Longform

Blood Sport

Page 3 of 5

The contracts are usually arranged at least six weeks prior to a fight. After the conditions and terms of the fight are settled, the owners, their dogs and the dogs' trainers enter into what is known as "the keep" -- the time during which the dog is intensively conditioned for the match.

In the Saginaw County case, the convention was held in a 30-foot-by-40-foot steel-sided barn located on the edge of a residential area. Inside the barn were bleachers and a fully stocked bar. The metal structure also concealed the pit -- a small arena with four sides and a plywood floor. Everything was ready for a typical dogfight.

Because owners have been known to put topical poison on an animal in order to make the competition ill, just prior to the fight, each owner is allowed to wash the other's dog. The owners then take their dogs to the pit.

Just as in a boxing match, the dogs are kept in opposite corners. In each corner is what's called the "scratch line." The dogs are held behind the scratch line with their rear ends to each other until a referee orders the owners to "face your dogs." The dogs are then turned around but held behind the scratch line until the referee says, "Release your dogs."

At that point the dogs lunge toward each other, each desperately maneuvering to get the other's nose or throat or legs between its steel-trap jaws. The fighting is frantic and fierce. But while the human spectators howl and cheer, making side bets with every new twist of the match, the dogs themselves are oddly quiet. It's a trait of the breed: Pit bulls rarely utter a sound, even though they are bloodied and in obvious pain. Instead, the animals look out of the corners of their eyes for signals and encouragement from their masters, who are in the ring on their hands and knees, their heads inches away from the action.

The fight proceeds, sometimes for an hour or more, as long as each dog continues to attack the other. But if one of the dogs appears to retreat, the referee will rule that the animal has "turned." Once a turn has been called, the dogs are placed back behind the scratch lines. The dog guilty of the turn is then released first to see if he still has the desire to fight -- a quality dog owners refer to as "gameness," perhaps the most desired characteristic in a pit bull. One investigator recalls hearing a report of a dog that, although both of its front legs had been broken during a match, would continue to push itself back into the ring with his back legs.

But pity the dog who refuses to continue the fight.
"If a dog is not game, a lot of times an owner will shoot him right there in the ring," says an investigator. "These guys base their manhood on their dogs. It embarrasses them when their dog loses. If your dog is chicken, you're chicken, too."

The scratch process is repeated until one of the dogs either can't or won't fight. The owner of a winning dog can pocket as much as $50,000 for a bout. And the more successful the dog, the higher its stud and training fees.

But no money was won and no dogs were executed that November day in Saginaw County. The convention had only been in progress about 40 minutes when Michigan authorities raided the barn. Among those arrested was Mark Anthony Davis, who was charged with being a dogfight spectator -- a felony in Michigan.

In addition to Davis, most of the other 127 dogfighting enthusiasts arrested during the Saginaw raid were primarily from six states: Michigan, Maine, North Carolina, Kentucky, Florida and Texas. A half-dozen were from the Houston area -- a fact that authorities say is not surprising. The rural areas of Harris and surrounding counties are hotbeds of dogfight training camps.

During the investigation of the double murder at Rebel Kennels, Houston authorities noticed that Davis had never shown up for his arraignment in Michigan and arrested him for failing to appear. But not long after he posted bond, the charge was dropped when Michigan prosecutors declined to have him extradited.

"Unfortunately, a lot of law enforcement agencies don't take dogfighting seriously," says Lieutenant Mark Wachner with Saginaw County Animal Control. "They have too few people to deal with dogfighting when they've got homicides to worry about. And you really can't blame them there."

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Steve McVicker