In a cold, windowless warehouse, 20 men clad in heavy
jackets gathered around a makeshift fight ring, slugging down Budweiser
from cans, following the action closely and calling out encouragement
? "Let's get 'em now! Go strong!"? before placing $100 bets.
The object of their attention: two pit bulls - growling, lunging, mauling
each other's ears, necks and torsos with jaws locked so tightly that only
wooden sticks could pry them open.
The video ended there. No serious injuries to either animal. Clearly,
though, previous matches ended differently. Blood splotches covered all
four walls of the wooden fighting pit.
Cpl. Al Peterson, a state animal cruelty investigator, doesn't know the
source of the video confiscated in New Jersey. What he does know is that
photos, magazines and other paraphernalia seized at dogfights throughout
the state continue to mount.
"The calls are coming in like wildfire," said Peterson, a 38-year
police veteran and expert in blood sports.
Dogfighting has captured public attention in recent weeks with several
high-profile arrests, including that of former NFL quarterback Michael
Vick. But animal blood sports ? dogfighting, cockfighting ? arrived in
America more than a century ago. At the competitive level, such sports
involve intense training and large investments. The payback: Participants
wager millions of dollars on fights each year, investigators say.
Blood sports are felony crimes, punishable by steep fines and months in
jail. They continue regardless. The allure, experts say, is the money,
power and street fame one enjoys from owning a top dog.
Investigators' cases span the state: A makeshift dog training center on
Paterson's Northside; sprawling, outdoor dog compounds tucked away in
the New Jersey Pine Barrens; 20 pit bulls locked up in a Passaic garage.
On the professional level, highly organized fight clubs oversee betting
pools worth tens of thousands of dollars in Newark and South Jersey, where
Vick allegedly staged a fight. More commonly, teenagers spar their pit
bulls in the streets of Paterson and fields behind John F. Kennedy High
School. Youths locked up in the Passaic County Juvenile Detention Center
boast about whose dog reigned, back home.
"They say, 'My dog is mean. My dog is better than yours,'" said
Anthony Morales, a corrections officer. "They talk about what dog
won, because it was the last one standing."
On the sidelines, area pit bull owners are coaxed into the fighting world
through promises of big money and macho pride. Fighters have stolen pets
in Passaic to use as rivals for training their dogs. Some who have witnessed
the bloody fights harbor the trauma for years.
"It was terrifying. I started crying," recalled Jennifer Serrano,
18, of Clifton, who often saw fights while growing up in Newark. "I
heard dogs squeak in pain. They had holes in their skin from the teeth."
The New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals prosecutes
25 dogfighting cases a year, according to Matt Stanton, a spokesman. Many
more go unnoticed. Last year, the SPCA opened a major crimes unit to address
the gangs, drugs and criminal element often involved in such fights.
"We're just getting our arms around it," Stanton said.
An estimated 40,000 people fight dogs competitively, with hundreds of
thousands more sparring their dogs in the streets, according to the Humane
Society of the United States. Organizers guard the big events with a secrecy
that has intensified since the Vick case, Stanton said. Typically, attendees
will congregate at one place, then caravan to other locations to discourage
being followed to the main event.
In urban areas, fights take place in abandoned houses, warehouses and
basements. The fall and winter months are preferred as they offer cooler,
more comfortable conditions, according to Sgt. David Hunt, an Ohio police
detective who trains officers on blood sports.
"We're coming on prime dogfighting season," Hunt said.
Throughout the year, aficionados follow the bloodlines of pit bulls through
online chat rooms and photocopied underground magazines such as Your Friend
and Mine, Face Your Dog and the Pit Bull Reporter.
"Georgia Girl was schooled from a very young age," wrote "Big
Apple Bulldogs" in the July issue of Sporting Dog Journal. "Everything
we put in front of her she put away quickly."
Dogs from champion blood lines fetch up to $2,000, according to Sergio
Sanchez, a former breeder from West New York, who said he now condemns
fighting. People buy puppies in the street for about $150, he said. Or
they steal them.
Revered for their loyalty, pit bulls pose no harm if treated lovingly.
But they become ferocious when abused or conditioned to fight. The dogs
can wield hundreds of pounds of pressure in their jaws. Once a pit bull
clamps its teeth, they lock down.
"I've seen a dog beaten in the head with a shovel when it wouldn't
let go," said Todd Johnson, 46, of Paterson, who has known local
fighters for years.
Johnson says his fighting friends condition their dogs for months, as
is typical for serious owners. The animals carry heavy chain leashes to
strengthen their necks. They bite down on tires suspended from ropes to
toughen their jaws.
"They would hang there for, like an hour," Johnson said. "It's
a death grip."
Owners also give a hodgepodge of performance boosters - from codeine and
amphetamines to chewing tobacco, which, slathered on an animal's chest,
imparts a leathery resistance.
"Everybody uses steroids," wrote "The Gator Boys"
in the June issue of the International Dog Journal. "If they say
they don't use steroids, they are full of (expletive)!"
Money and glory
All the effort shows once the dogs face off in ringed pits. In the confiscated
warehouse video, beige and black pit bulls mauled each other for more
than half an hour. They instinctively tore at each other's throats. Only
the two animal handlers could stop the action, wiping away blood with
wet rags before another round began.
"Get 'em!" shouted one man, wearing a black baseball cap and
drinking a Miller High Life. "I've got $100 on the black dog."
Betting pools typically start at around $10,000 and grow to $100,000,
investigators say. Attendees also make side wagers.
"It's really big money," said Johnson, the Paterson resident.
"The most thrill people get out of it is on payday."
After an event, owners often leave weak animals to die, but rehabilitate
proven winners. Hunt, the Ohio investigator, has found sutures, staple
guns and blood transfusion needles at fights: the tools of makeshift veterinarians.
"It's like a miniature ER," Hunt said.
Because of the money at stake, investigators say, thieves often target
pit bulls. In August, for example, intruders stole three fighting dogs
from the Paterson shelter. Police had recently confiscated the dogs from
a man running a makeshift dog training center in his Northside house.
Michael Coleman, 26, was charged with three counts of animal cruelty and
narcotics possession. Paterson Animal Control Officer John DeCando would
not comment if they suspect Coleman took the pit bulls.
For street fighters, dogfighting represents more than money. It stokes
a sense of power and aggression often craved by teenagers. These owners
tend to abuse their animals and have gang aspirations, investigators say.
"I would literally see young guys pushing and kicking the dogs around,"
said Serrano, the former Newark resident. "It's like a video game
Robert Torres, 18, knows teens who have turned their dogs into fighters.
He often feels pressure from peers to do the same while walking his pet
pit bull in local parks.
"They'll say, 'You can get paid. I can take you to a place and set
you up,'" said Torres, of Clifton. "It's like a slap in the
In New Jersey, convictions for dogfighting and cockfighting can bring
fines of up to $1,000 and a six-month prison term, per count. In the wake
of the Vick case, New Jersey lawmakers have proposed increasing fines
The penalties help, Peterson said, but do only so much to deter sophisticated
organizers who listen to police scanners, pay off neighbors and run background
checks on attendees.
"People don't wake up one day and decide to do dogfighting,"
said Peterson, who is hot on the trail of numerous fight organizers in
North Jersey. "We're talking about organized street crime."
Investigations take months to conduct and require as much effort as drug
busts, officers say. Local police departments usually hand them off to
the state SPCA team of 85 officers. But the SPCA, a nonprofit organization,
can only do so much, Stanton said.
So blood sports continue undeterred. Pit bulls - including those maimed
in fights - now constitute between 30 percent and 50 percent of shelter
populations, up from 2 percent 15 years ago, according to national Humane
Society statistics. "Everywhere I walk, there are two pit bulls in
the street, going at it," said Sanchez, the breeder. "No matter
what we say, there's still going to be underground fighting."
August: Paterson police seized three pit bulls and two treadmills used
for training in a Manchester Avenue home. The dogs were taken to the city
animal shelter. Two weeks later, intruders stole them after cutting open
August: State police charged a Salem County woman with dogfighting after
her landlord discovered a fighting pit bull and an injured dog in her
February: State police discovered 20 pit bulls at a Dayton Avenue home
in Passaic. The pit bulls were living in crates and cages in the garage.
The dogs had injuries suggesting they had been fighting. Investigators
are still pursuing the case.
April, 2006: Four people from Maurice River in Cumberland County were
arrested after police discovered 38 pit bulls, an alligator and dogfighting
paraphernalia on their property.
- Source: New Jersey SPCA, Paterson Animal Control, the Passaic Municipal
BLOOD SPORT FACTS
What are blood sports?
Blood sports like dogfighting and cockfighting involve pitting two animals
against each other in a pen or on the street. Spectators often gamble
on the events.
Where do they take place?
In urban areas, fights are typically held in warehouses, basements and
Are blood sports illegal?
Dogfighting and cockfighting are felony crimes in New Jersey. Each criminal
conviction can carry up to six months of jail time and fines of up to
What should someone do if they suspect dogfighting?
Call the New Jersey SPCA at 800-582-5979 or file a complaint online at
www.njspca.org/ report-abuse.htm Do not try to confront the person. Blood
sports often attract people involved in other criminal activities.
- Source: SPCA, the Humane Society of the United States
Reach Heather Haddon at 973-569-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org