The shame of dog fighting
Sunday, July 31, 2005 3:00 AM EDT
“If you … it’s just a smell you would never forget,” the former Pontiac animal control officer told a courtroom in 2001.
Stacks was at a home on Scottwood responding to a barking-dog complaint when she picked up the odor.
It led to a plywood coop. Inside, she saw walls soaked with blood and a trembling pit bull huddled in a corner with severely infected, pungenthead wounds.
Other evidence at the scene – including other dogs with injuries, and syringes – led to Jeffrey Ford being convicted on dog fighting charges. Another Pontiac resident, Julius Standifer, was also convicted on the charges in 2002.
The men appear to be the last prosecuted in Oakland County for violating state laws against dog fighting, but the practice seems to thrive in Pontiac.
Animal activists worry it could get worse. One of the city’s two animal control officers was just laid off as the police department struggles with budget woes.
Critics say officials and laws are too lax.
“It’s so hard to get the police, the prosecutors, the judges to do anything,” longtime resident and animal lover Shari Scott said. “That’s been our frustration. It’s not a priority.”
Experts say dog fighting is part of an underground culture so hidden that it’s difficult to track.
Fights usually take place very early in the morning in pits set up in basements or abandoned houses.
Dogs spar amid cheers from spectators. The losing animal dies or is so badly injured that it can’t continue.
The activity has been associated with illegal drug use and gambling. Purses at some fights can reach tens of thousands of dollars.
Owning a fighting dog is seen as a badge of toughness. Shawn Hairston, a Michigan Humane Society cruelty investigator, said child witnesses often emulate fighters.
“Kids are involved in fighting and, as spectators, and they get it from adults,” he said. “It’s just a trickledown effect.”
Animal activists argue that dog fighting’s effects reach beyond the pit. They worry that children who watch become desensitized to violence and animal suffering.
Joe Sowerby, an advocate who sits on the Oakland Pet Fund and Detroit Animal Care and Control Advisory Board and the founder of adoption events such as Meet Your Best Friend at the Zoo and Pet-a-Palooza, said it’s not uncommon for strays or stolen pets to be shredded by fighting dogs as a way to kick off a fight and instill in the animals a taste for blood.
“As far as I’m concerned, those people are lowlife,” Sowerby said. “I think that they are lower than a snake’s belly. … My only hope for these guys is when they get to the pearly gates, God has four legs.”
Because fights are so secretive, it’s difficult to say how many occur in Pontiac.
Pontiac police Sgt. Michael Daves said there have been more than 2,800 animal complaints of all types in the city since January 2003.
A Pontiac man who used to participate in fights estimates there are about nine or 10 big fights and a total of 450 in the city every year. He asked to remain anonymous.
Sowerby said he’s heard from reliable sources that the Pontiac area hosts as many as 30 fights a weekend.
He said sources told him there are as many as 200 houses in the city where fighting is suspected.
“If you’re not into animals, you would really not know about it,” Pontiac Animal Control officer Victoria O’Neal said.
Hanna Gibson, a former animal cruelty investigator who used to volunteer in Pontiac for the Animal Care Network and the Michigan Animal Rescue League, said police have made strides in recent years to combat the crime.
Gibson said Police Chief Rollie Gackstetter in 2003 assigned four officers to track dog fighters for six months, which resulted in drug raids where dogs were seized.
“There is a connection between drug dealing and dog fighting,” Gackstetter said. “It is an entertainment and moneymaking enterprise for the criminal element, especially drug dealers.”
While the Pontiac unit’s work did not lead to a case against dog fighting, the investigations did lead to drug-related charges. “It can open doors,” Gackstetter said. “Often it leads to other criminal investigations. We did get drug cases.”
He said the unit’s partnership with a private animal care group has been emulated in Los Angeles County, where a larger gang and drug culture leads to more dog fighting.
Gibson, who prepared the proposal for a dog fighting task force being implemented in Los Angeles, praised the Pontiac department’s efforts. But she said the problem is so large that it’s “in every little tiny corner of that city.”
O’Neal said officers pick up one or two animals every two weeks with fight scars or that appear to have died in a fight.
She spots suspicious items in back yards, such as wooden staircases, a tool often used to build up a dog’s endurance.
She recently saw seven pit bulls in a privacy fence-wrapped back yard of a house where neighbors saw 14 dogs being loaded into vans.
But fighting is hard to prove, O’Neal said, without seeing it in action.
O’Neal is one of Pontiac’s two animal control officers. She was just notified that her position is being eliminated.
With the department facing a fiscal crisis, Pontiac police Capt. Valard Gross said 25 officers and 14 civilian workers are being laid off.
O’Neal said the other animal control officer is being moved to a different position. An officer who had worked in animal control but was promoted will be the sole person handling the city’s animal control needs.
O’Neal said she’s worried about what having one animal control officer will mean for animals. Both officers are busy now, she said. And sometimes it takes two to corral a stray.
“I don’t know how in the world (they’re) just going to do it by themselves,” she said.
In March 2001, police responding to noise complaints confiscated 19 dogs from a home on Martin Luther King Boulevard. Standifer was charged with keeping animals for fighting and having fighting equipment.
Ford faced the same charges after police found several dogs and equipment associated with fighting at a house on Scottwood.
The counts are four-year felonies under state law. Court files show Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca asked that the penalties be enhanced to six years because both men had prior felony convictions.
Ford received about three years’ probation, plus community service and fines. In August 2004, his probation was extended for two years.
Standifer was sentenced to about a month in jail and two years’ probation, as well as fines and an order not to own dogs for two years. Also, Standifer was sentenced Thursday by Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Mark Goldsmith to two years in prison, with 220 days of jail credit, for felony firearm and assault charges.
Oakland County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Deborah Carley said the men were the last two to be charged with dog fighting under state law in Oakland County.
It’s unclear how many people have been cited under a Pontiac ordinance that prohibits animal cruelty or keeping a vicious dog.
Carley said animal rights in general have been taken more seriously by prosecutors in the last 10 years. Penalties are harsher than they were in the past, she said.
Gibson said it can be difficult for police, prosecutors and judges to go after dog fighters because they’re often not properly trained in the field.
Though it can be rare in any criminal case for the maximum penalty to be levied, some activists say the Standifer and Ford cases illustrate a too-relaxed attitude.
Marie Skladd, president of the volunteer Animal Care Network, said dog fighting takes a back seat to crimes against people.
When police find drugs, illegal guns and dogs in a house, she said, an investigation will typically focus on the drugs and guns.
“Our challenge is that once these folks are now part of our criminal system, to get a judge or a prosecutor to focus on the dog fighting aspect is challenging because their rap sheet is so long that dog fighting is not the priority,” she said.
‘Not even a fish’
Eva Tutschek’s two pit bulls, Serena and Calamity Jane, were rescued from abusive homes in Pontiac.
They helped her raise tiny bottle-fed kittens, often gently licking them clean.
The veterinary assistant for the Michigan Humane Society and the Michigan Animal Rescue League has seen dogs with fight wounds.
Even dogs that have fought, Tutschek said, are generally good with people.
“It is so ugly,” she said, “when you meet these (injured) dogs and see what their potential is. They’re so sensitive and so clownish.”
Following Standifer’s and Ford’s arrests, Pontiac officials passed an ordinance banning pit bulls. People who already had a pit bull were required to carry $100,000 in liability insurance, have the dog identified with a tattoo or microchip and keep the dog muzzled in public.
Gibson said the ban helped.
But public outcry ensued. The ordinance was replaced the following year with language that described what constitutes a vicious dog.
Hairston disagrees with a breed ban, saying the owners, not the dogs, are the problem.
He longs for laws that are more strict. He would like to see people convicted of dog fighting prohibited from ever owning an animal.
“Not even a fish,” he said.
Staff writer Stephen Frye contributed to this report.