By Doug Simpson, The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Though illegal in all states and a felony in 47,
dogfighting 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 potential suspects seized in a recent bust, 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
-- from breeders' advertisements, magazine subscription lists and
previous arrests -- 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
Investigators say there are at least 50 breeders in the United States
who have farms with hundreds of the dogs. A 36-year-old Oklahoma man
who breeds pit bulls for fights, speaking with The Associated Press
on condition of anonymity, said he grew up among people involved in
dogfighting and has seen more and more get involved over the past
"Nobody can stop it," he boasted.
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's enclosed by wooden planks.
Once they're released, the snarling dogs attack each other. Their
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, which has started whimpering.
"I think you should pick her up and save her."
"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.
The young dog stands panting, staring straight ahead.
"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
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, according to breeders who say 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
Organized dogfighters often liken themselves to horse breeders: They
say they treat their animals well and breed champions with champions.
Many learned to train from their fathers and grandfathers.
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
a number of raids in 2003.
- 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 an alleged
- Near Erie, Pa., authorities made 11 dogfighting arrests and seized
32 pit bulls.
Pittsburgh's district attorney's office had its first-ever
dogfighting case just five years ago, and has prosecuted 24 people
for dogfighting since then.
On pit bull-related Internet message boards, anonymous postings now
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's considered a nationwide
"If the locals can work with the federal government to catch them,
that will give them another tool," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., a
A key arrest came in April, when Orange County, N.Y., police charged
former body builder James Fricchione, 33, with felony dogfighting and
identified him as publisher of the Sporting Dog Journal, a leading
The magazine had been published six times a year on cheap paper,
featuring fight results and advertisements for pit bull breeders,
most with the disclaimer: "Not Intended For Any Illegal Purposes."
The magazine never printed its address. To deter undercover police,
subscriptions were sold only to people who had references from other
Investigators said Fricchione's arrest came after several years of
investigations into the national dogfighting circuit. On the day he
was arrested, police in Georgia also raided and seized records from
the Georgia home of Jack Kelly, Sporting Dog Journal's former
At Fricchione's home, investigators found canine treadmills and 18
pit bulls -- many of them scarred, one with a fractured jaw -- and
steroids that investigators believe he fed to the dogs.
Fricchione pleaded not guilty to 33 animal cruelty, dogfighting and
promoting dogfighting charges. If convicted of all charges, he faces
anything from probation to 12 years in prison.
Norman Shapiro, Fricchione's lawyer, said his client is a breeder who
has nothing to do with dogfighting.
Messages left at Fricchione's home were not returned, but in the
July-August issue he printed this statement:
"As dogpeople we should take heed and make changes to insure (sic)
our safety. Remember, the Humane Society has been raiding people's
homes since the '70s and will continue their witch hunt for as long
as the (pit bull) remains in existence."
For investigators, Fricchione's arrest had a special dividend.
They seized his list of more than 5,000 Sporting Dog Journal
subscribers -- all of whom are suspected to be involved in
dogfighting, according to a law enforcement source, who predicted
Kumpf, the Virginia investigator, called the list "a gold mine."
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"A lot of us out here in law enforcement are waiting for the gold rush to hit."