The pits: Dogfighting's bloody aftermath

The pictures on the walls of Carolyn Foreman's SPCA office are cutesy images of puppies, kittens, and ducks. The photos in her hand, however, are not so endearing. They show the battered bodies of dead dogs.

"You can see the bite marks on this one," she says. In another photo, a pit bull is lying on top of the black garbage bag its body was tossed into like yesterday's trash.

 "A year ago, if you'd asked me if dogfighting was a problem in our bucolic little 'burb, I'd have said no, everyone loves dogs here," says Foreman.

That was before she became executive director of the local Charlottesville-Albemarle Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Now, she says, "I'm sorry about what I do know."

Last year, 37 pit bulls that Foreman believes were involved in fighting ended up at the SPCA.

The experience of the Charlottesville shelter is not unique. Northern Virginia and Norfolk are known as dogfighting hot spots, according to a local animal control officer. In Richmond, Speaker of the House William Howell asked Delegate Rob Bell to carry a bill that puts some teeth into the existing statute against dogfighting.

 

What dogfights?

 Sharon Tate has been an animal control officer in Albemarle County for 10 years. When she first started working, she rarely picked up pit bulls. For the past two years, she's picked up one every month. "Now, it's pretty much at least every week and sometimes," she estimates, "every other day."

It's become commonplace for the SPCA to have several pit bulls on hand at any given time. Typical is the nearly dead female pit bull that animal control found a few weeks ago on the side of Dickerson Road near UVA's North Fork research park.

"She was fought," says Laura Sharp at the SPCA. "She has very distinct fight scars." The dog was bleeding profusely "I mean profuse," says Sharp– from the head, neck and front legs.

Sharp suspects the dog had been stolen because she's not aggressive toward other dogs and seems to be socialized. "She was either a bait animal or she was put in a fight and wouldn't fight," Sharp says.

And though the pit bull is healing nicely, it's unlikely she's going to get out of the SPCA alive.

"No one comes in to say, 'I want a dog who's been fought,'" says Sharp.


Jade arrived at the SPCA with infected wounds from a fight she'd been in. She was euthanized March 31.

 While official reports on dogfights don't indicate a problem, unofficial accounts tell a different story. "According to hearsay, it's quite bad," says Officer Tate. "The underground knows about it, but there's never anything concrete we can go on."

Albemarle County made one arrest last year in Crozet: James Carson Johnson was charged with cruelty to animals and dogfighting. A witness to the alleged fight on St. George Avenue who is willing to testify is the reason Johnson is scheduled to go to trial April 25.

Police suspect dogfighting in several cases, including incidents on Airport Road and at Southwood trailer park on Fifth Street, but under the old law, "basically it takes an eyewitness," says Sergeant Todd Hopwood, in order for prosecutors to be able to bring the case to trial.

 

The Estes Drive Seven

 The SPCA building off Woodburn Road is a warm and fuzzy place staffed by caring animal lovers. The resident seagull, Johnathan, caws throughout the day, and the meows from cages of kittens welcome visitors to the shelter.

That was not the scene there one day in late January. Few cases have rocked the animal protection community more than that of Alonzo William Trice, who was indicted January 23 for murder and running a crack cocaine ring.

Trice had five adult pit bulls guarding his Estes Drive residence. Police surveillance videos show him going out in the yard where the dogs were staked and hitting them on the head with a board, according to Foreman.

His abused dogs sent the SPCA staff over the edge.

"They were the scariest dogs I've ever seen," says Mary Borrelli, who's worked at the local SPCA for 15 years, "and I'm not afraid of dogs, or I wouldn't be in this field."

Generally, new arrivals come in the front door. Trice's animals had to be brought in the back because the shelter staff didn't want to risk letting them come in contact with people. "We had to top off the dog runs with plywood so they couldn't jump out," Borrelli says.

The animals were so vicious that they couldn't be housed with each other and were biting through the chain link of their cages. Because dogs have been known to break out of cages at the shelter, "Some staff didn't want to be the first to come in the next morning in case they'd gotten out," recalls Borrelli.

"For veteran employees, it was the first time they've ever been afraid of an animal," says Foreman. "They were in tears."

Borrelli describes a female "who tried to kill us," a male "with the largest head I've ever seen," and one dog that was severely scarred. The five adult dogs and two puppies were all euthanized within 24 hours after arriving at the SPCA, with Trice's permission.

"Lovely man," Foreman remarks sarcastically. "We had no choice. We couldn't feed them."

During the short time the pit bulls were housed there, the SPCA saw an unusual parade of visitors, according to Borrelli. The visitors didn't ask questions, made calls on cell phones, and "they all seemed focused on those particular dogs," says Borrelli.

"They clearly knew exactly which animals they were and went straight to them and called them by name," says Foreman. One couple with a baby and a toddler wanted to adopt what Foreman says was the most vicious dog. "So obviously you know they're not looking for a pet," she says.

"I thought I'd seen a lot," says animal control officer Tate. But, referring to the Estes Drive dogs, she says, "That was an eye-opener."

"A lot of us were pretty shaky for several days afterward," confesses Borrelli.

Despite the viciousness of the beasts and the reign of terror they brought to the shelter, Laura Sharp could see the animals as victims. "There was pure fear in the eyes of those dogs that said, 'Please don't beat me,'" she recounts.

 

ABCs of abuse

 Foreman thinks pit bulls and Rottweilers get a bad rap because they're so strong and so frequently abused– not because they're born mean or vicious. Any breed, even a Pekinese, can be made vicious through abuse, she says.

The process is well documented nationally by the Humane Society and SPCA. Foreman describes the process. Owners of pit bulls destined to fight start by starving them as puppies. Food is put in front of the dogs and then pulled away. "Then they might put two together to fight over the food," she says.

 Steroids may be part of the pit bull diet. The dogs can be fed gunpowder, which creates severe abdominal cramping. "An animal in pain is aggressive," she says. So is one that's sleep deprived, another technique used to heighten the viciousness of the creature.

"In short, the worst you can do to man's best friend," Foreman says of the treatment these dogs receive.

Heavy chains are often wrapped around the dog's neck to build muscle as it exercises. Some trainers use a tire on a tree for the dogs to jump up and clamp onto to strengthen their jaws, says Charlottesville animal control officer Bobby Durrer.

And the pit bull isn't the only abuse victim in the dogfighting world. Foreman says trainers scour "free-pet-to-good-home" ads to obtain bait animals to be tossed to the fighters for practice.

(The Hook recently revised its classified advertising policies to ban "free to good home" pet ads.)

So how does the SPCA determine if an abandoned pit bull has been fighting? Foreman lists scarring on the face and legs, ears torn off, ripped noses, and retreat wounds in the rear of dogs that didn't want to fight. "The damaged ears are often cut off at home with no anesthesia because they can't go to a vet," she says.

Some dogs have tears in the tongue. "It's obvious," says Foreman. "You know they've been in a fight."

At the end of a fight, the loser can be clubbed to death to end the bloodline, according to Foreman, or maybe the owners will cut their throats. "If they want to be gentle, they'll shoot them," she says.

Even the winners aren't guaranteed survival and may die from blood loss. Once again, Foreman reiterates that these dogs can't be taken to a vet. At best, a good Samaritan will drop them off at the SPCA. More likely, their bodies are dumped on the side of the road.

Foreman recounts how three weeks ago, the corpse of a dog that had been starved to death was left outside the door of the SPCA. And Mary Borrelli says two dead pit bulls were found near the Rivanna Reservoir a couple of months ago.

Animal control officer Sharon Tate describes two levels of fighting. The first she calls "extreme," involving large amounts of money being wagered, with the dogs fighting to the death.

The second type is the street fight the "my dog's better than yours," kind of contest, says Tate, adding, "Northern Virginia has more professionals. We've got the wannabes."

And where are all these pit bulls coming from? "A lot of people are buying these dogs out of Bucksaver and other newspapers," says Tate. "They're so brazen that they advertise in public newspapers."

A recent issue of the Blue Ridge Bucksaver lists four ads for pit bulls and above two of those classifieds are free-puppy ads.

Bucksaver editor Clay Ramsay says he's never heard that breeders might be using his paper to obtain pit bulls for fighting or to procure bait animals. "But it doesn't surprise me," he says, adding, "That's too bad." Ramsay says the ads are either telephoned or faxed, and it's hard to tell what someone is going to do with a dog advertised in the paper.

 Because pit bulls raised for fighting rarely see a veterinarian, "what's scary is seeing young men coming into rabies clinics with young pit bulls just coming into breeding," says Tate. She calls these young men the future breeders, and she doesn't like to think what's going to happen to their dogs.

Foreman also thinks young males and pit bulls are a bad combination. "When I see these teens on the mall scruffing up pit bull puppies, I want to smack them," she says, "but that would not be appropriate."

 

Time to change

When Foreman carried her graphic photos of dead fighters to Richmond in January, their impact on even hardened legislators perhaps can be judged by how the vote on a bill prohibiting dogfighting passed: 40-0 in the Senate and 96-3 in the House of Delegates.

Before Governor Mark Warner signed Bell's bill, law enforcement had to catch a dogfight in progress or have undercover officers there. "Prosecutors said it was very hard to prosecute," says Bell.

"It's dependent on a witness, and with the very vicious criminal element involved," says Foreman, "witnesses don't want to come forward."

Bell's bill bans breeding, training, or selling dogs for dogfighting.

"You don't have to have a fight occur to enforce it," he says. "The bill takes a law on the books and makes it workable in the field."

 

Costs of abuse

When animal control officers pick up a dog suspected of fighting, the animal has to be held until its owner goes on trial, a process that can keep it caged for months. "Who pays for it?" asks Foreman.

Besides shots and medical expenses, the care and feeding of a dog costs $25 a day. "Keep it for a year, and you've got quite a bill," she points out.

Part of Delegate Rob Bell's bill requires the dog's owner to reimburse the animal shelter for expenses connected with housing the dog.

Another cost: "It takes space that could be used for a perfectly adoptable animal," says Foreman.

A dog that's been raised to fight does not make a good candidate for adoption. The dogs are considered unpredictable, and "Inbreeding makes them squirrelly," Foreman adds.

Not to say that the SPCA doesn't offer pit bulls for adoption. Foreman shows a visitor four pit bulls currently housed at the shelter.

"Hey, sweetie," she says, sticking her fingers up to be licked by one of them, a pit bull mix.

"We'll put a dog up for adoption if it has no history of aggression," says Foreman. That's determined by temperament testers professionals like the SPCA's Laura Sharp, who runs a dog through a battery of tests looking for signs of abuse.

The dog must be spayed or neutered, and isn't allowed in houses with young children. And if the potential adopters have a problem with home visits from the SPCA, it's unlikely they'll get the dog.

"If someone makes the hair stand up on our neck, we don't have to let them adopt," says Foreman. "We want to make sure they have a good home."

Foreman has watched police surveillance videos of dogfights from Charlottesville and Albemarle County. What really disturbs her is that children are brought to these fights and cheer the carnage.

"They're taught at an early age to have no respect for animal life, and it's a short step to no respect for human life," says Foreman.

Across the country, law enforcers say that violence to animals is a strong predictor of future violence. "Every serial killer," Foreman claims, "has a history of animal abuse."

And what's heartbreaking to the SPCA staff is that despite the abuse many of these dogs endure, they'll still go into a pit and fight to the death to please their owner.

"That's what makes us so insane," Foreman laments. "In somebody else's hands they'd be big lapdogs."