Saving man's best friend from dog's worst enemy

Adding to the unmistakable mixed odor of blood and wet dog in the room came the bitter scent of burning. “They left it too long, and you could actually smell the burning—I don’t want to say flesh of the dog—but you could tell it was burning. The...

Kyle Held, Midwest regional director for FIR says the degree of injury dogs can physically sustain in a fight is astounding. Held has a veterinary background and was brought into the Missouri dog-fighting investigation early on from the state humane society for his medical knowledge. “As you can imagine, these dogs are a trainwreck when they come out of these fights,” Held says. “Most are in some degree of shock, a lot are in some degree of failure. And then just the ripping and tearing. They would have broken bones, open lacerations all the way down to the bone. Torn ears, torn lips, you name it. Every range of damage that could be done to a dog, both internally and externally, would happen during a fight.”

Establishing a new ASPCA branch

After the multi-state raid in July 2009, law enforcement officials and animal cruelty investigation specialists with groups like the Humane Society and the ASPCA recognized they had a good thing going with the dual cooperation.

“The concept of the program was really developed because of the Missouri case, and because there was such good cooperation between law enforcement and animal welfare agencies,” Rickey says.

The case’s success was the foundation that led to establishing the ASPCA’s Blood Sports unit, which Rickey currently works with from the animal welfare side under the organization’s FIR team, and Mills leads as animal fighting specialist. In addition, Held joined the ASPCA as its Midwest regional director under the FIR team. Mills, Rickey and Held’s individual expertise and mutual respect for one another’s field during the Missouri dog-fighting investigation carried over to their present day roles with the ASPCA’s new branch. The three say they are proof the collaboration works.

“The collaboration itself is the biggest benefit to law enforcement and [animal welfare groups],” Held says. “It gets both of our goals accomplished: collaborating and pulling together the experts in both fields to prosecute and rescue in as many of these cases as we can.”
Mills says the unit is looking to provide specialized training, consultation and resources to police nationwide. Since the organization is non-profit and it recognizes the great need for resources nationwide, it also does not charge agencies any fees for any of its help “because it is a terrible problem throughout the United States, and it’s one that local resources are just not available for,” Rickey explains.

Mills also points out the joint venture between multiple law enforcement-related agencies was key in the operation’s victory. In addition to Mills with the Missouri State Highway Patrol and his patrol partner, Sgt. Jeff Heath, also participating in the investigation were the Humane Society of Missouri, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. With the resources of all these organizations honing in on the Missouri dog-fighting ring, the convicted parties were handed sentences that exceeded federal guidelines, with a Missouri judge citing “extraordinary cruelty” as a factor in the landmark sentencing.

Canine CODIS

In addition to the Blood Sports unit, a new technology has also been developed to help combat dog fighting.

Because bloodlines and breeding are such a facet in organized rings, identifying a dog’s DNA and lineage can help trace the reach of a dog-fighting operation, connect evidence and help build a stronger case. Identifying the value that a dog DNA database could provide investigators, the ASPCA, the Humane Society of Missouri and the Louisiana SPCA established Canine CODIS. Canine CODIS, a DNA database designed to help the criminal justice system investigate and prosecute dog-fighting cases, is maintained independently from the animal welfare groups by the University of California-Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory in Davis, Calif. According to the university, the lab has one of the largest sample databases in the world, which is crucial for estimating the rarity of a DNA profile, calculating match probability or assigning parentage, all of which can help connect the dots in an investigation.

Cooperation today

“Animal cases can be very different from other criminal cases ... one of the things that can be helpful is to have somebody who ... can come in and work side by side,” Rickey says. Today the Blood Sports unit and the FIR team want to help law enforcement train to recognize and investigate animal cruelty crimes, and provide consult or resources to the culmination of a case. In addition speaking at a Blood Sports conference taking place in early March in Gainesville, Fla., both Rickey and Mills will travel to agencies across the United States at no cost to the hosts to hold a training seminar and share their experience in the 2009 dog-fighting case, as well as share today’s ongoing investigations techniques.

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