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Jaws

Michael is a college-educated husband and father with a corporate job. Every Sunday, he takes his dogs out to tear other dogs to shreads.

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For nearly an hour Apollo, all 67 pounds of him, has been running on a specially made dog treadmill in a blood-stained garage on the south side. His owner, a man I'll call Michael, says I can't pet him, and I assure him I have no intention of doing so. Apollo's been observing my every movement and growling at me for some time. "Don't take it personally," Michael says. "If you were a girl he'd be licking you all over. And he's great with my kids."

Apollo is attached to the treadmill by a chain. He's supposed to be running, but he seems more in a jogging mood. Michael says a good pit bull doesn't jog.

"All right, here's what I want you to do," Michael tells me. "Stand right in front of him, put your face close to his, and growl at him. Make him mad. That's gonna make him run his ass off."

Michael rolls his eyes when I sneak a glance at the chain. "Is there any particular reason you named him Apollo?" I ask.

"Come on," Michael says. I sense that I'm disappointing him.

Apollo doesn't like it when I move. No matter where I stand I seem to be invading his personal space. As I step in front of him he goes into a frenzy. His legs push the treadmill to its limit, he yanks at the chain, and his head whips back and forth.

I wave my hand at him. I jump up and down. I crouch in front of him, growl at him.

"There you go," Michael says. "Make Apollo mad!"

The treadmill is shaking now, and Apollo is a bundle of psychotic canine energy. He's barking uncontrollably. His legs are moving at a speed I didn't think possible.

"Yeah, now he's mad," Michael says, smiling.

Apollo, who's 32 months old, is the product of repeated incest. His great-grandfather impregnated his grandmother, then the resulting daughter, Apollo's mother. "You know--keep the good genes in the family," Michael explains.

Apollo is large, as fighting dogs go, with beautiful black skin, a strong upper body, and a face that appears downright pleasant when he's at rest. Except for a few practice fights, called rolls, he's untested. Michael bought him for $1,000.

"Apollo is the dumbest dog you'll ever meet," Michael says. "But I think he's got heart. That's enough to beat a lot of dogs. Apollo doesn't know when to give up."

Michael cautiously opens the door to the four-foot-by-four-foot wooden home of his top dog, Sam, and gets a firm grip on his collar. For my safety, he says. "Sam is a bad dog. If there is such a thing as a natural-born killer, a dog who doesn't give a shit about anyone or anything, Sam is it."

Sam is brown skinned and considerably smaller than Apollo. He's a quiet dog. "He doesn't bother with all that macho bullshit that Apollo and others will try to pull," Michael says. "He's all business when he's fighting. He knows he can kick the shit out of a lot of dogs."

Sam doesn't like people, Michael says. He doesn't like dogs. In fact, there's very little in this world he does like. "He's a killer during a fight. He's killed two dogs. If I let him go right now he'd either try and kill Apollo or he'd kill you. Depends on his mood."

There are two more dogs in the garage, another chained outside, and a 16-month-old in a crate just outside the door. They're all American pit bull terriers. "They're supposed to be fighting dogs," Michael says. "That's their livelihood. That's what they do."

Tony, a 16-month-old sitting quietly in his crate, is a disappointment to Michael. In his first fight he gave up after only a few minutes. A fighting dog that gives up is like a boxer who throws in the towel. "I shouldn't have fought him at such a young age, but he's worthless in the pit. I really should just shoot him, but I'm too nice of a guy to do that. Besides, he has a good bloodline. We can still mate here. And speaking of nice guys--or nice girls--this is Geena."

He opens the door of another crate without bothering to hold the dog by the collar. But the five-year-old Geena, her face bruised and scarred from a lifetime of fighting, shuffles over and begins licking my shoes.

Outside the pit Geena is like any other dog: friendly and seeking attention. I ask if she's so different because she's female.

"No, there are plenty of girls that would kill you too," Michael says. "That's just the way she is. But don't get me wrong--she's a good fighter. She's vicious when you put her in there with another dog. She just likes people. Not all these dogs are the same, you know."

Dogfighting is illegal in every state, a felony in 42. But in the game of cops and dogfighters cops rarely win. Most serious dogfighters take every precaution to avoid being caught; when the police do find a fight it's usually an impromptu street fight--and they're usually too late. Last March police in High Point, North Carolina, found four dead dogs and two injured ones on the side of a road. They believe a group of teenage boys dumped the dogs there after a fight in a fenced-in arena. One malnourished pit bull was unable to move, and a larger pit bull was found dead in a plastic bag. One dead dog had part of its jaw missing, another had no legs.

William Caprio, operations manager of Chicago's Animal Care and Control Commission, says, "We know dogfights are going on. We just don't know where to find them. We do hear about these street fights happening, but we get there and they're gone. They can spot you a mile away, and they just leave the injured dogs and start running. In reality we know very little about where the larger fights happen, how many happen, and how many people are involved."

Michael knows. In fact, he's willing to tell me just about anything I want to know about dogfighting in Chicago, as long as I don't ask for names or places. "I'm not a snitch," he says.

Michael is a 31-year-old, African-American, college-educated husband and father. He doesn't look like a criminal. He's strong, clean-cut, well dressed. He could easily be mistaken for an off-duty police officer. "I almost decided to be a cop," he says. "Hell, I could have been a cop and still done dogfighting. I know a couple who do both."

Michael works as a mid-level manager for a large national corporation, which sets him apart from a lot of the dogfighters he deals with. "Most guys into dogfighting sell drugs and make money illegally. I don't do that." But he does bet on dogs. His wife says she doesn't mind his dogfighting "as long as he doesn't lose all our money."

Until he was in college Michael had little idea what a dogfight was. "I guess the way it all started was that in college I was into tough-looking things and tough-looking dogs. And it's still that way for me and a lot of other people involved in this. The tougher your dog is, the tougher you feel." But he's quick to point out that dogfighting fans, like baseball fans, aren't all the same.

Eric Sakatch, west-coast director of the Humane Society of the United States--generally regarded as the nation's leading expert on the dogfighting culture--agrees. He's spent 20 years infiltrating dogfighting circles--attending dozens of fights and assisting in arresting hundreds of people. "We divide dogfighters into three categories--street, hobbyist, and serious."

The street-level dogfighters are generally juveniles and gang members. They often steal their dogs, fight mixed breeds, and wager small amounts of money. Caprio says, "These are the kind of people who are like "Well, it's Friday night and we have nothing better to do. Let's round up some dogs and head out to the streets."'

Hobbyists, like Michael, buy dogs of average ability, frequently use the same fight location, and emphasize gambling, though it's not much of a source of income. "We do it because we love the sport," Michael explains. "It gets in your blood, just like baseball or football has for so many people. It becomes a part of your day-to-day life."

Serious dogfighters are much rarer. They operate on a national and international level and are heavily involved in breeding. "In Chicago there are a couple of rich Greek guys who would fit that bill," Michael says. "I guess the goal of the rest of us is to get up to that level. But right now the dogs we have just aren't good enough. As they say, you're only as good as your best dog."

Dogfighters can buy pit bulls from a variety of sources, including from people like Ed and Chris Farron, who advertise their North Carolina Wildside Kennel in Pit Bull Journal, one of several underground dogfighting publications. "Our goal at Wildside Kennel is to produce dogs that can compete and win in today's fast lane," reads their advertisement. At the bottom of the full-page ad is the line "No dogs are sold or intended for illegal purpose." Asked to comment on the apparent discrepancy between the message and the disclaimer, Ed Farron said, "You know what? I have no comment." Then he hung up.

Pit bulls have been making headlines for the last 20 years, and their reputation is arguably at an all-time low. Many people think of pit bulls as time bombs--angry, violent creatures that attack without provocation, natural-born killers. They look into a pit bull's eyes and swear they see hate staring back.

Have dogfighters, after generations of cruel breeding practices, created a dog that's born mean? Or have they, in training their dogs to be lethal fighting machines, managed to bring out the worst in what would otherwise be friendly animals?

"These kinds of dogs fight because that's what they love to do," Michael insists. "They want to annihilate the other. You really don't have to teach these dogs to do anything. The older they get, the more aggression they show, the more monstrous they get. It's all in the genes, the way they've been bred."

Phil Snyder, central-states director at HSUS, says, "I can't sit here and tell you that all pit bulls are dangerous killers, because that's simply not the case. But what has happened is that breeders try and perfect a dog--they keep breeding the bad with the bad, the dangerous with the dangerous. Eventually, over generations and generations, just their bloodlines make a lot of these dogs really dangerous." According to the HSUS, of 176 dog-bite fatalities from 1979 to 1994, 55 involved breeds and crossbreeds of pit bulls, though in the last few years rottweilers have become almost as likely to be involved in fatal attacks.

Chicago native Scott Bradwell, who's not a dogfighter, is a proud pit bull owner and coauthor of one of many Web pages designed to paint a more complimentary picture of the breed. "Much of the public's fear and hatred of pit bulls is, sadly, a media creation," he says. "When a pit bull bites a man papers and television stations invariably run a story saying the pit bull strikes again! They usually won't run the story if an angry German shepherd does the same thing."

Dogfighting first found its way to this country when the English Staffordshire bull terrier was imported in the early 1800s. Breeding produced the American pit bull terrier, which is much heavier and more courageous than the Staffordshire and has much stronger jaws. Pit bulls have large heads and massive chests, and have been bred so that they can take a really deep bite and still breathe. Fred Astaire owned one. So did Theodore Roosevelt and George Patton.

The characteristic that makes the pit bull the breed of choice for fighting in the United States is an often-misunderstood trait called "gameness." Developed over many generations of selective breeding, gameness allows dogs to fight for hours despite broken bones, bleeding, dehydration. It's what allows many of them to fight to their death.

It's this gameness, owners argue, that makes pit bulls so loyal and appealing. "Gameness is akin to the human virtue of unflagging courage," says Bradwell. "It is manifested in the can-do attitude of pit bulls toward any type of challenge, whether it's agility competitions, climbing up trees, or protecting their family against an armed attacker. But it's the same gameness that also makes so many pit bulls such incredible fighting dogs. Many will do anything for their owners. These dogs bond easily with whoever they are with, and people use that bond."

Sunday is a big fight night in Chicago, and Michael spends much of the day on the phone talking to dogfighters about possible matches. In one hour on one Sunday five different people call wanting to organize impromptu fights. Michael estimates that there are some 50 to 75 true dogfighters in the Chicago area. "That's not counting those stupid gangbangers who fight their dogs in the street and give dogfighting a bad name."

He says there's one main location for fighting in the city--a deserted warehouse on the south side--though some owners fight their dogs in makeshift pits in a garage or yard.

The Chicago dogfighting community is close-knit. Everyone knows everyone, and outsiders are not only highly scrutinized but unwelcome, even feared. Undercover HSUS agents and journalists are the enemy. "Shit, for all I know, you might be a cop," Michael tells me. "You understand, I have to be careful. If people knew I was talking to you I'd be in a lot of trouble. And if you went to a dogfight, a young white boy like you might not go home in exactly the same shape you came. If you came home at all. If they don't know you they don't trust you."

Sakatch says informants are key to busting fights. "There are a lot more informants than you might think. We offer a $2,500 reward, which helps. We get a lot of calls from a person who is pissed off at another guy because one guy's dog beat up on another guy's dog and wants to turn them in. A lot of frustrated spouses too. We also have people on the inside, but that's dangerous. Going undercover is not easy. If you get caught you're in trouble."

In March 1995 informants helped police arrest 75 people in the west-coast championship fights, the biggest dogfighting bust in San Francisco history. In March 1996 three men, including an organizer of the San Francisco event, were indicted for operating a training facility for fighting dogs outside Livermore, California, and 44 dogs were confiscated. "We came up with a lot of material and a hell of a lot of names in that bust," Sakatch says. "That's going to help us down the line."

But the HSUS doesn't scare Michael. Neither do the police. "Shit, they have better things to do than chase dogfighters. You know, the last thing I think about when I'm at a dogfight is that the police are going to bust down the door. The HSUS doesn't scare any of us. They're so clueless they probably couldn't catch us if we gave them a date, time, and address."

Like cockfighting, dogfighting is an old pastime. Its beginnings can be traced back to the days when the Romans pitted dogs against bears and other animals in coliseums. "It's interesting that people get so much more outraged by a dogfight than a cockfight," Snyder says. "The idea of two chickens fighting to the death really doesn't bother people as much, probably because we as a society have become so close to dogs. They aren't just animals--they're our friends. Unfortunately dogfighters don't tend to see it that way. And unfortunately for the pit bull, it's the breed most apt to fall into their hands."

Michael will gladly debate the ethics and morality of dogfighting with anyone who'll listen. As an advocate of his sport, he says he often feels frustrated and misunderstood; he firmly believes that there's a media conspiracy to "make dogfighters look like worthless human beings."

A 1986 HSUS report on dogfighting states, "The sounds, the smells, the unforgettable sights of this degrading, bizarre spectacle are enough to revolt all but the most degenerate members of the human race."

"That's ridiculous," says Michael. "I mean, they paint a picture of us as these sick, demented human beings. Look at me. I'm not like that. And this is bullshit, because America will watch and cheer as two niggers kill each other in the ring--but no, we can't let the poor dogs get hurt."

Sakatch sees a closer parallel between the two sports. "For dogfighting enthusiasts, dogfighting serves much the same purpose as a boxing match does for boxing fans. They live and die vicariously through the dogs." The dog can fill a void, he says, instilling a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Michael doesn't disagree. "For a lot of pit bull owners, it's a status thing. The bigger the dog you have, the more dogs he's killed, the more of a man you are."

In the November-December 1995 issue of Pit Bull Journal someone named Buffalo Soldier wrote, "It is the ultimate feeling to have a dog in the winner's circle that you have bred, raised, schooled, conditioned, handled, and, last but not least, financed. That is the ultimate feeling of glory in the game-dog game."

Dogfighting matches, which range in size from two owners to hundreds at larger "conventions," are attended by men, women, and children from many walks of life. To be admitted to the larger conventions, often held on weekends in remote locations, spectators are often led through a series of security checks before being directed to the site.

Two dogs are held by their owners in two corners of the pit--a 20-foot-by-20-foot plywood arena with two-and-a-half-foot-high walls. A referee shouts "Face your dogs!" to the two owners. When he screams "Let go!" the dogs attack each other in a fight that lasts anywhere from a minute to three hours.

The dogs collide and jockey for position, trying to gain the best hold, the best bite. Once one has a firm hold on the other's face, sternum, neck, or legs--different dogs have different preferences--its jaw locks in place. Then it shakes the other dog and drags it across the floor. Behind each dog, kneeling next to it, screaming instructions into its ear, is its owner, the man the dog would most like to please.

The match is over when one dog can't--or won't--fight anymore. Dogs that are a mass of cuts, their legs sometimes broken, still often won't quit. "We carry medical equipment and can stitch them up if they're hurt," Michael says. "We're good at patching up our dogs."

A good fighting dog will never give up, never let its owner down. "A dog that quits on his owner is a quitter, and that means he has no heart," Michael says. "If he quits, fuck him, because he's not a good pit bull." At that point an embarrassed owner may pull a gun and shoot his dog.

Michael guesses that at the big-money events, which are organized every few months, about 80 percent of the losing dogs die during or soon after the fight. But other fights, including the ones he says he generally participates in, are low-key, private events that don't last as long, where the dogs rarely fight to the death and are rarely killed by their owners. "Shit, if I pay $1,000 for a dog, do you think I want him to die? I'm going to do everything I can to keep his ass alive."

After Apollo's workout Michael explains that he'll never be a great fighting dog, because he lacks talent and brains. He'll never be a grand champion, the name given to the rare dog that gets through five convention matches without a loss. "I'll keep working him out and fighting him," Michael says, "but I know not to expect too much."

Sitting in his crate in the back of Michael's Jeep, Apollo looks rather apathetic. He doesn't seem to mind when I press my nose against the glass. He looks like any other tired dog would after a run in the park.

But Apollo rarely goes for a run in the park. He gets most of his exercise indoors, chained to the treadmill. "Walking the dog for hours is probably the best way to condition him," Michael says, "but who has time for that?"

Michael doesn't. He says his wife wants to see more of him at home, and that's where he's heading now. "Apollo is going to go home and play with my little boy. Apollo lets Tim jump all over him and generally lets Tim kick the shit out of him. Apollo likes kids."

I ask Michael if he'd be sad if Apollo died fighting for him.

"Well, I'll tell you the truth," he says. "I would be sad, but that's because I'm losing the $1,000 I paid for him. If that makes me a bad person, then I guess I'm a bad person. The key thing to remember here is that we're talking about dogs. Not human beings. Dumb fuckin' dogs. If they can't take it, fuck 'em."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Will Northerner.

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