NEW ORLEANS - Dogfighting is illegal in all states and a felony in 47, but the activity is on the rise, particularly outside its traditional stronghold in the Deep South.Lawmakers and humane officials are seeking new ways to attack the trend, however, and investigators see a “gold mine” in a list of thousands of suspects seized in a recent raid, along with scarred dogs, steroids and canine treadmills.
More than 100 Web sites sell pit bull training gear. About a dozen dogfighting magazines publish regularly, up from three in the 1980s. The FBI keeps no statistics on the activity, but authorities estimate that at least 40,000 people in the United States breed or own pit bulls for fighting.
“It’s definitely on the upswing. Communication on the Internet has made dogfighting accessible without the inherent risks of arrest that used to go along with it,” said Mark Kumpf, a Virginia investigator with the National Illegal Animal Fighting Task Force, made up of U.S. Department of Agriculture officers and local police nationwide.
In cities, owners fight their animals on street corners and alleys. In rural areas, organized fights have strict rules — and wagers between $100 and $50,000. The winning dog fights another day. The loser may be nursed back to health, if valuable, or it may be shot or abandoned.
Investigators say there are at least 50 breeders in the United States who have farms with hundreds of the dogs.
A videotape confiscated from a recent New Orleans arrest shows a training fight between a mature pit bull, Kay, and a dog that appears to be 1 year old. Men hold the dogs apart on soiled carpet inside a square “fight pit” that is enclosed by wooden planks.
Once they are released, the snarling dogs attack each other. The owner cheers as Kay chomps down on the muzzle of the younger dog, whipping its head back and forth for nearly 10 minutes. The owner argues with another man over whether to stop the fight to protect the younger dog.
“I don’t do that. If she can stand, she can fight,” the owner replies.
The fight continues, and the young dog is pinned on its back; finally it stops resisting. Men pry the animals apart.
“She’s had enough,” a voice says. “She’s in shock.”
The American pit bull terrier emerged as the preferred fighter after more than a century of breeding for strength, agility and jaw power. Champion fight dogs also have what owners call “gameness” — an eagerness to attack despite ripped flesh, dehydration, exhaustion or broken bones.
Owners express a deep pride in their dogs’ abilities, comparing the animals to professional athletes. In a Web posting, one recalled his pit bull’s recent victory as “the most fulfilling moment of my life.”
Most of a fighting dog’s life is spent with a heavy chain around its neck, breeders say, adding that restraints are necessary to keep the animals from escaping and injuring other animals.