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The Victims of Dogfighting 

We must not fail to suppress a blood sport popular among disadvantaged and vulnerable young people.

Following our recent cover story on dogfighting in New Orleans ("Fight Clubs," July 10, 2001), several readers contacted this paper wanting to know how they could help curb the popularity of this gory sport. Most identified themselves as animal lovers disturbed by the pastime's impact on its most visible victims -- the dogs. Some suggested raising reward money to motivate citizens to call police when they witness dogfighting in their communities. Others proposed helping the SPCA's volunteer efforts in local schools -- to impress upon kids that dogs do endure pain.

Their concern is justified and their ideas are good ones. Canines regularly turn up at area animal shelters displaying evidence of dogfighting. The local SPCA's policy is to destroy those animals. And because the sport favors the American Pit Bull Terrier, dogs born to the breed suffer from a maligned reputation as natural-born killers. In fact, pit bulls become vicious only after their owners raise and train them to behave that way; the dogs make loving and loyal companions when given the chance. As a result of public hysteria, even the gentlest pit bulls and pit bull mixes are often difficult for shelters to adopt out.

But these animals aren't the only victims of dogfighting. This illicit sport, which pits dogs against each another until one is too injured or unwilling to continue, is popular in New Orleans' inner city, and particularly among young men and boys. Local psychiatrists are concerned about the impact this has on youths. The values learned in early years of development last a lifetime, stresses Dr. Ed Foulks, a psychiatry professor who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder at Tulane University's School of Medicine. And for those involved in pastimes such as dogfighting, Foulks says, "violence becomes a nonchalant part of everyday life."

National studies have long shown a correlation between animal abuse at an early age and violent crime later in life. As one SPCA humane officer points out: "These [dogfighters] are just kids. I'd hate to run into them when they're 25."

Dogfighting does not exist in a vacuum. We must not fail to suppress a blood sport popular among disadvantaged and vulnerable young people. When we show such a lack of concern, we ignore youths at risk of becoming indifferent to violence early in life; we ignore the educators fighting an uphill battle to teach them that brutality is destructive; we ignore the law enforcement, justice and corrections systems that must manage these juveniles as they get progressively older and more dangerous.

And we ignore the thousands of potential human victims of these troubled youths -- people who live and work and travel in and around New Orleans, people forced to think about a culture of violence only after they, or their loved ones, have been harmed by a violent act.

There are some signs that the city is beginning to take dogfighting seriously. Early last week, police raided the home of a suspected dogfighter, and the NOPD promised more such actions to come. In this case, both the Louisiana SPCA and the League in Support of Animals (LISA) aided the police investigation, as did area witnesses who told police of dogfighting activity.

We are heartened by renewed police attention to dogfighting, and we applaud the organizations and individuals who are assisting in this effort. But local police acknowledge that dogfighting arrests have been rare. The city's anti-dogfighting ordinance requires that police either catch dogfighters in the act or obtain adequate information from a witness willing to testify. Citizens too often don't want to get involved. Police add that by the time they respond to citizens who do react, the fight is usually over.

The City Council should strengthen the local ordinance, and law enforcement should invite the national Humane Society to give accredited officer training sessions on animal fighting. Led by animal fighting expert Eric Sakach, the nationwide programs educate officers on how to recognize signs of dogfighting, and how to use local laws to crack down on those who fight dogs. Council members Cynthia Willard-Lewis and Scott Shea have expressed interest in putting more teeth into animal-related ordinances.

Above all, the fight against dogfighting must take place in the neighborhoods, on the streets, and in the backyards of our city. Residents must be willing to contact authorities as soon as they witness a fight taking place. Police and humane officers must respond quickly. If you see dogfighting, call the police. If you have larger concerns about dogfighting in your area, contact Cathy Grady at the Louisiana SPCA at 948-7000. Grady, who sits on the city's Anti-Dogfighting Task Force, says the panel will discuss ways in which volunteers might help them control dogfighting in New Orleans.

In the end, dogfighting has implications that extend far beyond two people matching two dogs. We should all be uneasy about the popularity of this gruesome sport.

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