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Leashing a blood sport

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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.

The dog runs for up to an hour at a time -- sometimes several times a day -- on a treadmill. Its jaws are strengthened with "springpoles," hung from trees with a lure attached. The dog clamps its jaws on the lure and whips its head back and forth, perfecting the "bite and shake" technique.

Organized dogfighters say they treat their animals well and breed champions with champions. It's unfair, they say, that dogfighting is illegal while activities in which humans kill animals -- fishing and hunting -- are condoned.

On Internet sites, they have answers for those who call dogfighting cruel:

• Injured dogs quickly receive medical care. A champion can be worth $10,000, and it would be foolish to withhold treatment. (But animal welfare officials say wounded dogs typically receive shoddy medical care from owners who are not veterinarians.)

• A fight is halted when one dog stops attacking, thus minimizing injuries. (Humane Society officials respond that fights inflict terrible pain on dogs, no matter what fight rules are followed.)

• Pit bulls were bred to fight, just as retrievers were bred to fetch. The animals enjoy fighting; look at their tails wag. (Animal welfare officials say the animals appear to enjoy fighting only because breeding programs heighten aggressiveness.)

In the eyes of officials of the Humane Society of the United States, any form of dogfighting is a vicious blood sport.

Investigators are going after the clandestine sport, and they staged several raids in 2003.

Among them:

• In Petaluma, Calif., a man was arrested after police searched his property and found 15 pit bulls and a bloody treadmill.

• In Orangeburg, S.C., 70 pit bulls were confiscated from a fighting ring.

cNear Erie, Pa., authorities made 11 dogfighting arrests and seized 32 pit bulls.

Pittsburgh's District Attorney's Office had its first dogfighting case five years ago, and has prosecuted 24 persons for dogfighting since then.

On Internet message boards, anonymous postings warn dogfighters that the Pittsburgh area should be considered off-limits because the risk of raids and arrests is too great.

A bill pending in Congress would make it a felony to transport fighting dogs across state lines. The Humane Society considers the bill an important effort to disrupt what is considered a nationwide dogfighting circuit.

"If the locals can work with the federal government to catch them, that will give them another tool," said Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican and a sponsor.

A key arrest came in April, when Orange County, N.Y., police charged former bodybuilder James Fricchione, 33, with felony dogfighting and identified him as publisher of the Sporting Dog Journal, a leading dogfighting magazine.

The magazine never printed its address. To deter undercover police, subscriptions were sold only to people who had references from other subscribers.

Investigators said Mr. Fricchione's arrest came after several years of investigations into the national dogfighting circuit.

At Mr. Fricchione's home, investigators say, they found canine treadmills and 18 pit bulls -- many of them scarred, one with a fractured jaw -- and steroids that investigators suspect he fed to the dogs. Mr. Fricchione pleaded not guilty to 33 charges of animal cruelty, dogfighting and promoting dogfighting. If convicted of all charges, he faces anything from probation to 12 years in prison.

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