Sergeant Steve Brownstein comes across the same scene day after day in residential neighborhoods throughout the city: wounded and malnourished pit bulls chained in dark, feces-strewn basements, closets, garages, or vacant apartments. The animals' owners, who use them in dogfights and bet on the contests, routinely punch, kick, and otherwise torment them, even feeding them hot peppers, to turn them into ferocious fighters. By the time-Brownstein gets to them, they usually cower at the, sight of humans. He approaches them slowly, speaking gently and reaching out to pet them. Their fur is often slick with petroleum jelly, which is meant to frustrate opponents' attacks. Still, the dogs usually display multiple injuries: bite wounds, broken or fractured limbs, eye infections. Their scarred faces testify to past traumas.
It's unclear which dogs fare better, the winners or the losers. The winners' injuries aren't as severe, but they continue to endure abuse and neglect and are brought out to fight as soon as their wounds heal. The losers are often abandoned on the street or dropped in the garbage and left for dead. Sometimes they die more quickly, at their enraged owners' hands, lit on fire or crushed under a car's wheel, to cite two recent examples. "Most pit bulls aren't living more than a year or two," says Brownstein, "and they're dying horrific deaths.
Since its inception as a pilot program in May of 1999, the police department's two-member Animal Abuse Control Team, headed by Brownstein, has rescued more than 700 animals, and arrested more than 200 people for cruelty. toward animals, including dogfighting, a Class Four felony. Acting mostly on tips from informants, concerned citizens, and fellow officers, the AACT removes the dogs from their fetid surroundings and turns them over to Animal Care and Control. Most are deemed unfit for adoption and then euthanized, says Brownstein, a fate he considers "a thousand times better" than the life they'd been living.
Dogfighting is "much more extensive than we'd anticipated," says Brownstein. "Wherever there's a gang presence, there's dogfighting." Increasingly, however, the perpetrators are children emulating the gangbangers. Unable to afford pit bulls, which sell on the street for anywhere between $100 and $500, kids--sometimes as young as six or seven--fight any kind of dog they can get their hands on. Brownstein has investigated cases of children fighting pets they've snatched from backyards. He says children don't usually fight dogs for money; for them, it's just entertainment.
"The scenes are horrific, Brownstein says. "It's very bloody. I've seen literally every body part of an animal torn apart from it: genitals, intestines unraveling, trachea torn out, faces torn off, eyes mutilated blinded. Animals often go into shock. They defecate, they urinate, they cry out in pain. Children watch this. They're getting used to animals going into shock, the screams, the cries, the bloody scenes."
Brownstein believes that children who routinely participate in or witness acts of violence against animals become desensitized to the suffering of humans as well. "It's not a far jump from enjoying the suffering of animals to becoming violent toward your fellow human beings," he says. "I think dogfighting has very serious ramifications for all of us."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert A. Davis.