From www.clarionledger.com

Authorities battle rising interest in dogfighting

Something about the fights "excites me," ex-pit bull breeder says

By Ryan Clark
ryanclark@clarionledger.com

DOGFIGHTING SIGNS


Back yards where dogs are tethered with heavy chains and locks.
Chains are put on dogs to help them build strength and endurance.
Owners also train dogs to fight by making them pull wagons with
weights.

Homes where dogs are locked in enclosed places for long periods.

Buildings or homes where people are seen taking large numbers of
dogs, but no dog feces, doghouses or other pet gear are outside.

Small animal crates in yards. This may indicate kittens, puppies or
other small animals are being used to bait fighting dogs.
Source: The Anti-Cruelty Society

PULASKI In a side yard, a few feet from his rural home, Larry
Traxler points to the brown earth, the grass worn away by car tires
and grazing animals.

"I've got a lot buried there," he says. "A lot more buried all
around."

He's talking about dogs, pit bulls he used to train and fight with
others for sport and money.
Traxler, 59, raises chickens now, and some cattle. He's out of the
dogfighting business, and has been for almost 15 years, he says.

"There's something about it, fighting dogs," he says, looking off
into the distance. "I can't explain it. I just love watching.
Something about it, I don't know ... excites me."

Traxler fought pit bulls for more than 20 years before he quit
around 1990 because the laws became too strict and the money too big.

"Sometimes a guy would bet under $100 to see whose dog was
toughest," he says.

But Traxler knows that dogfighting is still going on in the area
and around the state. He still gets phone calls from those
interested in learning how to get into it.

He says he tells them to find another hobby, not because the so-
called sport results in the killing of many of the animals, but
because the risk is now too great.

The penalty for training a dog for fighting a felony in
Mississippi since 1988 includes fines from $1,000 to $5,000, or up
to three years in prison and a minimum of one year in jail.

But the possible rewards as much as $100,000 to the winner of a
single fight keep many in the dogfighting business.

Since 2002, the Mississippi Animal Rescue League has logged hundreds
of complaints, photos and busts of dogfighting rings. Complaints
have come from everywhere Rankin County to Philadelphia, Madison
to Morton.

In January, 28 animals were ready to fight in Bay St. Louis when
local officials arrived and broke up the event. More than 20 people
were arrested. Others got away.

In June, nine dogs covered with infected and bloody scars were taken
from their owner in Vicksburg, who was charged with a felony.

And this month, behind a home in rural Simpson County, seven people
spent their Saturday afternoon fighting 17 pit bull dogs. When the
county sheriff and a deputy arrived, acting on a tip, they were
arrested.

"It's an epidemic in this state, and everywhere really," said
Georgia Lynn, president of the Humane Society in Vicksburg. "People
don't seem to know it, but it's in every rural town, and now it's
spreading to the bigger cities."

Since Queen Elizabeth watched dogfights in the 16th century, humans
have used violence between animals as entertainment, and the pit
bull regularly has been used because of its reputation as a hunter
and protector, said Debra Boswell, executive director of the
Mississippi Animal Rescue League. But now the sport is growing.

The Justice Department does not track the crime, but Humane Society
spokesman Wayne Pacelle told the Gannett News Service that
dogfighting arrest reports have increased 300 percent over the past
decade, with more than 200 Web sites devoted to the sport and at
least 40,000 owners participating nationwide.

Sandy Christiansen, regional coordinator for the Humane Society of
the United States' Southeast Regional Office in Tallahassee, Fla.,
said he has seen the fights move into more urban environments.

"I actually came from New York, where 40 percent of the animals
brought into the Humane Society were pit bulls, and a large majority
of them were used in fighting," Christiansen said.

Traxler said that a trainer will buy his pups, usually for hundreds
of dollars apiece. They will feed, de-worm and clean them and at 18
months, their training will begin.

Two dogs will be taken to a pit, a homemade, 16-foot-square,
carpeted area slightly above the ground that is fenced off with
wooden planks. The dogs are then placed in the pit, where it is
hoped they will begin fighting, or "rolling." If they fight each
other, they are considered worthy for further training.

"If the dog doesn't fight, you shoot them," he said. "That's cruel,
but that's dogfighting."

Nationwide, underground publications rank certain dogs and breeders,
and matches can be set up that way, or just by calling another
owner. Once a date is set, the dog will train harder for 12 weeks
leading up to the fight, running or walking five miles a day to
build stamina.

Evidence from other training busts show dogs are baited to increase
aggression. Sometimes a puppy may be placed on what is called a
spreadmill, a wheel that allows the dog to keep chasing its prey in
a constant circle.

Traxler said that is not the way he trained dogs. Nor does he agree
with other evidence that suggests abuse of the animals.

"But why would you want to harm a dog that costs so much?" Traxler
said.

A fight between two dogs can last from one minute, to a fight
Traxler once saw that lasted more than four hours. The dogs, who
must be of equal weight, will fight for a certain amount of time
before being broken up with a stick, and sent back to their corners.

If a dog refuses to come out, or is too injured to continue, the dog
loses. It is then more than likely killed, Traxler said.

A dog who wins three fights is considered a Champion, and can make
thousands of dollars for an owner by going to stud. A dog who wins
five fights is considered a Grand Champion, Traxler said.

And no matter what is done legally, he said, the fights will
continue.

Dogfighting is a felony in all but three states Iowa, Idaho and
Wyoming, where it is a misdemeanor and owners took advantage of
the law to move fights to those states. But legislation is being
proposed to make transporting an animal across state lines a felony.

Christiansen said the Humane Society also offers a standing $2,500
reward for information leading to the conviction of a person
participating in fights, and that people in the community must watch
out for possible fighters.

"The communities must get involved to solve the problem," he
said. "Normally, other criminal behavior is involved drugs, guns,
etc. The violence and other crimes go hand in hand. "

In addition, Boswell and the Mississippi Animal Rescue League also
have developed manuals for local law enforcement departments.

"It gives them a guide to look at, so they can see what to look for
evidence of dogs being mistreated or possibly used in fighting,"
Boswell said.

Once police raid a training site, many dogs go to the Animal Rescue
League, where they wait to be euthanized. "But it's better than the
life they were living," Boswell said.

Traxler says he will never be convinced that fighting dogs is
inhumane. As he says this, he rises from his old sofa and enters his
bedroom. When he returns, he is carrying a framed portrait of a
female pit bull.
"This is the only thing I've kept from my fighting days," he says.
It is a picture of his only five-fight winner.

Traxler says he retired her after her fifth fight. She lived to be
14, and when she died, she was buried out in the yard, with the
others.

"She would close her mouth on a dog, and it would get to hollering,"
he says. "She would tear it to pieces. It was beautiful to watch."