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Fight Clubs 

They call it 'the game': two dogs, owners, pride and money. Dogfighting is thriving in New Orleans, and so far there's not much anybody can do to stop it.

Even as a little kid, Marcus loved dogs.

Growing up around the housing projects Uptown, Marcus used to seek out mutts that multiplied in abandoned homes and in the crawl spaces under shotgun houses. "There was always stray dogs running around," says Marcus, now 30. "I would go under the house and get the puppies. They never lived, but, you know, I tried."

About 10 years ago, Marcus got his first pit bull terrier and immediately became enamored with the breed. "A friend of mine, a guy I went to school with, gave me a pit bull. A white pit bull named Sheba."

Marcus hooked up with some older buddies who'd long participated in organized dogfighting. He'd always known about the sport -- "It was cool, I thought" -- and, now that he had a pit bull, thought he'd try it out.

Sheba proved herself a lousy fighter in her first bout. "The dog just bit her, and she hollered," recalls Marcus, a clean-shaven man in a Bob Marley T-shirt, stretching out in a booth at an Uptown McDonald's. "She didn't want to fight, and she just punked out."

Despite Sheba's failings, Marcus was hooked. He read everything he could get his hands on about organized dogfighting: the desirable bloodlines, recommended training regimens, the characteristics of a good fighting dog. "I ended up getting into it pretty heavy," he says.

As for Sheba: "I let the dog go. I gave her to the SPCA. She wasn't a fighter, and she didn't serve me any purpose.

"You're looking for dogs that'll die when fighting -- that'll fight to the death."

The Fight

Louisiana is so central to dogfighting history that the most popular set of official regulations used today are called "Cajun rules." A former Lafayette police chief, the late G.A. "Gaboon" Trahan, is credited in dogfighting circles for originating the Cajun rules in the 1950s. Legend has it that Trahan would host twice-yearly matches for dogfighting enthusiasts from all over the South.

These days, dogfighters will tell you it's no big deal to see police officers and sheriff's deputies at illicit dogfights -- a presence that's welcome since they can warn the crowd of approaching cops or possible raids. Some dogfighters rattle off the names of top state and city politicians they claim to have seen at dogfights.

The breed of choice for dogfighters is the American Pit Bull Terrier, the muscular, stocky, agile product of cross-breeding between bulldogs and terriers. Close cousins -- the American Staffordshire Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier -- are generally lumped into the "pit bull" category.

Both fighting and non-fighting owners of pit bull terriers say that, like other dogs, a pit bull's behavior is a reflection of those who raise and train it, that the dogs can make gentle, affectionate pets. But a long history of fighting has contributed to the pit bull's reputation as an inherently vicious animal.

To dogfighters, some pit bulls possess that quality known as gameness, or the tenacity to fight until the death. You can see the game dogs in the litter, and those are the ones you train. Both males and females fight.

Matches can last for hours, and the basic rules are this: the dogs are paired by weight and fought in a pit, similar to a boxing ring, about 16 feet by 16 feet with a canvas or carpet floor and wooden walls 2 to 3 feet high. The dogs are placed behind "scratch lines" drawn on opposite sides of the pit. When the referee commands the dogs' handlers to "face your dog" and then "let go," the handlers release the animals.

A "scratch" is when the dog charges across the scratch line to bite its opponent -- and when both dogs scratch to each other, it's a stunning display of canine aggression. The dogs grapple until one of them turns its head and shoulders away from its opponent.

The handlers then separate the animals, place them behind the scratch lines, and begin again. The dog who turned must scratch within 10 seconds. Handlers may not touch the dogs unless there's a specific reason; for instance, when a dog "fangs" itself -- that is, gets its lip pierced and stuck on its own tooth. When this happens, the handler is allowed to separate the animals and "unfang" the dog's mouth with a pencil.

The match continues in this way, ending when one dog is too injured or unwilling to continue, jumps the pit, or is killed.

By nature, canines avoid unnecessary battles by raising their hackles or baring their teeth. If they do get into a fight, most dogs retreat when they're clearly overpowered. Such survival instincts are bred and trained out of the fighting pit bull. These dogs will not waste time preventing a fight and are trained to attack the other dog again and again, even after the opponent has surrendered, even when they're severely injured or dying themselves. That's the dog with game.

"The ultimate goal is to get a dog with a hard bite, a dog that has game," Marcus says. "If he don't have a heart, if he don't have a hell of a mouth, if he don't got good game, then he's no good."

The Professionals

In his backyard in a New Orleans suburb is where Charlie keeps his dogs.

These are not pets. The dogs -- about 20 of them -- stay in kennels, some tethered by chains despite the unlikelihood they'll escape their locked confines. Pit bulls like these tend to get stolen.

Charlie knows these dogs' bloodlines up and down. He'll stop in front of each cage and deliver an exhaustive recitation of the animal's genealogy: grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, offspring. Over and over he invokes the names of champion fighters, storied names like Chinaman, Red Boy, Jeep, Zebo, Ripper, Bullyson, Dillinger.

The progeny of such bloodlines will sell for about $1,000 each. Puppies are sometimes cheaper, since it's hard to tell exactly what you're getting with a dog so young, and these pit bulls -- if they possess desired fighting qualities such as a hard bite, athleticism and gameness -- can make their owners a lot of money.

Some of the dogs are themselves champions, though they're not exactly living in style. One two-time champ in Charlie's kennel is nursing several puppies. Her ears are chewed down to nubs, her skin is scarred and raw-looking, and she's got a baseball-sized abscess on her back, the result of her last bout. She slumps on the kennel's cement floor among piles of feces and scattered kibble crawling with ants.

In a more upscale suburb a little closer to New Orleans, Kevin's dogs are living under better conditions. His well-maintained home resembles that of the other houses in his neighborhood: a mowed lawn, trimmed hedges, garden statues. You'd never know that behind his backyard security fence, Kevin keeps about a dozen pit bull terriers descended from champion fighters.

His cages are slightly bigger than Charlie's, and cleaner. Like Charlie, Kevin is passionate about recounting the detailed parentage of each dog. Like Charlie's dogs, many of Kevin's pit bulls are "bred tight," or inbred, a sought-after quality in potential champions.

These dogmen, as they call themselves, don't fight their pit bulls in New Orleans. They travel out to the country, to rural areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, over to Texas, up to Kentucky and Georgia or Chicago and California. Word of mouth, and trust, play a crucial part of the dogfighting game: you generally have to know someone to become introduced to a big-time dogman or gain admission into a dogfight.

Though dogfighting is illegal in all 50 states and a felony in 44 of them, including Louisiana, the sport thrives throughout the United States on this tight-knit circuit. Dogmen know other dogmen in other regions, sometimes partnering with them to trade dogs or share parcels of land upon which to raise and train pit bulls.

No one can say for sure how many professional dogfighters live in or around New Orleans, but according to Terence -- who lives on the Northshore, fights dogs, knows both Charlie and Kevin, and runs a similar breeding operation to theirs in his backyard -- there are at least a dozen respected fighter/breeders in the metro area, some specializing in one particular bloodline of pit bull.

In race, class and age, these three dogmen couldn't be more different. Yet organized dogfighting seems to transcend such boundaries. Terence trades training tips and magazines popular in the circuit, such as Sporting Dog News, Pit Bull Reporter and The American Pit Bull Terrier Gazette, with Charlie, Kevin and other buddies. They regularly drive in caravans several hours to dogfights in remote rural areas.

That's because fighting their dogs in the city is a bad idea, Terence says. Too many prying eyes, too great a chance they'd get busted. "I don't mess with the local stuff," he says. "You want to go way out in the country, where no one can see or hear nothing."

The Fanciers

Dogmen like Terence, Kevin and Charlie are professionals. They devote a lot of time and money into selecting and breeding champion-bloodline dogs, training them and "matching," or fighting them.

Marcus calls himself a "fancier." That's a mid-level professional, a dogman who loves the game, though he doesn't have as elaborate a setup as the professionals. Marcus has had up to seven pit bulls at once, and keeps two pups now. As soon as they're 2 years old, Marcus plans to test them to determine whether they'll make good fighters.

Growing up near the Uptown projects, Marcus was a bright kid, willing to absorb everything he could about any subject in which he was interested. And the more Marcus learned the nuances of organized dogfighting, the more hooked he became. Best of all, he could make money from it.

"It's so much money. You would not believe the money floating around left and right." Marcus takes a swig from a cherry Hi-C. "If you're a spectator you can always make money. You scream, 'I got five on the black one,' and someone'll take the bet. There's always somebody at the door letting people in and out and collecting anywhere from $15 to $50 [per person]."

The dogs' owners make a lot more than that. The most Marcus has personally seen an owner take from a fight is $85,000, won by a dog out of Oklahoma.

Not too many organized dogfights occur in New Orleans, but some fanciers can't always make it out to the country where the big matches are. So they hold dogfights every now and then in the city, in apartments and houses, abandoned properties, even business spaces owned for that purpose.

"I'd imagine there are a couple of fights a week," says Leon, a former dogfighter from the Ninth Ward. "They match dogs everywhere -- everywhere. They've got a lot of guys out there with dogs."

Marcus explains setting up a dogfight this way: "Matches are when people put forfeit money up for a fight. They usually have two or three months, and what you call it is a 'keep.' A keep is when you're working the dog out, you're running them, you're training them, you've got a special diet. The first time he wins, he's a champion. After four times, he's a grand champion."

Word spreads throughout the circuit that an owner wants to match his dog, and soon another owner responds.

"They're fought by weights," Marcus says. "They'll say, 'I got a male, 38 pounds. I want to do him in two months.' And someone else says 'I got a male that will come on at 38 pounds.'"

Once the bet is on, the dogs undergo a rigorous "keep" that Marcus compares to a boxer training for a prizefight. Twice-daily workouts for Marcus' pit bulls include weight pulling, swimming, running and muscle massage, plus raw steaks for protein. Other dog owners, he'll tell you, are stupid when it comes to the "keep," overworking or underfeeding the animals in the belief that a hungry, mean dog makes a better fighter.

The "keep" lasts until the day of the fight. "Whatever you put up for forfeit, if their dog comes to the fight overweight or underweight, or if their dog dies, you get the forfeit," Marcus explains. "It's security money. People who hold it are referees, guys who are known. It's a pretty trusting hobby, because you put money in people's hands."

The location of these matches are kept under tight wraps, to avoid word being leaked to authorities such as the New Orleans Police Department or the Louisiana SPCA.

"They can't stop it; there's no set time. You usually don't know where it's at until hours before the fight," Marcus says. "You just hook up. The word rings around to the people who know about the fighting. You ask the person who's refereeing, you ask the person who's fighting. It's usually really hush-hush until that day, so the police really have to do their research."

The Streetfighters

Fanciers and professionals may not match dogs often in the city, but the third level of dogfighters -- streetfighters -- do it all the time.

In the dogfighting game, professional dogmen are akin to the Mafia, bestowing to the illicit activity a set of generally accepted rules. Using that parallel, streetfighters can be construed as gangs. They don't operate under many rules, and though they're involved in the same sport, the philosophies of professionals and streetfighters are, in many ways, miles apart.

Leon used to fight his pit bulls but quit at the behest of his wife. "Now that I'm in a good relationship," explains the heavyset, bearded, soft-spoken 30-year-old, "I'll do anything to keep it."

Leon believes dogfighting should be legalized, but acknowledges that many dogfighters act like punks. They don't care about bloodlines, they'll stage impromptu fights, sometimes without regard to who might be around; they're not interested in giving their animals the proper food, training, shelter. "You have some that do abuse dogs," he says. "They're the ones that are cruel."

Dogmen believe that certain pit bulls are born fighters who enjoy matches, while others are "curs" -- worthless. They compare champion fighting dogs to humans who like boxing.

"It's not something someone forces the dog to do at all. It's just natural instinct," says Leon, sitting in the dining nook of his Ninth Ward home. It's a sparse room, adorned only by a calendar decorated with a photo of two fluffy puppies, and a bouquet of red and pink flowers that Leon bought for his wife. In a crate next to the kitchen table is Leon's buckskin pit bull, whose long tail thumps against the metal bars.

"You're not forcing the dogs to do what they don't want to do," Leon says. "It's bred into the dog. You can't force Mike Tyson and another fighter to fight. They've got to want to do it."

The vast majority of dogs seen by the local SPCA are victims of streetfighters. "I know there's an undercurrent of very organized pit bull fighting, but the majority of stuff we come into contact with is kids trying to mirror these organized people and not doing a very good job," says Kathryn Destreza, the Louisiana SPCA's animal services director and chief humane officer.

Marcus, the dogfighter from Uptown, would agree with that. "A lot of these guys don't want to do their homework, they don't want to read," Marcus says. "They do stupid stuff. I heard a guy say he puts his dogs in a cage and covers it up and don't feed it. He thinks that will work.

"Those are the guys who lose all their money, and I take it," he adds with a smile.

The Impact

"Professional dogmen" abhor streetfighters' sloppy attempts to emulate the training and matching of organized dogfighting. The streetfighters' "game" adopts certain elements of the professional "game," but twists them out of context, ignoring certain standards of behavior that professional dogmen insist upon.

For instance, there's the bloodline. A professional dogman is vigilant about obtaining animals bred from champion stock, and such dogs are often short and stocky.

Streetfighters are attracted to the bigger dogs. They have little regard for bloodlines, and often steal people's pet pit bulls to use as either fighters or breeders. Some also steal pet dogs or nab strays to use as bait for their pit bulls to practice on -- another tactic scorned by professionals, who prefer to have their young dogs spar with retired fighters.

Anna knows more about dog thefts than she ever wanted. A young woman who lives Uptown, Anna asked that her full name not be published because she's afraid of retaliation from those who stole her pit bull, India.

Anna had adopted India from the streets. For months the dog was a terrific pet, affectionate and playful. Last year, India disappeared from Anna's yard, and Anna agonized that the dog was being fought, mistreated, and she'd never see her again.

What happened later confirmed Anna's fears: India was returned.

A neighbor saw some kids walking India back to Anna's house. One of them told the neighbor his brother had stolen the dog. "They bred her and tried to fight her, and realized she wouldn't accomplish anything," Anna recalls. "You could tell she had given birth, and she had a big scar on her butt ... She came back and she was malnourished, anemic, and she had no hair."

That wasn't the worst part. India's personality, like her appearance, had also changed dramatically. "India was sweet, and when she came back, she was just vicious," Anna says. "She would attack my other dog ... she would snap and growl at people." She also had begun jumping up on the tabletop to snatch food, leading Anna to believe the animal had competed with other dogs for scraps. In the end, the dog posed a danger to Anna's other pets, and she had to give India away.

Dogmen might have different techniques for raising and training their fighters, but they all face similar challenges in obtaining veterinary care for injured animals. Dogfighters say they owe a lot to veterinarians and vet technicians known in the circuit for providing supplies, pharmaceuticals and back-door treatment.

"Once that dog gets hit up, you have to get it penicillin, shots, you have to bathe it," Marcus says. "There's a couple of local vets that guys in the game have known about for years. They go over there and get cheap medicine."

Though veterinarians might not be legally obligated to report animal fighting, they are ethically bound to do so, according to Dr. Brian Ghere, an Uptown veterinarian and president of the burgeoning Charity Animal Hospital. Ghere points out that American Veterinary Medical Association policy directs its members to report any cases of animal cruelty to local authorities. He says he would be surprised to hear of any vets treating fighting dogs, but acknowledges that "there's probably a bad apple in every bunch."

Marcus supports the notion that most vets would contact authorities about a suspected fighter. "If you bring a dog that's been fighting to a vet," he advises, "chances are you're not gonna leave with that dog."

Overwhelmingly, dogfighters say, they depend upon do-it-yourself veterinary care. They suture wounds and treat infections and illnesses themselves, trading often-erroneous medical advice with their peers.

Yet Catherine Olivier, the community affairs director for the Louisiana SPCA, says that it's not just the animals she's worried about. "It's horrible, certainly, in terms of the life and the quality of life that the animal has," she says. "But we're more concerned about the fact that these, for the most part, are kids."

Dogfighting may not necessarily harm every child who witnesses it, but psychiatrists believe it could have a disturbing impact on emotionally troubled or vulnerable youths, making them more prone to destructive behavior.

Experts point out that disturbed youths gravitate toward violently tinged pastimes, noting that several of the adolescent boys responsible for America's recent spate of school shootings had histories of mistreating animals and of being fascinated with violence. Some believe dogfighting could also fuel a youth's aggressive tendencies.

Dr. Ed Foulks, a psychiatry professor at Tulane University's School of Medicine, specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder. He calls dogfighting "a pernicious exercise, one that causes not only pain in dogs but pain in humans. Eventually, you pay a price for that kind of stuff.

"Violence becomes a nonchalant part of everyday life," Foulks says. "Children and adolescents are learning values at these crucial periods of their life, and incorporating a culture that would encourage violent behavior of this kind, even as a spectator, is certainly going to have a lasting impression."

Marcus agrees that children in his Uptown neighborhood need good role models, but doesn't agree that dogfighting is bad for them. In fact, Marcus feels personally responsible for steering his own 6-year-old son and other local kids toward positive activities. He hopes to one day go to graduate school and become a counselor or coach for inner-city youths.

"A lot of kids down there on my end, they really look up to me, and they like my dogs because they know I have bad dogs," he says. "I tell them don't steal dogs. ... I always talk to kids and tell them to do the right thing."

The Activists

Toby is losing bad. As soon as he's taken down, he just seems to give up. The dominating dog seizes the skin of Toby's ear and face and yanks, hard, repeatedly. Toby's front paws flounder slightly; otherwise, he gives no sign of resistance. His owner, a young guy with bristly blond hair, kneels next to the dogs, slapping the floor with both palms as he yells encouragement, his face inches away from Toby's. "Come on, Toby! Get him, Toby!" His voice alternates between commanding and pleading. "Come on, Toby, he's going to kill you! No! Don't quit! Don't quit!"

The scene is part of The Final Round, a bloody, seven-minute film on animal fighting that includes undercover footage shot by Humane Society of the United States investigators who attended dogfights. The Humane Society released the film in 1998 and makes it available to law enforcement, animal shelters, and anyone else trying to educate the public.

Eric Sakach is among those interviewed on The Final Round. He's the Humane Society's expert in animal fighting and director of its West Coast office. He says that dogfighting, once concentrated mainly in Southern and Western states, now is popular all over the country and is booming in urban areas.

Last year, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals did a national survey of animal shelters to find out what breeds were coming in. Shelters responded that they were seeing an escalation of pit bulls over the past few years. In New Orleans, SPCA officials say the shelter receives dogs "every day" that they believe have been involved in fighting. These canines are either fighters or breeders, they say.

"There's an absolute explosion in the activity around the country," Sakach says. "There's a number of reasons for it. Obviously, the gambling plays heavily into it; obviously, it's a money activity. The Internet has contributed to some degree -- dogfighters are making arrangements more frequently by computer."

In New Orleans, few people are as committed to reversing that trend as Jeff Dorson. In the 1980s, Dorson was working in Minnesota as a lobbyist for animal rights, but believed he needed to do more. So he called the headquarters of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), asking where in the country a committed animal activist was most needed. "They told me to go to Louisiana," he says.

In 1988, Dorson founded the local animal rights group now known as League In Support of Animals, or LISA. Dorson's group started out originally as Legislation in Support of Animals, a reflection of its main focus of establishing stronger anti-cruelty laws. Over the years the group has expanded to include other activities, such as traveling around to small Louisiana towns helping to establish local humane societies.

In the last few years, Dorson has increasingly directed his energy toward dogfighting. He regularly drives through inner-city neighborhoods and tries to learn all he can about the activity, usually by simply asking strangers on the street to tell him what they know. Even though he identifies himself as a representative from "a local humane society," many people talk to him freely about dogfighting, offering tidbits of information that, more often than not, fail to turn up any conclusive evidence.

Today, Dorson is driving his beat-up van in the lower Ninth Ward, pointing out the pit bulls that proliferate in many yards. This area is a dogfighting hot spot, according to both Dorson and the SPCA's Destreza, who keeps a map dotted with push-pins indicating places where dogfighting has been reported or discovered.

"This is pit-bull city," Dorson says. In some part of New Orleans, Dorson says, dogfighting is "gigantic ... as big as pickup basketball games." His claims are supported by the fighters themselves.

On this day, Dorson spots two teenaged boys walking a pit bull using a heavy chain around its neck. The youths look to be about 12 and 16. Dorson asks them if they fight the dog, and they say they don't with this one -- but they're definitely enthusiastic about the game.

"They got all kinds of groups that fight," says the older teen. "I think they need to legalize it. They're gonna do it anyway.

"DMX, he be fightin' dogs," the youth adds, referring to the popular New York rapper.

"Have you ever been to a dogfight?" Jeff asks.

The younger kid says he's been with his big brother, who goes to lots of them. "You face your dogs, and then they let go and the dogs run and lock up." The boy's skinny brown fingers tangle into each other, and his eyes light up. "It's tight," he says, beaming.

"It's exciting?" Dorson asks.

"Yeah."

Later, Dorson shakes his head. "They talk about it all the time. They love to talk about it," he says of the kids he meets.

Dorson is most frustrated by the low number of dogfighting arrests made in New Orleans in the past few years. Dogfighting falls under animal cruelty charges, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly how many people have been nabbed for that specific activity. Both Dorson and the New Orleans Police Department acknowledge there has been just a handful of dogfighting arrests over the past few years.

Dorson thinks the cops don't take dogfighting seriously. "Unless NOPD is willing to take a look at this as a serious, profound problem in the neighborhoods and take a proactive stance, it'll be business as usual," he says.

The Law

New Orleans Police Capt. Clarence Hebert grows irritated when he hears Dorson's complaints. NOPD does everything within the law to prevent dogfighting, says Hebert. To make an arrest, he adds, an officer has to either catch fighters in the act or obtain testimony from an eyewitness.

"Sometimes when we see a dog with old wounds -- one, we have to prove it was from a dogfight, and two, we have to be able to prove it was arranged," Hebert says. "If we personally don't see a dogfight take place and we have nobody who is willing to step forward and actively testify, then we have no case."

Hebert sits with Dorson on New Orleans' Anti-Dogfighting Task Force, a nearly two-year-old committee that includes representatives from the SPCA and the Housing Authority of New Orleans. HANO became concerned when Dorson relayed reports of dogfighting in housing projects and backed up his claim with photos of a blood- and feces-smeared apartment in the now-defunct St. Thomas housing development. A "breaking stick" used in dogfights lay among the mess.

HANO and the SPCA responded with unannounced sweeps of housing developments, "looking for anything indicating there was dogfighting taking place," says HANO director of housing management Clifton Jones. So far, they have yet to uncover any other conclusive sign of dogfighting occurring on HANO property.

"We've never said that it's not happening, or that it could not happen. We have not seen any evidence, and we have tried," says Jones, who believes the regular sweeps are at least a deterrent to dogfighters. Jones also says that with the recent demolition of several HANO properties, there are far fewer empty units these days in which people could hold a fight.

Both the police and SPCA agree that it's not easy catching dogfighters in the act. Matches are often sporadic and brief, and by the time an officer responds to a call, it's already broken up. Dorson says the NOPD should assign a full-time detective to nab dogfighters. "It's not up to citizens," he argues. "They don't come forward to break up dealers and drug busts. It's up to law enforcement."

The NOPD says that it doesn't have the resources to do more. "Some people talk about putting undercover officers [on dogfighting]," says NOPD spokesman Sgt. Marlon Defillo. "You have to look at allocation of manpower and other issues."

Nationally, the Humane Society holds certified anti-dogfighting training courses for police and sheriff's offices across the United States, teaching them how to use local laws to make more dogfighting arrests. They report good results in cities such as Boston and New York, and states including Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Georgia. "Frequently [dogfighting] turns into a melting pot for drug trafficking and drug use," says Sakach, the society's animal fighting expert. "I think savvy law enforcement agencies snap to the fact that at a local dogfight, not only are you going to stop it, but there's a good chance you'll snag some idiot who's doing other things."

Dorson and SPCA officials have participated in training classes with the NOPD, but local arrests are still hard to come by. "There are several hundred arrests each year just in California. Los Angeles County has a detective devoted to animal blood sports," Sakach says. "There have been some recent busts in Louisiana, but I don't think there's a great deal of proactive effort to go after the activity in Louisiana."

Sakach says there were between 1,500- 2,000 dogfighting arrests in the United States last year, a number that he says greatly underrepresents the prevalence of dogfighting in the country. "Statistically, your chances of getting busted are still not high," Sakach says. "In some areas the penalties are abysmally low; in others, there is a lack for resources and education on the part of law enforcement going after it."

In New Orleans, the Anti-Dogfighting Task Force has been discussing the possibility of strengthening the current local ordinance, which prohibits people from sponsoring or promoting an animal fight and from training an animal to be fought.

Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who has hosted meetings of the Anti-Dogfighting Task Force in her office, says she is awaiting recommendations from the panel on how to best expand New Orleans' dogfighting ordinances. The task force will be looking at the laws of other major cities for ideas, Lewis says.

She also supports additional training for NOPD officers on animal fighting ordinances. "Our police officers may not have knowledge of all these laws," Lewis says.

Meanwhile, the Legislature this year voted to strengthen dogfighting laws on the state level. Lawmakers approved bills that would allow prosecutors to introduce certain paraphernalia associated with training a dog to fight, such as animal treadmills, as evidence to build a case against a suspect. Another bill sent to the governor would increase the penalties for dogfighting to a minimum sentence of one year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

The stiffer state laws are helpful, say SPCA officials, though they say that historically it's difficult for them to prosecute state cases. And the evidence would still be largely circumstantial, according to Destreza and Hebert, who point out that legitimate animal competitions, such as dog shows and strength/agility contests, often feature the same training equipment that dogfighters employ.

A change in city ordinances would make the real difference, they believe. That, and a change in residents' attitudes toward dogfighting. Citizens are often unwilling or afraid to offer information to authorities. Hebert says he's put Dorson in touch with NOPD supervisors and quality-of-life officers, so that Dorson could share possible leads. The problem is, officers say, much of Dorson's information, like the public's, is incomplete. "Not to knock Mr. Dorson, but half the time he'll bring you on a wild goose chase," says officer L.P. St. Martin.

Currently, says Destreza, the SPCA usually receives citizen complaints about a dogfight after it's too late for them to stop it. "They'll call up and say, 'Well, they've been fighting dogs here. Come clean it up now, because now there are injured dogs.' And then you ask them, why didn't you call us when it happened? 'Oh, no, honey. I can't get involved.' You know, somebody has to get involved."

Hebert also says he needs more help from the public. "We need locations, names, descriptions. Times of day, vehicle descriptions, behavior and things observed, why they would feel the activity is taking place, witnesses, an active participant. ...

"We'll certainly knock on doors, talk to neighbors, do whatever we can. We'll still investigate and look into it," he says. "If we don't find any evidence of it, we've got nothing to work on. The bottom line is we need information and a person willing to testify."

The Dogs

Leon prides himself in the fact that he would always leave a match with his dog -- even if it proved to be a worthless fighter. "If a dog quits, I don't leave him there to die. I give him away," Leon says. "A lot of people would kill the dog, but I wouldn't."

Not everyone is like Leon. In fact, the worst case of animal abuse that Olivier has seen at the SPCA involved not just the aftermath of a dogfight, but of a streetfighter who attempted to kill the dog that lost.

Olivier remembers a call from an older couple who found an injured pit bull in their back yard. The humane officer arrived to find an animal, still alive, with "a huge gaping hole in its skull." It was breathing through its head with an audible hiss.

"It was pretty clear that it had been hit in the skull with a bat, which we heard that a lot of times they do after they lose a fight," Olivier says. "And its eyes were swollen, and it looked like a human fighter but much worse. Cuts and bleeding wounds all over its body and its legs, all the typical signs."

The animal had no chance of survival and was euthanized. In fact, the SPCA's policy is to euthanize any dog that it believes has been trained to fight, regardless of the animal's demeanor.

People on both sides of the dogfighting issue agree that pit bull terriers are not inherently vicious. In fact, after a pit bull named Stubby became World War I's most decorated canine hero, the breed's popularity skyrocketed among U.S. families. Advertising and film executives soon acquainted the country with such beloved pit bulls as Petey from "Little Rascals" fame, Buster Brown's pooch Tige, and Nipper, the white dog cocking his head quizzically on old RCA Victor ads.

Still, the breed's history is intertwined with fighting. Early versions of pit bull terriers were originally used for bear- and bull-baiting in the early 1800s in England, and when those sports were outlawed in 1835, dogfighting emerged as a substitute. The breed, and the sport, crossed the ocean to frontier-era America, where it found an enthusiastic following that has flourished to this day.

In recent years, pit bull terriers have become a macho accessory in urban culture, where kids are attracted to the animals' reputation as inherently mean dogs. Add the hard-edged glamour of the dogfight -- the gambling, drugs and weapons; the illegality; the "fight 'til you die" credo -- and dogfighting flourishes in places where cultivating a tough reputation is often tantamount to survival.

A fighting dog, says Marcus, is "the ultimate gangsta."

Last year, MTV and other outlets screened rapper DMX's video "What's My Name," featuring two pit bulls tethered by chains, snarling and snapping at each other. Though DMX doesn't make dogfighting references in that song, he does in a collaboration with fellow rapper Eve. Their recent song "Dog Match" is peppered with lyrics such as: "First time I had a match and didn't scratch," "Place your bets/You can imagine what the bloodline is like" and "All my pups is crazy, 'cause off the leash/They can eat, stand a match for three hours at least."

Fear of pit bulls has led to severe reaction across the globe, with outright bans of the breed in such countries as Germany, Australia, Denmark, Hong Kong and Singapore. Attention-grabbing headlines such as last month's incident in Oakland, Calif. -- where a 10-year-old boy on his bike was severely mauled by three loose pit bulls -- continue to fuel public distrust of the breed.

Many insurance companies raise homeowners' or renters' premiums for pit bull owners, or simply refuse to cover them. Local governments across the country introduced legislation to ban or restrict the breed, and the initiative passed in some areas, such as Denver and Miami.

However, some jurisdictions have rejected the proposed bans, acknowledging they can be ineffective, expensive and difficult to enforce. Others, such as Cincinnati, have lifted them.

Destreza, of the local SPCA, had a pit bull of her own until 1994, when it was stolen. "Pit bulls are one of my favorite breeds," she maintains. "They're great with kids." Destreza still looks for her missing dog, Pepper, every day when she goes out on sweeps in the SPCA truck. "The pit bull fighting dogs I've come into contact with in the last nine years have been very people-friendly ... Those are the sad ones, because they're so friendly," Destreza says.

Like other dogmen, Marcus harbors a strong admiration for pit bull terriers. "This is the most athletic dog that you can have," Marcus declares. "They're so talented. I had a dog that had two broken front legs, and when it was time to scratch, he went like that" -- he pantomimes a crawling animal -- "up to the other dog, and bit the dog."

A look of pride crosses his face. "Game is the dog that won't quit fighting, the dog that'll die in the ring, the dog that'll fight with two broken legs," he says.

And then he repeats the same sentiment that others use to describe the pit bull terrier. It's a reason that could be cited by all dogfighters, and indeed all enthusiasts of the breed, as the primary reason why the pit bull is so central to the vast and brutal sport of dogfighting.

"The dog," he says, "can be whatever you want it to be."

click to enlarge Jeff Dorson took this photo during his trips through New Orleans dogfighting hotspots. The dog displays scarring consistent with that of a fighter. - GERARD DUBOIS
  • Gerard Dubois
  • Jeff Dorson took this photo during his trips through New Orleans dogfighting hotspots. The dog displays scarring consistent with that of a fighter.
click to enlarge Jeff Dorson took this photo during his trips through New Orleans dogfighting hotspots. The dog displays scarring consistent with that of a fighter. - JEFF DORSON
  • Jeff Dorson
  • Jeff Dorson took this photo during his trips through New Orleans dogfighting hotspots. The dog displays scarring consistent with that of a fighter.
click to enlarge This photo was taken by an undercover investigator for the Humane Society. By nature, canines avoid unnecessary battles by raising their hackles or baring their teeth. Such survival instincts are bred and trained out of the fighting pit bull.
  • This photo was taken by an undercover investigator for the Humane Society. By nature, canines avoid unnecessary battles by raising their hackles or baring their teeth. Such survival instincts are bred and trained out of the fighting pit bull.
click to enlarge This photo was taken by an undercover investigator for the Humane Society. By nature, canines avoid unnecessary battles by raising their hackles or baring their teeth. Such survival instincts are bred and trained out of the fighting pit bull.
  • This photo was taken by an undercover investigator for the Humane Society. By nature, canines avoid unnecessary battles by raising their hackles or baring their teeth. Such survival instincts are bred and trained out of the fighting pit bull.
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