The dog-fighting problem in the United States was brought to the front and center of national news in 2007, linking pro football star Michael Vick’s name with the underground sport when he was indicted for financing and running a dog-fighting ring and convicted in December of that year, seven months after the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act was passed nationwide making the blood sport a felony.
As was revealed in the Vick case and later through other investigations, including the MSHP investigation, several elements drive the dog-fighting industry.
“Of course, it’s all about money and ego,” Mills says. The gambling aspect of the blood sport is a key ingredient, though spectators can sometimes pay a fee to watch (which Mills says is around $20), the real money exchange happens between the two handlers with dogs in the fight. A typical contract bet between the owners is around $5,000 each, Mills says, and side bets among spectators are also common. Dog-fighting criminals have a lot of pride and ego attached to their kennel and have usually financed their operation with a goal to build a blood line, breeding from winning dogs for more aggressive traits and virility in the ring. Mills says breeders can fetch large sums for prime offspring, valued for their parents’ record in the pit. In one case Mills paid $1,000 for a champ puppy. This highlights another tragic element of dog fighting. Prior to the trauma dogs ultimately face in the pit, the animals are victims at birth due to the bloodlust behind the breeding. Many can never be placed in a traditional home as a family pet because of the inherent aggressive behavior bred into the animals. The ASPCA notes surviving dogs, including puppies born after the ring was raided, are adopted to special rescues for blood sport-bred dogs.
During his stretch posing as a dogfighting enthusiast and gambler, Mills learned a lot about the illegal activity’s culture. Most of the fights he attended took place after dark on a Saturday, and the venue was often changed multiple times because organizers were paranoid about law enforcement surveillance. Fight locations included garages, barns and in one instance, a bedroom, where typically a 16-by-16-foot “pit” is built in the corner using plywood, lumber, chicken wire or other materials. Crowd size can range between five or six, including the handlers and referee, up to about 50, which was the largest group Mills saw at a fight.
Seven or eight weeks prior to the fight, the gender and weight of the dog are agreed upon by the opponents and a forfeit deposit is usually given to the referee or another party. Several rituals take place on fight night, including weighing and washing the animals. Even a quarter pound above the weight class will result in a forfeit, but typically the wager is renegotiated and a fight will still take place. After the dogs are weighed, they’re washed. Mills explains this is to be sure no chemicals are put on the animals to sway the fight in one’s favor. For example, a foreign substance that tastes bad, like liquid nicotine, might cause the dog to let go on a bite.
In documents describing the gruesome, cruel nature of the fights, the Federal Bureau of Investigations states “sponge men” were needed to mop blood from the dogs and handlers for the fight’s duration. The FBI also describes how two dogs were shot after a fight using a .22-caliber rifle and then tossed into plastic containers, culminating one of the fights that took place during the 2008-2009 investigation.
By the time the dogs are killed or the bloody victors are brought home, the animals have undergone immense trauma. When a dog is training for the fight, it may be fed steroids and put through extreme physical training, but there is also an element of the pre-fight phase that makes pit bulls, the most commonly bred blood sport dog, a perfect victim.
“During that training process, [the dog] was probably kept in the house. He was taken care of, fed the best he’s been fed his whole life, got the most attention he’s ever got, and he fights for that handler or owner,” Mills says. “The dog was his best friend when he walked in there. That’s part of the fault of the pit bull breed; they’re loyal to a fault.”