Clash of cultures


Increasing numbers of veterinarians could find themselves drawn into the jaws of dog-fighting investigations -- to provide expert testimony, treat injured animals or both -- if the violent activity continues to escalate as it has recently, especially in urban areas.

The widely separate worlds of veterinary medicine and dog fighting might be about to collide.

It could happen sooner than many DVMs think — if dog fighting continues to charge headlong into the public arena the way it has recently.

Last month's federal indictment of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and three associates on dog-fighting charges shines a huge spotlight on the illegal "gaming" activity that until lately confined itself mostly to well-hidden rural venues at odd hours.

Now it's also spilling into the streets of major cities, sometimes in broad daylight. And it's no longer chiefly a southern phenomenon, but occurs in all parts of the country, according to those trying to muzzle it.

All of this raises the odds that veterinarians who never expected it might someday find themselves drawn into the jaws of a dog-fighting investigation.

It could happen in one of two ways: by treating a dog they strongly suspect was injured in an illegal fight and reporting it, or by giving expert advice or testimony to aid law enforcement.

"Dog fighting is everywhere now. There's no part of the country that hasn't been touched by it," says John Goodwin, deputy manager of the Humane Society of the United States' (HSUS) Animal Cruelty Campaign, who has been present at numerous dog-fight raids.

Most of the increase is driven by street-gang culture, Goodwin believes, "where violence is basically a way of life."

While most veterinarians aren't likely to be drawn into a case until someone presents an animal that appears to have been injured in a staged fight, some have joined forces with animal-welfare groups like the HSUS or the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) or are pro-active on their own in some way to assist law enforcement.

One of the latter is Kelli K. Ferris, DVM, an assistant professor of community practice at North Carolina State's College of Veterinary Medicine who also teaches a course in animal cruelty. She has provided advice and testimony to law enforcement in several dog-fighting investigations around her state and agrees with Goodwin that street fighting accounts for most of the growth.

"Although there are many professional fighters around, there are so many pick-up dog fights on the streets anymore," Ferris says. "They're loosely organized. Sometimes gang members just walk their (fight) dogs around until they meet someone else with a dog, place their bets and let the dogs go at each other. If the police show up, they will claim the dogs got into an ordinary fight while they were out for a walk."

One of the most recent urban raids occurred July 5 in a neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, where police arrested three people, rescued eight pit bulls and shot to death a ninth when it attacked an officer. The site was a home where dogs allegedly were being bred and trained for street fights.

It is the high-profile Vick case, however, that has done the most to bring the shadowy world of dog fighting into the public eye.

A federal grand jury in Richmond, Va., indicted him and three other men July 17 on charges of competitive dogfighting and operating across state lines. The indictment alleged that Vick attended fights at a property he owns in rural Surrey County, Va., where authorities conducting an April drug raid found nearly 60 dogs, blood-stained carpet and equipment of the type used in dog fighting. It charges Vick paid off bets when his dogs lost, and was involved with two of the other men in executing "approximately eight dogs that didn't perform well" during "testing," killing them by "hanging, drowning and/or slamming at least one dog's body to the ground." One dog that lost a fight allegedly was electrocuted.

The indictment accuses the men of using the property as the "main staging area for housing and training the pit bulls involved in the dog-fighting venture and hosting dog fights."

Vick, 27, a registered dog breeder, denied involvement from the outset of the probe, saying he rarely visited the house that was occupied by his cousin.

If convicted, he and the others face a maximum penalty of up to six years in prison and a $350,000 fine. Meanwhile, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told Vick not to report to the Falcons' training camp until the league reviews the charges.

Ferris didn't assist with the probe at Vick's property, but says several members of the news media contacted her with general questions about dog fighting as a result of that case.

Veterinarians and animal-control officers shouldn't be part of the primary team that breaks up a dog-fighting operation, Ferris says. "It can put you in some very scary situations. These people are dangerous."

Instead, Ferris recommends that DVMs who might be called to assist law enforcement simply do what they would normally do – perform a good examination and keep meticulous records.

"Our role is not to find the bad guys; our role mostly is to document," she says. "If there's ever a time to keep good records, it's on one of these dog-fighting cases. Especially if it's one of the sophisticated operations. They're well-financed. You'd better have all your ducks in a row. But good vets are used to keeping good records."

What should practitioners look for? Dogs injured in fights usually have puncture wounds to the face, front limbs, chest and/or abdomen, usually in different stages of healing, Ferris says, echoing the description Dr. Robert Lockwood, animal behaviorist with the ASPCA, gave to DVM Newsmagazine for last month's issue.

Although street fighters tend to provide little or no care for their animals, "talented amateurs" and professional fighters do seek treatment for their expensive dogs, Ferris says.

Those are the ones veterinarians are most likely to encounter, although Goodwin says some owners are sharing information through the Internet on treatment protocols they can follow on their own.

"They have plenty of euphemisms to hide who they are and what they're doing," he says. "They'll use terms like 'dogmen,' 'gaming' or 'gameness,' calling a fight a 'show,' sometimes referring to dogs as 'hogs' – and they may post disclaimers that fighting isn't condoned or that any stories about it are fictional."

Recent Internet chatter on sites popular with dog fighters concern the spread of Babesia and how to treat it. A check of the Web site last month showed more than 20 message-board postings on the subject.

If a dog with suspicious injuries is presented for treatment, veterinarians in seven states (Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and West Virginia) are under mandate to report to authorities, and others should report as a matter of ethics, Gail Golab, the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) associate director for animal welfare told DVM Newsmagazine last month.

"On the other hand, we must be careful not to over-interpret what we see," Ferris adds. "Remember that it's possible a dog received its injuries in some other way – perhaps fighting with a raccoon, being in an ordinary dog fight or something else. Those are not always false excuses. I'm more likely to give credence to them if it's just one dog. But if you've got more than one dog from one location with those kinds of injuries, or you see amateur-type wound closures, it's time to get suspicious about illegal fighting."

Dogs that have been abused in fights usually aren't aggressive toward people, Ferris says. "Their owners won't tolerate that. I have rarely encountered a fighting dog that I couldn't get comfortable handling. Some are even quite friendly. But even though they're people-friendly, they are still predators. They can't be adopted out because they're a danger to other people's pets. That's why they end up being euthanized."

The animal-cruelty course Ferris teaches is a six-hour continuing-education program leading to investigator certification. This fall, her school will begin offering an animal-law elective, a course that will include mock trials for training in how to prepare for a dog-fighting case and give credible testimony.

"We try to document everything in these cases – condition of the dog's body and coat, even whether routine heartworm and fecal tests were ever done, so we'll know how well it's been cared for. Besides keeping impeccable records, I also suggest vets take good photographs that clearly are not computer-manipulated," says Ferris.

"We try to stay a few steps ahead of them (fighters)," she says. "The big boys have lots of money invested in their dogs, and they know how to hide what they're doing."

Law enforcement is getting better at finding them, using helicopters and global-positioning systems, Ferris says. "Even if they have 40 acres covered with trees, we often can spot them," but some are masters of escape, she adds, citing one case in her area in which investigators who saw what appeared to be a fighting venue took off immediately to conduct a raid but found only empty doghouses when they swooped in.

Although she devotes much of her time to animal-cruelty cases, Ferris says her chief focus outside the classroom is the problem of pet overpopulation and teaching responsible pet ownership.

A new animal-cruelty law in North Carolina is helpful in that regard, she says. It requires those charged to post a significant bond and cover daily boarding and medical care for abused animals.

"Most can't afford that, so the county gets legal custody and can dispose of dogs in these fighting cases even before trial," says Ferris. "Previously, these animals had to be housed, sometimes for years, held in limbo, as cases went through appeals. The dogs couldn't be fostered out. This new law helps free up space in our shelters, giving more animals a chance at adoption."

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