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Expert: Region is a hotbed of dogfighting

Saturday, November 02, 2002

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Over the years, dogfighting has attracted a growing subculture of enthusiasts, ranging from street toughs eager to satisfy base desires for violence to more sophisticated purists who believe that raising pit bulls to kill fulfills the breed's destiny.

Both kinds can be found in the greater Pittsburgh area, a hotbed of dogfighting, according to one of the region's foremost investigators of animal cruelty.

Kathy Hecker, humane officer for Animal Friends in the Strip District, said the announcement yesterday that state police had infiltrated and broken up a major dogfighting ring in southwestern Pennsylvania only scratches the surface of the problem.

"This is absolutely the tip of the iceberg. When I first started about 10 years ago, we saw some signs that there was some dogfighting going on. In recent years, it has mushroomed from anything to a wannabe cottage industry business to international world class," Hecker said. "Pittsburgh is really one of the hubs."

Asked why, Hecker said she didn't have a good answer, other than the fact that the area has been home to prominent players in the industry.

It's tough to get a handle on dogfighting statistics, since the movement is illegal and therefore underground. But Hecker bases her conclusions on information gleaned from seminars, conversations with other law enforcement officers, arrests and discoveries of pit bull puppy farms.

In the last few years, there have been a handful of arrests throughout Allegheny County of people staging dogfights. Lately, Hecker said, it seems that dogfighting is shifting from the city to the suburbs and more rural communities.

Mike Manko, spokesman for the Allegheny County district attorney's office, said prosecuting people for cruelty to animals in cases involving the training of fighting dogs is not uncommon.

The Humane Society of the United States, which tracks newspaper articles about dogfighting, has tallied 150 arrests since 2000. Authorities have confiscated 2,078 dogs during those busts. The society estimates that 40,000 people are involved in the multimillion-dollar dogfighting industry throughout the country.

Nationally, experts speculate that dogfighting occurs in all 50 states. It cuts across racial and socioeconomic lines, sometimes attracting middle class individuals, police officers and professional athletes, experts say.

"There are many facets of society involved in dogfighting. It can be casual street fights, which you'll see a lot in inner-city areas -- I've got a bad dog, you've got a bad dog, we'll turn them loose in an alley and put some money on it -- to incredibly highly controlled, publicized, carefully scheduled underground enterprises, almost like the World Series of dogfighting," said Jacque Schultz, director of special projects for the animal sciences department of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

These days, basements, alleys, garages and wooded areas can all play home to dogfighting matches. Treadmills are one of the telltale signs of training grounds. Pit bulls being bred to fight often wear heavy chains or padlocks around their necks.

Underground dogfighting newsletters and magazines such as "The Sporting Dog Times" have photographs, times and dates of matches and information about dogs' pedigrees.

In Allegheny County, Hecker has been involved with investigations in Clairton and parts of Pittsburgh, including the West End and Hazelwood. Two disturbing aspects she's seen: a troubling number of pit bulls coming into animal shelters, and more brazen dogfighting contests.

Dogfighting devotees, who often go hand-in-hand with guns and drugs, are not necessarily part of organized crime, according to Hecker.

"They are the organized crime," she said. "There's big stakes, big money, international links and lots and lots of dogs being bred, because they go through them rapidly ... It's a moneymaker.

Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.

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