Dogs have been dubbed ‘man’s best friend’ for centuries. The RSPCA estimates that there are 8.5 million canine companions living within family units in the UK which confirms we are a nation of dog lovers. Dogs are loyal, intelligent and some can even serve a purpose so important they could put your own career to shame. They protect us because they adore us. However, a portion of the population betray the trust that dogs willingly put in humans and subject them to fierce cruelty as they force them to fight.
A blood sport is an activity that involves the hunting, wounding or killing of animals and the organised fighting of dogs is a prime example. Dog fighting was outlawed in the UK in 1835 and in the US in 1867, recognised as a brutal sport and a severe form of animal cruelty. However, fights continue to thrive due to the availability of the internet and the ease at which information about dogs can be exchanged. Due to the highly secretive nature of organised dog fights, law enforcement struggles to infiltrate these operations, relying on intelligence to provide insight into this cruel world.
Fighting dogs sustain serious mental and physical suffering throughout their lives. Bred specifically for fighting and sold for thousands of pounds depending on the success of their ancestors, they are forced to live in isolation, tormented by lack of socialisation and comfort. Dogs are conditioned to fight through the use of drugs. Steroids build muscle mass, and narcotics encourage aggressive behaviour, numb pain and increase reactivity. The mutilation of body parts is also commonplace in preparation for a life of fighting. By cropping the ears and docking the tail the dog’s opponent finds it difficult to read their body language and therefore calculate their intentions. If dogs are injured during fights rather than take them for veterinary care, handlers will use staple guns or superglue to close up wounds. Dog fighting is a ‘cruelty-for-profit’ industry and if dogs don’t perform to their handler’s expectation the result can have a detrimental influence on the reputation of the owner. This frequently results in their brutal execution, often by having their throats cut, hanging, or drowning. Animal welfare campaigners League Against Cruel Sports discovered the bodies of dead dogs dumped on remote farmland, their bodies covered in sores and puncture wounds. The sad reality is that once they’re no longer needed, they’re disposed of like waste.
Some dogs don’t even make it as far as the fighting ring. Less promising fighters are used as bait dogs, serving as punch bags to train more powerful dogs to fight successfully. Cupcake, a Staffordshire bull terrier, is an example of such. She was rescued from the dog fighting industry and was discovered to have a series of injuries commonly sustained by bait dogs. Her teeth had been removed with pliers to disable her from retaliating, her eye socket and skull were damaged from being slammed against walls, and she’d been used like a machine to deliver litter upon litter of puppies. Yet despite her barbaric treatment, Cupcake was able to successfully integrate into a family home and become an affectionate companion. She learnt to trust despite her miserable past, and she’s not the only ex-fighting dog that has demonstrated the forgiving nature of dogs.
In July 2007 it was discovered that American football star, Michael Vick, was running a dog fighting operation named ‘Bad Newz Kennels’ within the grounds of his 15 acre property. For the first time the blood sport was thrust into the public eye as the media reported every move within the case, exposing the existence of underground dog fighting and extreme animal abuse. Vick was accused of shooting, beating and electrocuting dogs that were no longer fit to fight. A total of 49 Pit Bull type dogs were rescued from the kennels and despite their treatment, just like Cupcake, they showed incredible resilience. Although many believed the dogs had violent natures and would possess severe killer instincts, many of them would flatten themselves to the floor in fear if a human approached. They exhausted themselves by avoiding sleep, terrified someone would hurt them. They had never experienced love and they didn’t know how to respond to it. Labelled the ‘Vicktory dogs’, slowly they recovered, with patience proving to be the most effective remedy. Their ability to overcome their vicious treatment is a reminder that dogs have strong characters that can triumph over acts of cruelty with love, encouragement and persistence.
The Vick case demonstrates that no dog is inherently dangerous. Environmental factors, past experiences and standard of treatment all affect the way in which a dog will act. However, breed specific legislation is now in place which makes the ownership of certain breeds illegal. In the UK the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has been enforced, banning the Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro from the country, or any crossbreeds of the prohibited. The Act was introduced to try and eradicate dog fighting, as the banned breeds became fighting favourites upon their importation to the UK and were subject to mistreatment which elicited aggressive behaviour. But when treated with love and kindness these breeds can make just as good a companion as a Labrador or Poodle. A blanket ban causes people to point the finger at specific breeds for their behaviour rather than understanding the varying temperaments in each and every individual dog. The RSPCA, League Against Cruel Sports and the Kennel Club are all in support of a revision of the ban, arguing that despite the origins of a breed there is no evidence to suggest they should all be considered unsafe. Bill Lambert, from the Kennel Club points out that ‘Any dog can be dangerous in the wrong hands’.
The Pit Bull Terrier has had a really tough time salvaging its reputation. In the US, underground dog fighting continues to flourish and Pit Bulls are the dog of choice. Another problem is the fact that Pit Bulls have become a symbol of status, unfortunately with the wrong people. In urban culture owning a Pit Bull is intended to be a form of intimidation and the mistreatment of dogs in the care of these people plays a huge role in the negative representation of the breed. Additionally, the media has instilled a sense of panic whenever the word ‘Pit Bull’ is mentioned. If a Pit Bull bites a person it’s all over the news, declaring the breed as dangerous. However, if any other breed attacks a person it often won’t even make news, and if it does the animals is referred to as a ‘dog’ rather than a specific breed. This then generates prejudice against the breed, with people associating them with aggressive tendencies and criminal activity. Dozens of US states ban the ownership of the Pit Bull despite their scientifically proven good temper, and some insurance companies will even deny homeowners of coverage if they own one. Despite all this, the American Humane Association reports that 84% of dogs involved in fatal attacks were suffering from abuse. Are Pit Bulls really the problem, or are they the victims?
Tackling the dog fighting industry is a difficult task due to the level of danger investigators put themselves in by exposing such activity. The chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, Eduardo Gonçalves, claims that dog fighting ‘thrives on invisibility’. Unfortunately, animal welfare isn’t high on the agenda when it comes to time in court either and resources are limited. Cases are complex, well concealed and evidence is difficult to gather. For example in 2013 it took three years before the police and FBI were able to infiltrate a huge fighting group which resulted in the arrest of 15 individuals, the confiscation of 367 dogs, and the discovery of $500,000 in cash, guns, and drugs. Often those who engage in dog fighting are linked the other types of crime and gambling is regularly a motivation behind the fights. However, ASPCA recently declared ‘Lawyers, judges, teachers, high school football coaches and veterinary technicians have all been arrested in connection with dog fighting’, which indicates that a broader percentage of the population partake in the activity than one would expect.
The latest campaign to generate an awareness of dog fighting has been established by ASPCA via social media and goes by the name of ‘#GetTough’. Sir Patrick Stewart, who recently fostered and fell in love with a rescue Pit Bull named Ginger, has partnered with the organisation to help tackle this form of animal cruelty. The campaign aims to educate people about the cruelty endured by fighting dogs and end the stereotyping of Pit Bull types by protesting the present breed specific legislation. National Dog Fighting Awareness Day now also has a place on the calendar. In the UK League Against Cruel Sports are fighting for tougher penalties for those found guilty of operating in the dog fighting industry as the maximum sentence in England and Wales is just 6 months, which isn’t enough for the brutality so many dogs are subjected to.
You can help change this. You can sign the pledge to show your awareness of this horrific cruelty and show your desire for stronger penalties to be implemented. Please visit the links below and sign the petitions to fight against dog fighting. Take action and be their voice. Visit www.league.org.uk/dogfightingpetition and www.ASPCA.org/GetTough.