In August 2013 the ASPCA and the HSUS assisted in seizing dogs from an Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia fighting ring. Three hundred sixty-seven dogs were rescued, 11 people were arrested, and $500,000 in gambling money was confiscated.
Rescuers found 114 of the dogs in one yard in 90-degree heat. They were tethered to cinder blocks and tires with heavy chains. Their only shelters were filthy, makeshift doghouses made of plastic tubs, metal barrels, and chipboard with rotten floors and rusting roofs. The dogs were infested with fleas and had no access to food or water. A female and six puppies were found in a pen filled with feces and trash but, again, no food or water.
Dogfighting, as well as fighting other animals, was known from pre-Christian times. Modern dog fighting can be traced from 12th century England when the dogs were used for bull baiting. Animal baiting with dogs against bulls and bears continued as entertainment but was outlawed in England by the Humane Act of 1835. However, dogfighting continued because it required less space and was easier to hide from the authorities.
In America dogfighting can be traced back to 1750, but it did not get widespread interest or participation until after the Civil War. In the 20th century, laws against dogfighting expanded, but the fights continued underground and even had advocates among police and fire departments whose employees used them as entertainment. Dog fighting became illegal in all 50 states after the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act of 2007 was passed. In 2014 the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act was passed, which makes even attending a dog fight illegal, with an additional penalty for bringing someone under 18 years of age. The laws are not always enforced, and it requires significant resources to follow the fights, arrest the participants, and then care for all the confiscated animals through the trial.
In urban areas, the black community is more often involved with dogfighting associated with gangs, drug peddling, and racketeering. The fights are held in garages, abandoned buildings, warehouses, and back alleys.
In the South, white working class men are primarily involved with dogfighting, and the fights are usually held in barns or pits in out-of-the-way areas. Crime and gambling are also involved. The focus in this article will be on the southern area.
The dog most often used in fighting is the pit bull terrier or Staffordshire terrier, although there has been interest in some large, mastiff-type dogs, such as the Fila Brasileiro, Dogo Argentino, and Presa Canario.
Many pit bulls are obtained from shelters or pounds. Top breeders of successful fighters can ask for $1000 a puppy, and one of the most successful breeders asked $10,000 for his pups.
Rhonda Evans, DeAnn K. Gauthier, and Craig J. Forsyth did a study of the fighting and the people involved: Dogfighting: Symbolic Expression and Validation of Masculinity. They carried out their study in the manner of ethnographic fieldwork for two years, attended 14 fights, and conducted interviews with 31 dogfighters, all male and 90% white.
The findings revealed that in the white community dogfighters are primarily working class/blue collar men who have fewer avenues for achieving success and respect in the general culture. They are not born into prominent families that can open doors to opportunities, do not attend college to join the ranks of professionals, and do not have the talent to become entrepreneurs. Thus they have little chance to have a prestigious high income job and the usual appurtenances of male success manifested in impressive homes and expensive cars.
But they seek masculine traits—competiveness, aggression, strength, toughness, and courage—they associate with successful men. In fact, they seek what some have called a hypermasculinity or macho level of toughness and aggressiveness to compensate for their lack of self-esteem and their low social status. Their tenacious and menacing fighting dogs become an extension of their own egos and a symbol of the qualities they themselves lack.
Secondarily, the dog fights are the product of greed, and gambling bids during the fights may reach into the thousands of dollars. Finally, some dogfighters and spectators are obviously sadistic and drawn to the violence between the dogs that is usually free from legal consequences, unlike violence against humans.
Puppies trained for fighting do not live normal canine lives. They wear heavy chains designed to improve the muscles in their chests and necks. Some trainers put the dogs on steroids to increase muscle mass. Some trainers carefully monitor all the food the dogs eat, but others starve them.
To further build strength the dogs are forced to swim or run on treadmills. They are trained to pull on ropes or hanging objects to strengthen their jaws. Some trainers crop the ears and tails of their dogs, leaving less for the opposing dogs to seize. Trainers often file their dogs’ teeth to make them sharper and abuse and antagonize them to promote aggressiveness. As the dogs grow, trainers give them puppies, cats, or rabbits as bait to practice killing.
Dogs injured in the fights do not receive veterinary care, although prized dogs may get some crude suturing and antibiotic treatment for severe wounds.
Most dogfights are carried out in pits, approximately 8 x 20 feet with walls 2-3 feet high. During the fights dogs are accompanied in the pits by 2 handlers and a referee
The fights can go on for hours, continuing until one of the dogs either quits or is crippled or killed.
Since the dogs represent their owners, the strongest, most menacing dogs are desired, the ones who fight the hardest and longest. The aggressiveness and tenacity of the dogs are symbolically transferred to their owners, who reap honor and respect from their victories.
Dogs who do not live up to those expectations are deemed “curs” and are punished with death. Sometimes they are killed by electrocution, drowning, burning, beating or other painful ways that serve as punishment for failing to fight well and humiliating their owners.
One description of the dogfight describes the eagerness of the dogs and the excitement of the spectators, as if something good were about to happen.
“The dogs seemed to explode out of their restraints, two projectiles flying into the air toward the center of the pit ….Stamping, applauding, whistling, yelling, the men demanded their due. Winners or losers, they demanded now a glorious, fatal finish—a magnificent kill was imminent.”
Below is the ugly reality of the fight in this description of the crippled and dying Billy Bear:
“His face is a mass of deep cuts, as are his shoulders and neck. Both of his front legs have been broken, but Billy Bear isn’t ready to quit. At the referee’s signal, his master releases him, and unable to support himself on his front legs, he slides on his chest across the blood and urine stained carpet, propelled by his good hind legs, toward the opponent who rushes to meet him. Driven by instinct, intensive training and love for the owner who has brought him to this moment, Billy Bear drives himself painfully into the other dog’s charge . . . Less than 20 minutes later, rendered useless by the other dog, Billy Bear lies spent beside his master, his stomach constricted with pain. He turns his head back toward the ring, his eyes . . . searching for a last look at the other dog as (he) receives a bullet in his brain.
(https://www.animallaw.info C. M. Brown, quoted in Gibson 2005-7: 7-8.)
The ugliness and damage of dogfighting extends beyond the actual battle in the pits. One casualty is the pit bull breed itself. The reputation they have acquired as aggressive and vicious dogs has made them the pariahs of the canine world. They may be refused acceptance at shelters and judged unadoptable. They may be discriminated against or killed simply because of their breed.
Dogfights follow a familiar trend in the bond between masculinity and animal death. The suffering of the fighting dogs and their dismal fate mirrors the tortured end of the coursing greyhounds in Spain who fail to live up to their owners’ expectations by failing the hunt and bringing them dishonor. It is similar to the fate of the bulls who are tortured and killed in the corrida to transform their killers into heroes.
Dogfighters are seeking masculine virtues in a violent and criminal subculture. They long for “respect” and “honor” but expect dogs to win it for them in the blood and death of the pits.
But real men earn their own manhood. They do not resort to animal stand-ins or proxy fights. They do not demand that animals make up for their failings.
So I say bring back dueling. If dogfighters are so desirous of a masculinity associated with violence and death, then let them fight for it themselves.
[Multi-State Dog Fighting Case, Second Largest in U.S. History, https://www.aspca.org]
https://www.animallaw.info (C. M. Brown, quoted in Gibson 2005-7: 7-8.)