There’s a popular trend among teens in Hunting Park and other neighborhoods around Philadelphia. For fun, young kids will gather on street corners or playgrounds and square off to see who has the baddest dog. That’s street-level dog fighting.
Owners become a little more organized once they have champion fighters on their hands. Mid-level dog fighting takes place in basements or abandoned houses with dozens of spectators and bets in the thousands. Breeding operations are set up to supply strong fighting dogs. Non-aggressive and losing dogs are often killed.
“Dog fighting has become a multi-million dollar industry. There are magazines for special training equipment like treadmills and swimming pools to strengthen the dogs’ legs,” said George Bengal, director of investigations for the Philadelphia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“The fights themselves are money making events. We can recover from 50 to 100 grand in one night. They charge admission and sell refreshments and drugs,” Bengal said.
It gets even more lucrative in high-end fighting. Dog fighting rings can span from state to state and take in millions.
Bengal and the nine officers of the Humane Law Enforcement are responsible for investigating every suspected case of animal cruelty in the city, 10 percent of which are about animal fighting.
Aside from processing the 13,000 calls a year to the SPCA’s tip line and keeping an eye on suspected fighting rings, the officers are called in every time the police discover a case that involves animals on the premises.
“A lot of the time, a drug bust leads to a fighting menagerie,” Bengal said. “You can overlay a map of the city and anywhere there’s dog fighting there’s drugs and weapons.”
Dog fighting is illegal in all 50 states and many U.S. territories. In Pennsylvania, it is a felony to participate in dog fighting, to have possession of dogs for fighting and to be a spectator at a dog fight.
The harsh punishment for being involved hasn’t stopped dog fighting from growing around the city.
In 2008, Humane Law Enforcement investigated a little over 200 cases of dog fighting in the city. In 2009, it was a little less than 850. Last year, the number of investigated dog fighting cases was over 1,100.
Bengal’s officers execute an average of four search warrants a week. At least once a month, investigations result in the confiscation of pit bulls involved in fighting rings that lead to criminal charges.
One of the problems with accurately measuring the level of dog fighting in Hunting Park and other hot spots around the city is the uncertainty over whether rising statistics are due to more fights taking place or just more people being aware of the problem in their neighborhoods.
In Hunting Park, a rising coalition of police, Humane Law Enforcement, activists and community leaders is working to inform residents of the dog fighting that is taking place and teach owners how to have proper relationships with their dogs.
The End Dogfighting Campaign is a national campaign run by the Humane Society of the United States that started last year in Philadelphia. After community outreach and dog training sessions successfully redirected hundreds of teens to healthy relationships with their dogs in Chicago and Atlanta, classes began in the training rooms at the SCPA headquarters in Hunting Park.
Educating young kids who may already own pit bulls about proper care and respect is the primary goal of Rebecca Glenn-Dinwoodie, head of the Philadelphia End Dogfighting Campaign. For her, community involvement is the most important component to combating dog fighting in a neighborhood, especially in an area with such a long history of activity.
“Dog fighting is a very underground business. There are reports in Hunting Park going back to 1850. A lot of people don’t realize the problem,” Glenn-Dinwoodie said.
The philosophy of the campaign is that establishing a relationship with residents and offering kids alternatives to dog fighting will do more to cut down on the illegal activity than an increased police presence.
“We don’t have credibility when we go into a neighborhood, especially in Philadelphia. People are very wary about who they place their trust in,” Glenn-Dinwoodie said. “That’s why a community based approach is key. We’ll have an anti-dog fighting advocate in Hunting Park who will be a resident who can walk the streets and talk to neighbors directly.”
Past stories of rehabilitation have given the community leaders of Hunting Park United, Action Harvest and the Hunting Park EPIC Stakeholders reason to partner with the campaign.
“I saw one dog who came in for the first dog training class very suspicious and no one could approach him. The next couple sessions he was rolling over for belly rubs with his tail thumping on the floor,” Glenn-Dinwoodie said. “The owner, who was a very internal and wary kid, had a silly grin take over his face when he saw everyone loving on his dog.”
At Ayuda Community Center, kids enrolled in the after school program learned about animal cruelty via a visit to the SPCA.
“They got to meet the animals and learn about different ways to help and love them. They felt a lot of sympathy for the animals, wanting to pet them,” said Maria Ortiz, the group supervisor at the community center.
“The kids learned the laws about cruelty and how people do get punished if animals get hurt. I know one of them was saying that he knew of someone that had a dog that was being neglected and he was going to call the SPCA number,” she said.
Despite so much activity among community leaders and law enforcement officers to combat dog fighting, the underground nature of the fighting rings keeps the issue largely unknown to the neighborhood.
“It’s not as bad as it used to be. The park was a big hang out for drugs and dog fighters,” said Barry Salow, a leader of the Hunting Park Recreation Center. “They used to put cats on trees and have dogs go after them.”
Once the police added gates that closed the strip of Hunting Park Avenue that runs through the park over night, Salow said dog fighting disappeared from the area.
“I know it’s going on, but I don’t see it. I’m sure the neighborhood is different,” he said.
Hunting Park resident and pit bull owner Avaro Ramos hasn’t ever seen a dog fight or been aware of one in his area.
“If there is, I’ll be the first to know, because I’d be the one to call the cops ASAP,” he said. “I think dog fighting is very cruel.”
Ramos has had his brown pit bull Xavier for a year. He bought him off the street where he was rescued from a man that was mistreating him as a puppy.
“My dog sleeps in my bed. He’ll lick you to death. I’ve never had any problems with him, he’s sweet,” he said.
For Maria Ortiz, the issue is the mistrust felt by residents toward the police.
“The cops have been cruel to people, they’re seen as someone who is trying to come at them,” she said. “I know some of my neighbors are more likely to try and solve any problem themselves.”
Ramos has a more favorable view on the police presence in Hunting Park.
“The cops are doing as much as they can. Philadelphia is big, they can’t cover everything,” he said. “It’s bad enough you have a B and E every three to four minutes, let alone investigating dog fighting.”
The disconnect between residents and dog fighting activists in Hunting Park may hinder any plans to put together a cohesive anti-animal cruelty campaign in Hunting Park.
Despite these obstacles, those who work to end dog fighting have already made huge accomplishments.
Eighty-five percent of the animals taken in by the SPCA through law enforcement are rehabilitated and placed in new homes. Dogs that have gone through the training programs for the End Dogfighting Campaign have become therapy dogs or drug sniffing dogs for the police. Most importantly, through the programs run by anti-dog fighting activists, owners are taught to love and respect their pets.