May 25June 1, 2000
Mortal Combat, part 2
photo: Shoshanna Wiesner
by Daryl Gale
part 1 | part 2 | glossary
The history of the pit bull and its fighting heritage goes back more than 200 years, to England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the sport of bull baiting was legal and quite popular. Bull baiting involved forcing several dogs to face down and fight a fully grown bull, with spectators wagering on the outcome. Many dogs were gored and stomped to death by the bulls, but eventually enterprising dog owners began cross-breeding dogs in an effort to create the perfect bull-baiting dog. The dog had to be short and squat, but incredibly powerful in the upper body; it needed strong jaws and unlimited holding power, and most importantly, the vicious tenacity necessary to fight to the death with no thought of surrender. The result of all that character-specific breeding was the perfect bull-baiting dog, or just bulldog. He was powerful, agile, tenacious and unfailingly loyal. A man-made fighting machine. A canine gladiator.
When the sport of bull-baiting was outlawed in 1835, bored Brits decided that forcing the dogs to fight each other was the next best thing. So two dogs were placed in a small fighting arena, called a pit, bets were placed, and the bloodlust of the crowd was satisfied, without harming any more bulls. Harm to the bulldogs, by now called pit bulldogs, was another story.
Eventually the pit and the pit bull made their way to America, and the sport of pit fighting grew in popularity here as it had in England. Pits sprang up around the country, breeders went into overdrive producing pit bulldogs and an underground economy was born that continues to this day, giving rise to men like Pork Chops.
As dusk gives way to twilight on this warm spring evening, Rufus and Pork Chops are loping at a slow trot through Cobbs Creek Park in West Philly, trying to warm Rufus up without getting him winded. They play a game of tug of war with the leash, wrestle in the grass, and do a little "fetch the stick." Rufus eyes are clear, and his coat, white with tiger-stripe patches, is shiny and handsome. His muscles ripple impressively with every movement. He is obviously a happy, healthy dog, full of vitality and energy. In less than an hour, though, hell be locked in mortal combat with another pit bull. Despite the efforts of concerned people like Erik Hendricks, Rufus is about to get snatched.
Hendricks, executive director of the Pennsylvania SPCA, is determined to put an immediate halt to dog fighting in Philadelphia, and his ideas for accomplishing that have caused something of a stir in City Council.
"A pit bull is like a loaded gun sitting on the table," Hendricks says. "Now maybe nothing happens, and the gun hurts no one. But maybe somebody picks up the gun, and somebody definitely gets hurt. Maybe a child. These dogs are a big problem in Philadelphia, and one that the politicians are reluctant to address."
Hendricks says hes written letters to every member of Council asking for public hearings on the SPCAs proposal to completely ban pit bulls in Philadelphia. Similar laws have been passed in Wilmington, DE, and other cities, but state law in Pennsylvania forbids animal legislation that is breed-specific, meaning you cant just pick on pit bulls. And while Hendricks concedes that many pit bull owners are decent and law-abiding, he says that theyre outnumbered by the dogmen who see the dogs as sources of macho pride and potential money makers.
"We realize its a sensitive problem, but its a big problem that simply must be addressed head on," Hendricks continues. "Here at the SPCA were forced to euthanize dozens of these dogs every day. We hate the idea of putting them down, but we have absolutely no choice. We cant adopt them out, and we cant keep them. Theyre just too dangerous to put up for adoption. They strike without warning. You know how most dogs will growl or snarl or bark to say, Im about to attack? And the dog will escalate the warnings if you get closer. Not pit bulls. Pit bulls wont growl or bark, just pow! And when they bite, they hang on and thrash around like a shark, not just puncturing flesh but tearing and ripping away flesh, creating horrific wounds."
Hendricks is honest and brutally frank when asked why the problem is a political hot potato.
"Theres a definite racial element here, even though its certainly not about race," Hendricks says, "but the fact is that most of the people were talking about are black and Hispanic kids in their teens and 20s. They see the dogs as macho and think of themselves as having the dogs characteristics: toughness, courage, power. I dont think its any kind of cultural thing, but because minority kids are involved, many politicians are reluctant to take a tough stand. Its a public health issue, not a race issue."
According to Hendricks, Fourth District Councilman Michael Nutter is the only Council member so far to answer his letter. Nutter sides with Hendricks, and has no qualms about advancing the possibility of City Council completely banning pit bulls in Philadelphia.
"We definitely need to have a conversation about it," Nutter says. "Although a total ban is extreme, I think its time for extreme action. These are nasty, despicable animals used primarily to scare and intimidate people, or to protect those involved in illegal activity. The problem, of course, is not so much the pit bulls but the irresponsible owners and breeders. They deliberately mistreat the dogs to make them vicious, and theyre a menace to many Philadelphians."
Nutter says the city can make an appeal to the state for changes in the breed-specific rule, either striking it down or asking for an exemption within city limits.
"Its definitely a quality-of-life issue," Nutter goes on. "Neighbors in my district have complained bitterly about pit bulls and their owners in the community. They use the dogs as tools of intimidation and as weapons, and decent people fear for their safety. Its been an ongoing problem and its got to stop."
SPCA statistics show more than 4,000 pit bulls were taken in and euthanized last year in Philadelphia. So far this year, the number is almost 1,300, with no signs of slowing down. SPCA spokesperson Charlene Peters tells a particularly chilling story connected to last months raid in North Philly.
"Somebody recognized one of the defendants on the news, and called in a tip," Peters says. "That tip led us to a second address, an abandoned house where the tipster said other dogs were kept by the defendant. What we found there can only be described as a house of horrors. There were 13 dogs in the house, starving, sick and dehydrated. Some were badly injured from fights, some were diseased. One puppy had a skin condition so advanced that his skin would rupture and bleed wherever he was touched. There was plenty of evidence of baiting and torture, and the dogs were chained to walls and ceilings, just out of reach of each other. It just broke our hearts."
So far this year, nine pit bulls have been shot to death on the streets by Philadelphia police officers fearing for their own or other citizens safety. Sgt. Roland Lee, of the police public affairs unit, says that 56 dogs were similarly shot last year, and 45 the year before that.
"Police officers do not like to pull their weapons and shoot a dog in the street," Lee says, "but they certainly will do so to protect lives. Take a look at the numbers, 858 dog bites in 99, 739 dog bites in 98. Sometimes, putting a dog down in the street is the only way. No officer wants to kill a dog, especially in front of children. But those childrens lives have to come first."
While most dog fights may be impromptu skirmishes driven by ego and stupidity, the large, well-organized matches are strictly business, with rules and regulations covering the match, the owners and the dogs.
The pit itself is not less than 14 feet across, with a center dividing line, or scratch line. Dogs must cross, or attempt to cross, the scratch line to be considered "game," or willing to fight. The handlers hold their dogs in respective corners facing away from each other while the referee gives a series of commands: "Ready," at which time the handlers indicate that their dog is ready; "Face your dogs," prompting the handlers to turn the dogs around to face each other for the first time; and "Let go," when the handlers let go of their dogs and all hell breaks loose. If a dog fails to leap toward the scratch line, or wont fight right away, the ref will call a halt and start over. If the same dog fails to scratch again, the fight is over and the "game" dog is declared the winner. A handler can concede defeat at any time during the match, but its generally frowned upon. More often, there is a clear winner, by virtue of total exhaustion, injury or death. There are slightly different variations of these rules, depending on geography, but generally, organized matches stick to them. There are no limits on betting between owners or spectators, and tens of thousands of dollars can change hands in a single match.
In Philadelphia, dog fighting is a third degree felony, punishable by up to seven years in prison. And that holds true for all participants, whether owner, handler, bettor or casual spectator. All 81 people arrested in last months raid were charged with animal cruelty and unlawful gambling, and are scheduled for a preliminary hearing in July. Assistant District Attorney John Han is handling the case, and talks about dog fighting in general.
"These are serious crimes," Han says, "and the DAs office will treat them as such and vigorously prosecute the perpetrators. This is not a victimless crime. The dogs are the victims, and they are helpless to stop it. But the citizens can stop it, and were here to help make that happen."
photo: Daryl Gale
Pork Chops is in the corner of a darkened basement in West Philly, positioned in a half-crouch with Rufus pinned between his legs. He bends over and speaks softly in Rufus ear, scratching the dogs head affectionately. The basement floor is littered with dog kibble. The owner of the house, a dogman himself, agrees to allow a short snatch in his basement as long as nobody else is coming. Then the door opens and down the steps comes Wayne, a teenage neighbor, with his pit bull Sheba. Sheba is brown with black spots, about the same size as Rufus, and just as powerfully built. But Sheba has been a fighting dog since before Rufus was born.
With very little talk or preliminary setup, soon Wayne is in a similar crouched position with Sheba on the other side of the basement. "Just a quick snatch," Pork Chops says, and after a nod of affirmation from Wayne, says, "Let go." Wayne and Pork Chops let go, and Sheba and Rufus launch themselves at each other as if theyve been shot out of cannons. They meet in the middle of the floor in a flurry of snapping jaws and writhing bodies, but eerily, neither animal utters a sound. No growling or snarling, just the intensity of combat. They each seek the top position, standing on hind legs while trying to wrestle the other to the floor, but neither gains a clear advantage. Short, quick bites are exchanged, an ear here, a leg there.
Suddenly, Rufus gets Sheba by the neck and throws himself to the floor, taking Sheba with him. She wriggles free, but Rufus quickly gains another bite and does it again. "OK, thats it," Pork Chops says, and then, just as suddenly as it began, the violence is over.
Both handlers grab their dogs by the hind legs and lift the backs of the animals into the air, causing them to break their holds. The entire snatch lasted less than five minutes, but apparently, that was long enough for Rufus to prove his mettle. Neither dog was seriously injured, save a single drop of blood on Shebas ear. The owners shake hands and thank each other for the snatch, and Wayne attaches Shebas leash to her collar and leaves without another word. Rufus is then taken to Pork Chops back yard and washed with warm water and soap, then wrapped in a blanket and allowed to rest before feeding. Pork Chops never feeds or gives water to a dog immediately before or immediately after a match; he says its bad for them, although he cant explain exactly why.
An hour after the snatch, Pork Chops is back on 52nd Street, crushing the butt of his last Kool under his heel and talking to three other dogmen, C-Fly, Boo and a third who makes a hasty retreat upon finding out theres a reporter in their midst. The information gives C-Fly pause also, as he instantly becomes openly hostile and chides Pork Chops for bringing a media person. Understandably, people with long rap sheets who routinely engage in criminal activity are a bit leery about newspaper writers. And while he may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, C-Fly knows a little something about self-preservation.
"Whos this muthafucka? I dont know this muthafucka! Whos this muthafucka?" C-Fly repeats over and over, trying vainly to seem intimidating, until he finally gives up, turns away in disgust and begins angrily working on his car, throwing wrenches and muttering under his breath.
Boo, considerably more cooperative, says hes 23 years old, although the Allen Iverson-type cornrows and baggy jeans make him look a lot younger. Hes been fighting his three dogs for more than a year, and is considered a rising star by Pork Chops.
"Hes just a kid, but hes got the heart," Pork Chops says, pounding his chest for emphasis. "It takes more than good dogs to be a dogman, and Boo is going to be a hell of a dogman."
Boo beams proudly, accepting Pork Chops compliment as high praise from the master. In this world of convoluted logic, becoming "a hell of a dogman" is a lofty aspiration.
Pork Chops himself probably sums it up best.
"A pit bull is exactly like his master. A dog can pick up your personality and be that way, too. Thats why they act that way. Where do you think the dog gets it from?"
part 1 | part 2 | glossary