“There is this major problem in Marion County,” he says of dog fighting as we drive up to a house where a backyard dog fight was reported. “It’s amazing. You look at it like any other crime, like drugs, or an abusive relationship. Until you actually stop to try to know about it, you’re not going to. It’s too easy to brush it off. You overlook stuff. Everybody does.”
Inside a white picket fence a pit bull with scars on her legs is snarling, teeth bared. Tethered by a heavy chain anchored by a tire axle, she lunges repeatedly toward Harris. Nervously, she scampers the length of her 6-foot lead — half the length the law requires — straining her head against the weight of her metal leash.
Her frenzied barking overpowers Harris’ knock on the front door of this residence where four more muscular pit bulls reside in the backyard that’s more of a “yard” — what dog fighters call a holding area where dogs are kept. There’s no grass. Some doghouses are plastic barrels. A bordering privacy fence has fade marks showing where old doghouses had been.
This is a common scene, Harris says. Scales, sometimes used to weigh dogs that fight based on weight class, are hooked to the rafters in the garage. Pit bull puppies are found in a barrel. The dog’s owner cooperatively talks with Harris. “They get fed,” he says.
“There’s more to it than food and water,” Harris replies.
“I give them vitamins every day,” the owner says, adding that he goes to the feed market for them. “I give them food and water and keep their shit picked up.”
“Now why do you give them vitamins every day?” Harris asks. Fight dogs are typically given B12 vitamins, steroids, cocaine or gunpowder to enhance performance. Dog owners easily purchase penicillin and other medications used to treat injured dogs at local tractor supply and feed shops.
The owner offers that there’s no fighting activity, but unflinchingly uses dog fighting lingo in conversation. Dog fighting is hard to prove unless it’s caught in progress. Harris reads his report: “Multiple pit bulls, short heavy chains, wide thick collars, dogs with scarring. He’s definitely going to court for these.”
Harris cites him on animal care and treatment ordinance violations carrying a fine of $1,625 minimally plus court costs: $100 per dog on no rabies vaccinations, $100 per dog for no rabies tags or permanent IDs and $25 per dog for short chains. A maximum fine can reach $2,500 per violation depending on the severity of the case and what the judge hands down.
“It’s better to be cited for care and treatment than criminal felony dog fighting,” Harris says. “It’s the cost of business.”
“Blood sport. They call it blood sport,” Sgt. Jerry Bippus, division investigator with Animal Care and Control, says of local dog fighting. “I don’t think it’s a sport at all. I think it’s a cruel thing to put an animal through.” It’s a sadistic competition with a winner and loser that can involve promoters, gambling and crowds.
“Just like you’re at a basketball game,” Bippus says, his face carrying a look of astonishment though he sees this every day at work. “You’ll have a referee that’s in the ring,” Bippus says. After the dogs are washed down they go to their corners behind a scratch mark with their handlers. Then they’re released. Fights are staged in abandoned houses or buildings, basements or garages with the rings or fight pits sometimes no bigger than 4-feet-by-5-feet.
“It’s not always to the death,” Bippus says of the half-hour to two-hour fights. “It’s until the animal doesn’t want to continue anymore.” That means when one dog turns its head away from the other, defecates, urinates or otherwise demonstrates submissiveness. Dogs are separated when this happens, the ref counts to 20 and the weak dog is released. If it doesn’t attack the stronger dog the fight is over. If it attacks, the fight continues.
Bippus says, “It’s bloody … oh, yeah it is. And it’s vicious. A lot of the dogs get their legs torn up, their cartilage ripped up.” Criminal activities like gambling, drugs, weapons and gang activity are linked to dog fighting. Most fights are on a street level involving youths where maybe a few hundred dollars and reputations are at stake. It’s for bragging rights — a “My dog can beat your dog” mentality.
“Probably 99 percent of the dog fighting dogs being used are pit bulls,” Bippus observes. “Pit bulls like to go for the neck.” When trained to fight, they lock their jaws on victims, and are silent and powerful when battling. Most pit bulls that are under investigation at the ACC are registered with the ADBA, American Dog Breeders Association kennel club, which breeds only pit bulls. It’s a kennel club like the American Kennel Club (AKC) or the UKC (United Kennel Club). The AKC calls pit bulls Staffordshire Terriers and the UKC calls them American pit bull terriers. When contacted, the ADBA issued this response: “The American Dog Breeders Association Inc., does not condone any illegal activity, including dog fighting.”
Fight dogs are put through rigorous training that includes the following:
• Modified treadmills. Redesigned to contain the dog, forcing it to run — however long its owner feels necessary.
• Catmills. Similar to what’s used to train horses, catmills contain a “bait animal” — a cat, puppy, another dog, a rabbit — to entice the dog to run after it. The dog receives the bait animal as reward following the exercise.
• Bait animals. Harris says, “It’s anything. It could be a St. Bernard — that’s a big teddy bear.” Bait animals are usually tame stolen pets used to encourage aggressiveness. “They usually steal a dog [from another neighborhood]. They go to use it for bait and when they’re done with it they get rid of it in alleys, throw them in dumpsters or leave them in abandoned houses or whatever.”
• Springpoles. Tires or garage door springs suspended from trees for jaw strengthening. Sometimes toys or ropes are attached; dogs latch on and swing. Sixteen-week strengthening programs exist and published dog fighting rule books, like the Cajun Rule Book, can be found anywhere.
Dog fighting Web sites riddle the Internet. “They don’t really mention breeding and stuff like that. They’ll say we do not support illegal activity … and if they’re posting that, they’re usually the ones doing the dog fighting. Just looking at the pictures themselves you’ll know they fight the dogs — they won’t advertise it. They’ll just try to get you to go out to their property,” Bippus says. “You can buy break sticks through eBay — two for seven bucks,” Bippus says of the tool used to wedge dog’s jaws off another dog.
He explains that an eBay item keyword doesn’t obviously give away the nature of the dog fighting paraphernalia up for bid. Short heavy chains and thick, sometimes weighted, collars that can rub a dog’s neck raw are also common. Most dog fighting paraphernalia can be legitimized for other legal activities and, by themselves, are not illegal. Bippus says, “Intentionally and knowingly doing these things will get you in the cruelty part of the state statute. In addition to that, there are civil penalties on top of the state statutes. Ours are pretty good.”
Dog fighting is banned in 48 states, including Indiana. Promoting and watching are also illegal.
Some dog fighting in Indianapolis is done on a bigger level with purses fetching upwards of $30,000. “There’s a lot of big time money involved … You see a lot of homicides and murder because of dog fighting type situations,” Bippus explains. “Most of what we are dealing with is street fight to mid level. I think we have a few that are in pretty deep that would be considered at the high level.” One scheduled fight in Ohio had a purse of $100,000.
“A lot of it’s underground,” Bippus says. “A fighter who gets caught, he will not tell anyone.” Dog fighting is secretive and it can take months to infiltrate as a participant on any level. Switching vehicles multiple times to get to a fight is commonplace. Usually dogs are harbored at one location, while training equipment may be at another and a fight pit at a third.
Children and families are involved. Last year a dog fight instigated by a 14-year-old boy was caught in progress at Brookside Park. The next day on East Michigan Street, two other juveniles aged 13 and 14 were caught. In another incident in the same time frame, two 12-year-olds threw a pit bull off of a roof and then stuck him in a filing cabinet because they reportedly thought it was fun. The dog had scarring from fights.
With Canine Crime Stoppers in place, Bippus says, “A lot of these fighters, they’re going to start scattering out of Marion County.” A Canine Crime Stoppers billboard campaign currently targets the city’s dog fighting hot spot between 10th to 46th streets and College Avenue to Arlington Avenue. Bippus says dog fighting has been going on “forever.” It’s not a new problem or new priority for the Animal Care and Control. A 2002 law made dog fighting activities a felony, enabling the ACC to finally enforce cases.
Those involved in dog fighting like to believe that their dogs love fighting, that they are impervious to pain and that they’re happy when they’re fighting because their tails are wagging. But most of these dogs are emaciated from training and under- nourished so they’ll be lean and “bloodthirsty.” Ears are crudely cropped close to their boxy skulls. “Ear cropping has to be done by a vet,” Bippus observes, noting that scissors are used to cut the dog’s ears. Since most of these dogs never see a vet, “Their ears get infected pretty bad. The mutilation part of it — I can’t believe they actually put an animal through that type of situation.”
A trip to the vet for one of these dogs usually means the telltale injuries are reported to ACC. But some local vets allegedly make house calls for injured fight dogs. “There are thousands of places to get supplies for dogs. You can buy them off the Internet,” Bippus explains. He knows of tractor supply/feed shops in Plainfield and Lawrence that sell seven-in-one shots and penicillin for fight dogs. “The majority [of those who participate in dog fighting] like to go outside of the county to get their stuff,” so they don’t look suspicious as repeat customers.
Dogs who lose fights are worthless, used as bait, abandoned or shot. Most dog fight owners don’t even bother with mending injured dogs. Bippus says they found two or three dead animals in a barrel during a 2002 case. “Those animals had been burned. These were probably the ones that lost … they set them out with the trash.”
As Animal Care and Control’s Ray Harris and I walk up and down the rows of kennels, the ammonia smell of urine is overpowering. The barking of 90 dogs echoes off the concrete block walls and 5-foot tall kennels. There are more than twice as many dogs under investigation here in Kennel 4 at Indianapolis Animal Care and Control than there are dogs up for adoption. Most of these dogs are pit bulls.
They are aggressive; some powerfully charge into the metal bar barrier inches away. Symptoms of their fight lives are apparent: Close cropped ears, wounds in the form of punctures, lacerations, head scarring and abscesses are clearly visible.
“It’s full,” says Harris, referring to Kennel 4, and rubbing the nose of a docile red pit bull poking through the bars of its kennel. Next to Harris, a sign on the kennel says don’t pet the animals in the cages.