operation busted in 2009 in Louisiana, Heiser says, this cat was likely going to be killed.ALDF

In one dogfighting operation busted in 2009 in Louisiana, Heiser says, this cat was likely going to be killed. | ALDF

How do you know if dogfighting is happening near you?

One of the biggest indicators that dogfighting is occurring in your community is simple: "Noise." Also, high traffic levels, says Kudo. Dogfighting, he explains, often occurs on weekends and nights.

In rural areas, says Diaz, dogfighting often takes place inside homes that are boarded up. "They can look like abandoned homes, but when you go inside, it is like an arena."

So, who do you call if you suspect dogfighting?

The ASPCA, which has a program focused on dogfighting, recommends forming a local or state task force to address dogfighting. The task force should include members from all the major stakeholders in that community: law enforcement, prosecutors, animal control officers, animal welfare groups, veterinarians, public health officials, housing authorities, the neighborhood watch and others. "The group should identify the nature of the problems in the area, the laws that could be applied to these problems and the resources that are available. Dogfighting is most effectively addressed by a collaborative approach to this heinous crime," according to the ASPCA.

Heiser says that because fighting is a serious offense, it should be reported by calling 9-1-1. "A conscientious citizen might then follow up a day or two later with a call to the police shift commander or the lieutenant of detectives to ensure the case is getting the full attention it deserves."

Optimally, Kudo says, "you want to go to an extremely trusted source in your crime unit."

Or, maybe to a group like ARM.

During one of the organization's more recent dogfighting busts in Palm Beach, Florida, one of the first dogs set free by the SWAT team on the scene was a fighting dog.

At a dogfighting bust in FloridaARM

At a dogfighting bust in Florida | ARM

The animal came right over to Kudo and began to lick him.

Kona and Kudo ARM

Kona and Kudo | ARM

Kudo named the dog Kona.

Kudo and KonaARM

Kudo and Kona | ARM

And took him out of the dogfighting world and into his home. For good.

The current sentencing guidelines for convicted dog fighters are very low and don't come close to matching the seriousness of this barbaric activity. Ask the U.S. Sentencing Commission to get tough on animal fighters and increase jail sentences here.