There's something especially loathsome about torturing helpless creatures for fun and profit. And evidence of torture is what investigators found on July 8, when federal and local authorities working in teams across eight states staged the largest raid in history against the underground dogfighting racket. Twenty-six people were arrested (five of whom are scheduled to be sentenced to as much as five years in prison on Dec. 8 in St. Louis, Mo.), and more than 500 dogs were rescued, most of them pit bull terriers.
The cruelty visited on the canines is harrowing. Some had been pulled behind cars to build up their stamina, their necks scarred by heavy collars and logging chains. Many had lost eyes, lips and limbs in battle. But it is hard to say whether they, generally the victors, secured the better fate or whether the vanquished were in fact the lucky ones: fighting dogs who lose are routinely hanged, drowned or electrocuted.
The raid revealed a brutal paradox. Large-scale crackdowns like this one are rare precisely because the dogfighting business mistreats so many dogs. Busting a breeder means taking custody of the dogs, yet no police department or sheriff's office has the resources to kennel, treat and attempt to rehabilitate dozens, let alone hundreds, of abused animals. Indeed, this raid could not have happened without the extraordinary cooperation of the Humane Society of Missouri. Supported by animal-protection agencies and volunteers from across the country, the society equipped an empty warehouse with hundreds of wire pens to hold the victims, recruited veterinarians and secured tons of food.
When the rescued dogs arrived, the warehouse became a riot of barking, growling, whimpering and the first loving human tones the animals had ever experienced. The population soon swelled as pregnant females delivered more than 100 puppies. The exact location of this St. Louis area haven remained a well-guarded secret, however, because some of those puppies and dogs can be worth more than $5,000 each on the black market.
If this sounds like a dog lover's more-the-merrier fantasy 101 Dalmatians times five think again. The rehabilitation of even one fighting dog is a long and uncertain project. First comes the medical care. Beyond their obvious wounds and infections, some of the dogs arrive with broken ribs and internal injuries from being kicked. After the physical exams comes a psychological evaluation. Experienced animal handlers gauge the dog's mental condition: How aggressive is it? How traumatized? How far gone? This screening is a final life-or-death ordeal for a dog, because a fighter that cannot be tamed must be euthanized.
Those receiving a positive prognosis, however, may be placed in a sort of halfway house for old fighters a place like Tiffany McBee's Broken Hearts, Mended Souls Rescue in Fulton, Mo. Programs like McBee's will try to prepare the abused dogs for adoption, which doesn't happen overnight. "They need time to decompress" from the stress of their violent upbringing and the cacophony of the warehouse, McBee explains. An animal that was raised in secret, hidden in remote woods, tethered by heavy chain to a buried axle, suddenly finds itself chilling in suburbia. "They have to learn: What is a couch? What is the TV? Are they going to be able to adjust in an appropriate way?" says McBee. "We have to teach them manners."