Shining light on dogfighting
In 2006, there were about 120 cases of the illegal sport in the United States, according to Pet-Abuse.com.
BY VERONICA GORLEY CHUFO
May 20, 2007
SURRY -- Surry County, population 7,119, is made up farmers and longtimers mostly. It's a place where old-fashioned country stores sell sweet cream butter and country sausage.
The prosecutor is part-time. He said there's not enough crime to warrant having him full time.
It's here, among cornfields and country roads, that investigators believe dog fighting took place on the property formerly owned by Atlanta Falcons quarterback and Newport News native Michael Vick.
Investigators last month discovered 66 dogs, mostly pit bulls, a dog-fighting pit on the second floor and equipment commonly used in dog fighting at Vick's property at 1915 Moonlight Road in southeast Surry. Vick didn't live there and recently sold the property.
So far, no one has been charged. The prosecutor and investigators plan to meet Monday to review the evidence.
"Sometime dogs fought on those premises," said Gerald G. Poindexter, Surry County's commonwealth's attorney, "and somebody had to get them in that upper room."
The investigation has shed light on dog fighting, an underground and illegal activity in Virginia and nationwide.
In 2006, there were about 120 cases of suspected dog fighting in the United States, according to a Pet-Abuse.com, which tracks animal-cruelty reports.
Five cases were in Virginia - two in Richmond and one each in Chesapeake, Virginia Beach and Rural Retreat, a town of about 1,400 people about 60 miles southwest of Blacksburg.
Its database is compiled through media coverage and law-enforcement reports, but it's not mandatory to report dog fighting, said Mark Kumpf, a Pet-Abuse.com board member.
The Humane Society of the United States estimates nationwide there are 20,000 professional dog fighters - who usually keep 20 or more dogs.
Dog fighting is illegal in all 50 states.
In Virginia, it's widespread but doesn't appear to be on the rise, said Kevin Kilgore. He's president of the Virginia Animal Control Association and the chief animal control officer for Hanover County, in suburban Richmond.
It's usually more prevalent in Virginia's urban areas, Kilgore said.
In Richmond, for example, dog owners will keep the dogs in rural areas during the day and transport them into the city at night to fight, Kilgore said.
Half of Virginia's 24 cases listed on Pet-Abuse.com since 2000 were in Hampton Roads, including Surry, which isn't always considered part of the larger region.
The Virginia Animal Fighting Task Force sprouted last year from the Virginia Animal Control Association to help with animal-fighting investigations. Sometimes, law enforcement may not know the signs of dog fighting or what kind of evidence to gather, Kilgore said, and that's where the task force can help.
Surry's last case was in 2000, when 33 malnourished pit bulls were found at Ben Butts' house in central Surry. But charges were dropped when a judge ruled the raid illegal because investigators hadn't obtained a search warrant.
Poindexter said he must sort through who might be involved in the investigation at Vick's former property and whether there's enough evidence to bring charges against each of them. Six to 10 people have lived or worked there over the years.
The prosecutor said he plans to have the attorney general's office review the evidence after Monday's meeting. "I don't think we'll be at a place on Monday to determine who all the defendants might be," Poindexter said.
However, he said, if it turns out multiple defendants are involved in the case, he would ask the attorney general for assistance.
"This is a complicated case," Poindexter said. "Mike Vick is not the only person that has had an intimate relationship with that property. People are in and out of that place. People took care of these dogs. We're trying to track them down.
Investigations can be lengthy because there are often mounds of information to sort through, Kumpf said.
"This case needs to be based on the evidence," Kumpf said. "There are a lot of armchair quarterbacks in the dog-fighting field."
Dog fighting is a brutal sport and a miserable existence for the dogs, mostly pit bulls, who are the best at fighting because they don't quit, Kilgore said.
That loyalty - a determination to please their owners despite the pain - is just what the owners want out of them.
The owners pervert the dog's devotion and make them into weapons, said Kathy Strouse, a member of the Virginia Animal Fighting Task Force and Chesapeake's animal control coordinator.
"This is just a horribly exploited breed," Strouse said. "Not all of them are used for dog fighting."
During a fight, two dogs are put in a ring, and they don't stop fighting until one of them quits or the owner stops the fight or one of them dies, Kumpf said.
Their sharp teeth puncture holes in the other dog's face and rip off chunks of flesh. Their handlers patch them up after the fights, Kilgore said.
And when there's dog fighting, there are other crimes, too.
Gambling, illegal drugs and firearms, assaults and even homicides can be tied to dog fighting. If children are raised in dog-fighting homes, they can become desensitized to the violence, Kilgore said.
"The people engaged in dog fighting are not your model citizens," Kumpf said. "They're dominating the animals. It's a status thing. They do it because they get some type of personal satisfaction out of watching it happen. 'That's my dog. I'm living through that dog. I would be fighting that guy myself, but I'm not. I'm letting that dog represent me in that ring.' "
Legendary dogs are known by the last name of the guy who owns the kennel, Kumpf said. Owners track bloodlines for generations, but in a different way than registration organizations such as the American Kennel Club.
"Its pedigree is determined by how many fights it has fought and won," Kumpf said.
Dog fighting has an underground following and an infrastructure that includes dog-fighting magazines, fighting dog registries and even transporters, who are paid to move dogs for breeding, said John Goodwin, deputy manager of animal-fighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States.
It has found its way into mainstream culture, including being mentioned in a 2002 movie, "Ghetto Dawg," and its 2005 sequel, "Ghetto Dawg 2: Out of the Pits."
Fleeting images of fighting pit bulls appeared in rap artist Jay-Z's video, "99 Problems," and another rap artist, DMX, put a picture of a pit bull on the cover of a 2003 album and named it "Grand Champ" - a title earned by dogs who win fights.
The Internet has made it easier for dog fighters to connect and exchange information - including what to tell police or animal control officers who may come knocking, Kilgore said.
The excuse they most often use is they're training their dogs for legitimate competitions, such as weight-pulling and other events that test a dog's athletic ability, Kumpf said.
Dogs used in fighting can be dangerous to neighbors and neighboring pets. Anyone who suspects dog fighting should alert police or animal control, he said.
"When dogs get dumped because they don't want to fight, they'll attack the next thing, which often is a neighborhood pet or a neighborhood child," Kumpf said. "That's something animal control can't tolerate. We're charged with protecting public safety."
Staff researcher Tracy Sorensen contributed to this report.
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