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Authorities report surge in dogfighting investigations in Philadelphia in the last year

March 31, 2010 |  7:58 pm

Burrito dog PHILADELPHIA — When humane officers responded to a North Philadelphia row home in February, they found pit bulls chained to spikes driven into the ground in the backyard. They seized treadmills, steroids and "break sticks" used to separate fighting dogs at the jaws.

They also arrested a man who had long been on their radar as a suspected dogfighter. This time, officers were able to get enough information to nab him thanks to an increase in tips.

One major reason? Since the Philadelphia Eagles brought convicted dogfighter Michael Vick to town, more people are aware that the illegal sport is also a crime.

"It has really brought this to light," said George Bengal, director of law enforcement for the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "People are definitely more aware or attuned to this type of activity."

The number of dogfighting investigations in Philadelphia has jumped over the last year, a surge attributed to increased public awareness since Vick joined the Eagles, a new SPCA hot line to report dogfighting, stepped-up enforcement and -- some activists say -- new animal abusers drawn to the illegal sport.

In 2009, the SPCA investigated 903 cases of alleged animal fighting in Pennsylvania, most of them involving dogfighting in Philadelphia, Bengal said. That's more than three times the number of cases in 2008, when there were 245 investigations.

Dogfighting investigations had been on the rise before the Eagles signed Vick in August, but not as dramatically as last year. In Philadelphia, Bengal said, there were 85 dogfighting complaints in 2004, 109 in 2005, 111 in 2006 and 157 in 2007.

The number exploded last year amid the publicity from Vick's signing, he said. The former Atlanta Falcons star -- once the highest-paid player in football -- was convicted in August 2007 for operating a dogfighting ring. He served 18 months in federal prison.

"By hiring Michael Vick, the Eagles brought clear attention to a very awful thing that's done to animals," said Tom Hickey Sr., founder of the Pennsylvania advocacy group DogPAC. "But also by hiring him, they also said it's OK to do this kind of stuff."

Vick The SPCA recently launched a statewide hot line for animal cruelty that has generated most of the complaints, Bengal said. The SPCA also has educated people about what to look out for in spotting dogfighting operations: heavy chains, thick collars lying around, barrels instead of doghouses or places where dogs are separated where they can't run loose together.

Reporting is up about 25% from previous years, Bengal said, and the SPCA has devoted more officers to investigate animal fighting. But he said there also has been an increase in actual dogfighting.

"This is a fad out here now," he said, adding that it's hard to break down exactly how many of the cases are new operations.

Nationally, states and law enforcement agencies have been cracking down on dogfighting since the Vick case, said John Goodwin, manager of animal fighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States. In the 2008 and 2009 legislative sessions, he said, 27 state laws were passed cracking down on animal fighting.

He also said the number of law enforcement actions related to animal fighting roughly doubled from pre-Vick in 2006 to after his conviction in 2008 -- which he attributed to greater awareness and motivation on the part of law enforcement agencies, not an increase in dogfighting.

Goodwin said he thinks dogfighting has subsided nationally since the Vick case surfaced.

When humane officers go on raids in Philadelphia, they typically find a mixture of repeat offenders in their 30s and 40s -- who may have been getting away with it for years -- and those just getting into the sport in their teens or early 20s.

Officers can tell if a dogfighting operation is new or old by the paperwork they find. Established operations like the one raided last month have papers dating back years, showing training records with rankings of the animals. Well-equipped dogfighting rings often include special sticks used to break apart fighting dogs, along with treadmills and elliptical machines to exercise the canines.

Newer, smaller operations sometimes just have areas where dogs fight in a yard and teens train them to bite an old tire.

But Humane Officer Wayne Smith said he thinks many dogfighters look down on Vick because he got caught. Smith said rap music and other cultural influences continue to glorify dogfighting.

Vick protest "It's almost like a cool thing, like turning your hat backward and hanging your pants low," Smith said.

The Eagles faced public outrage from some fans when they signed Vick. Dozens protested outside the team's practice facility for his first few days of practice and at the team's home opener in September, but the furor faded quickly.

The quarterback called his offenses "a horrible mistake" and has spent time working with the Humane Society of the United States, speaking to school and community groups about the mistakes he made getting involved in dogfighting.

Pamela Browner White, an Eagles spokeswoman, said she thinks Vick has helped increase awareness of the horrible sport.

"We're glad to see that reporting numbers are up in the Philadelphia area," she said. "Dogfighting is a huge problem. It was a huge problem before Michael, it's still a huge problem."

In December, Vick won the Eagles' Ed Block Courage Award, voted on by his teammates after a season in which the three-time Pro Bowl pick played sparingly behind starter Donovan McNabb. The award honors players who exemplify commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and courage.

Martin Mersereau, director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' emergency response division, doubted that there's been any post-Vick increase in dog fighting nationally -- more that there's been a decline.

"You might see an upswing in the number of cases reported," he said. "But I don't believe there's more cruelty going on... If anything, Michael Vick is helping put a dent in this insidious practice. He brought animal fighting into the spotlight."

-- Associated Press

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Top photo: Burrito, a pit bull about 8 months old, poses for a photograph at an SPCA facility in Philadelphia on March 17. It's believed that Burrito's scars resulted from his abuse as a "bait dog" in a dogfighting operation, as well as multiple burns. Credit: Matt Rourke / Associated Press

Middle photo: Vick speaks to a crowd about dogfighting at the Covenant Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 29, 2009. Credit: Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press

Bottom photo: Animal advocate Debbie Sanville of West Chester, Pa., protests outside the Ed Block Courage Awards ceremony, which honored Vick as well as a number of other NFL athletes, in Baltimore on March 9. Credit: Gail Burton / Associated Press

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