It’s an issue that was brought into the national forefront in 2007. That’s when professional football player Michael Vick was indicted on felony charges related to a dog fighting ring that he had operated. Vick pleaded guilty to the charges and spent nearly two years in prison.
But dog fighting is a serious issue that’s happening more often than you may think, and much closer to home.
Dog fighting is a felony crime in all 50 states. It’s a felony offense under federal law as well. But cracking down on the crime is a major challenge for law enforcement.
The images are hard to look at.
“It is blood sport that people will bet on at the expense of the dogs that are involved,” said Keith Streff, a humane agent with the Animal Humane Society in Minnesota.
Dogs scarred,bloodied, and injured, some fatally. All because of dog fighting.
“It’s an extension of violence that ultimately ends up in injured or dead dogs. So I think pain and suffering, whether human or animal, needs to be stopped,” Streff said.
“It’s totally barbaric. You have human beings pitting two living, feeling animals against each other, sometimes to the death, for their own amusement,” said Jay Wilson, an animal welfare intervention coordinator with the Animal Rescue League of Iowa.
Wilson’s job is to crack down on these types of crimes.
“Back in the late 2000′s, the Humane Society of the United States did an informal survey and they estimated that there were probably 40,000 people in the United States involved in organized, high level dog fighting. And probably over 100,000 that were involved in street level fighting,” said Wilson.
And he said states like Iowa are a haven for dog fighters.
“A lot of your county law enforcement are very small. They’re already overtaxed. Property is cheap and isolated, you’ve got out buildings where you can keep animals or conduct fights. Neighbors tend to stay to themselves out in the rural areas. It’s a perfect environment to set-up a dog fighting operation,” Wilson said.
“We’ve found dead animals that were involved in dog fighting because of the scarring and things like that. And we’ve had some local veterinarians that have given us information on possible dogs that were involved,” said Cerro Gordo County Sheriff Kevin Pals.
Still, Sheriff Pals said they haven’t been able to prove any of these cases or file any charges.
“The people involved are usually involved in other criminal activities, so they’re not letting law abiding citizens know about their activities. They’re only telling people that they know would be a part of this, so in order to get an informant or an undercover officer involved at these things is very difficult,” Pals said.
After nearly 30 years in the animal welfare industry, it’s a frustration Streff knows all too well. Sometimes the signs are as obvious as an actual sign.
“This is a piece of evidence on a previous dog fight investigation I conducted as a result of a search warrant. This particular poster. if you will, was taped to a headboard in a bedroom,” Streff said, showing a sign he collected as evidence.
But often times, the signs are much less obvious. And most dog fighting investigations take years.
“It’s like any other covert crime, whether it be drugs, prostitution, guns, anything that’s done on a covert basis,” said Streff.
And dog fighting is often linked to these types of crimes as well.
“Almost every dog fighting investigation I have been involved in, there have been narcotics involved, illegal weapons, people with open search warrants. There is prostitution involved in some of the larger events. Almost any kind of crime you can think of that’s going to take down a community, dog fighting is in the middle of it,” Wilson said.
And opening doors to other acts of brutality.
“It’s been proven through psychological studies that repeated exposure to this sort of violence de-sensitizes people to other violence. You watch a few dogs kill each other, pretty soon it gets a lot easier to see someone else get killed,” said Wilson.
While the effort to crack down on dog fighting is an ongoing and uphill battle, authorities say it all starts with you.
“Most crime is solved by the public’s help, so I would like to encourage citizens that if they have information or heard just a rumor , that they would call the local law enforcement,” said Sheriff Pals.
Here are some warning signs to look for:
A high number of pit bull-type dogs being kept in one location, especially multiple dogs who are chained and seem unsocialized.
Dogs with scars on their faces, front legs, thighs, and hind end.
Dog fighting training equipment such as the treadmills. which are used to build dogs’ endurance.
Unusual traffic coming and going from a location at odd hours.
If you notice any of these signs, you’re asked to contact your local law enforcement agency.