Published: Friday, December 5, 2008
PONTIAC — The dogfighting charges brought against NFL star Michael Vick have shined a national spotlight on a bloody sport going on right here.
Some say dogfighting is becoming increasingly popular in Pontiac, with participants lured by money and the badge of toughness that comes with owning a “killer” dog. Tracking the activity can be difficult for law enforcement.
“There’s a massive amount of dogfighting, and I think young kids are doing it now,” said Pam Porteous, the community connection coordinator for the Michigan Animal Rescue League, who has spent 16 years caring for animals on the streets of Pontiac.
‘The thing to do’
Dogfighting is illegal in all 50 states and a felony in 48, including Michigan.
The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are 40,000 professional level dogfighters in the country who partake in highly organized contests. Officials say the less formal — and often more brutal — street fights are occurring with greater frequency.
“It used to be a rural activity … What we’re seeing is more popularity with dogfighting in urban areas, and dogs being used quite like weapons to prove one person’s superiority over another person, and as a macho symbol of young men and boys,” said Ann Chynoweth, director of the Animal Cruelty and Fighting Campaign for the Humane Society of the United States.
Porteous estimates as many as 10 fights of all types occur every week, a number that former Pontiac Animal Control Officer Victoria O’Neal agrees is accurate. Pontiac police Sgt. William Ware said that while dogfighting has taken place in the city, he doesn’t know how prevalent it is.
One lifelong city resident who asked not to be identified said dogfighting has grown in popularity over the last four years, especially among teens and young adults.
“That’s like the thing to do. Years ago, a lot of people would smoke weed. Now, dogfighting is the thing to do,” he said.
Part of an underground industry, owners of fighting dogs often physically abuse their animals to make them mean. Dogfights generally take place very early in the morning in basements, garages or abandoned houses. The animals tear at each other while being egged on by spectators. A dog generally loses when it’s injured too badly to continue, or dies, according to Porteous.
The activity has been associated with illegal drug use and gambling, with purses at some fights reaching several thousand dollars.
Training sometimes involves letting a dog tear apart a smaller animal; Porteous said she gets continuous calls from people whose pets have been stolen. One woman told The Oakland Press that her pitbull was taken from her yard on a June afternoon, and it was found later that evening wandering around the neighborhood with its ears sliced off. Staff at a vet emergency clinic told her that whoever took the dog likely had plans to fight it.
While many people find dogfighting horrendous, others are raised with it as a normal part of life. The unidentified man said young children walking pitbull puppies around Pontiac have randomly approached him, asking to participate in a dogfight. The man doesn’t fight his own dogs, but says he has witnessed dogfights.
“The puppy ran, the other dog chased it, grabbed it, shook it, tried to kill it with everything it had,” he said. “One person used the shovel to break their lock. The puppy was torn up, it was limping away, it’s neck was gashed open. It was just a baby.
“After five minutes of it crying and whining, the guy hit it with a shovel” to kill it, and the pup was buried, the man said.
Experts worry that the notion of dogfights as entertainment desensitizes child witnesses to violence. Chynoweth said research has shown connections between animal cruelty and violence toward humans.
“What dogfighting does is it can incite some type of thrill in them of seeing some animals maul each other,” she said.
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said there hasn’t been a lot of dogfighting activity in the communities that his office patrols, which are primarily in the northern part of the county.
Difficult to prosecute
O’Neal said it’s hard for police officers to prove dogfighting if they don’t catch it in action. She said to get a search warrant, officers need concrete proof of criminal activity, such as photos or videos of a fight.
Ware said the July 2006 arrests of several people at a dogfight at an address on Summit are believed to be the last ones for dogfighting in the city. One man, Keith O. Jackson Sr., was sentenced to two to eight years in prison, while other people received varying amounts of jail time.
Last month, three bloodied and scarred pitbulls were found chained to trees in a wooded area of Perry Mount Cemetery. Whoever put them there wasn’t around.
“You hear people say that there’s dogfighting,” Ware said. “To actually find it and see it is a whole different story. I think it moves around, and by the time that people who live close by where it’s happened start to complain, it has moved on.”
Complicating efforts to stop dogfighting, some residents say, is the city’s lack of a hard-line response to dogfighting and animal welfare in general due to lack of staffing of animal control. There were two officers, but one position — O’Neal’s — was eliminated in 2005 as the cash-strapped police department made cutbacks.
The other officer, Donnie Benion, pursues all complaints, Ware said. “And you know how many (animal control) complaints come in daily? (They) all fall into a prioritized list,” Ware said. “There’s only one Donnie.”
The number of animal complaints the city receives wasn’t available at press time.
Local animal lovers supplement animal control. Volunteers from the Animal Care Network go out a few times a week giving food, water and shelter to outdoor animals, as well as picking up strays. Porteous is on the streets daily doing the same.
“This city would be overwhelmed with sick, diseased animals” if not for Porteous, O’Neal said.
Members of the Animal Care Network recently met with city officials about a proposed partnership to help out on days when Benion is off, which Network President Marie Skladd would help improve animal welfare in the city.
Dogfighting moved into the public eye this summer when a grand jury indicted Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick on dogfighting charges. He filed his plea agreement in federal court Friday admitting to conspiracy in a dogfighting ring and helping kill pit bulls. He denied ever betting on the fights, only bankrolling them.
Grisly details of the case — such as how losing dogs were sometimes killed by electrocution — have dominated TV news shows and newspaper pages.
“The Michael Vick case has brought dogfighting to the forefront,” Chynoweth said. “I think the nation now has been energized to combat it. We’ve seen the numbers of raids against dog fighters since the Michael Vick case increase.”
Chris Topher Russell, a 52-year-old Pontiac grandfather, has followed the Vick news coverage. He said he disagrees with the way those dogs were treated, and with the way many dogfighters in general treat their animals.
Russell owns two pitbulls, a breed he said sometimes unfairly gets a bad reputation. He said his dogs are loyal and great with all of his grandchildren.
Russell said he would never make his dogs fight.
“The way these guys do these things now,” he said, “it’s so barbaric, I wouldn’t be a part of it.”
Contact staff writer Ann Zaniewski at (248) 745-4628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this report.