Cockfighting and Dogfighting – Workshop on Blood “Sports”

The scenes and sounds on the dogfighting video are disturbing and shocking: dogs tearing each other´s flesh, and blood splattering across the pen in which they are fighting. A dog collapses from wounds and exhaustion while his owner urges him to “get up and fight.” The cockfighting video is equally disturbing, showing cocks with razor sharp spurs attached to their legs, cutting each other to shreds in a bloody fight within a small pen. These are videos that you would rather not see and would like to forget, but if you are working in the field of law enforcement, you don’t have that luxury. Investigating blood sports is your job.

Animal fighting is growing rapidly in this country. One of the indicators is the number of magazines devoted to it. In the 1970’s, there were four, now there are fourteen international magazines about animal fighting.
Eric Sakach – The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)

Eric Sakach, along with Scott Giacoppo from the Massachusetts SPCA (MSPCA), and Bob Conflitti, Senior Assistant District Attorney at the Orange County District Attorney´s office, presented a powerful and disturbing array of information on animal fighting. The HSUS invited NYSHA to co-sponsor the workshops which were held in Rochester and Newburgh in August.

Sakach, a recognized expert on animal fighting, spent years as an undercover HSUS investigator for blood sports. He exposed and testified against animal fighting rings around the country. National TV shows, such as Hard Copy, have featured him in their exposés of this ugly and cruel activity. Big time players in animal fighting also recognize his expertise and have featured his picture in animal fighting magazines as a dangerous person. Sakach is now the Director of the West Coast Regional Office of The HSUS and has made it his mission to tour the country educating police and humane investigators on animal fighting.

Fortunately, most animal cruelty laws support his mission. All states have outlawed dogfighting. Unfortunately, though cockfighting is equally cruel, only 47 states have made it illegal. And when it comes to organized animal fights, both types attract large amounts of gambling money. There are good odds, no taxes, and the chances of getting caught are low. In some cases, bets can total from $20,000 to $50,000 and up. And animal fighting is a real mecca for other illegal activity, such as the sale of illegal drugs, guns, and alcohol, along with prostitution to pay off gambling debts. In a recent raid, police arrested 250 people, found 69 handguns, various illegal drugs, and a half a million dollars in cash. Interestingly, it’s not just “low lifes” who get involved in these activities. Not long ago, an NFL football player was arrested for raising pit bulls for fighting.

So what happens to the animals who are the winners and losers at the heart of this activity? The “lucky” winners get to fight again. In particular with dogs, if they manage to win several fights, they will be retired from the fight ring and used as breeding stock. Sometimes the losers, dogs and cocks, dead or half dead from the fight, are thrown in garbage cans or dumped in fields or city streets. In some cases, an owner will be so embarrassed that his animal has lost that he will kill him by cruel means, such as hanging.

While Sakach focused on large-scale, organized animal fighting rings, Giacoppo, an experienced law enforcement officer and street gang specialist with the MSPCA, discussed animal street fighting in urban areas, such as Boston.

While large scale organized animal fighting is held in secluded spots with large numbers of people attending, urban animal street fighting is sometimes spontaneous and held behind an empty apartment building with a smaller audience. In some areas though, these back alley fights are held with some regularity. Giacoppo said that urban animal fighting also is a magnet for other illegal activities such as drugs and guns. In fact, in many cases, a gang member’s dogs are literally sitting on top of a stash of drugs hidden in the base of the dogs’ cages. These same dogs are often strolled down the street to intimidate neighborhood residents to keep them from going to the police.

Animal fighting is a serious crime. We have to understand that these criminals are very organized. And we are not. We have to change that. We have to get organized and work together if we want to stop this in our communities.”

Giacoppo has worked in collaboration with other agencies to launch a “quality of life” program to take back the neighborhoods. Dog control officers, humane organization investigators, and the police have joined forces to work together. They keep each other informed as to any suspicious activity they see and handle it as a team. Giacoppo said that, based on the concept of “quality of life” policing, they go after the offenders for the smallest offenses, such as no dog license, to the biggest, such as dogfighting and drugs, and have been successful in cleaning up some neighborhoods.

Bob Conflitti, Senior ADA at the Orange County District Attorney´s office, rounded out the day by discussing the New York State dogfighting laws and the penalties involved. He emphasized to attendees what they needed to do to put together a winning court case. One hopes that if the case is good enough, when the defendant realizes the nature of the charges against him and the potential penalty (up to 4 years in state prison and up to a $25,000 fine), he will plead guilty to whatever the ADA offers. If he doesn’t and the case goes to trial, the case needs to be airtight. And, cautioned Conflitti, though a case may be won in local court, it can be overturned on appeal. Conflitti stressed that many misdemeanor cases are lost on appeal because of technical errors in the paperwork. An appeals lawyer will jump on such things as an “Information” document not being signed or containing an improper identification of the suspect.

Giacoppo summed up the day´s workshop: “We´ve got to work together to stop animal fighting. For too long, we have all been in our own separate worlds and sent the public going in circles. John Citizen calls the police to complain about dog fighting, and they tell him to call dog control. He calls dog control, and they tell him to call police because dog control just deals with stray dogs. Animal fighting is a serious crime. We have to understand that these criminals are very organized. And we are not. We have to change that. We have to get organized and work together if we want to stop this in our communities.”

What you can do to help:

1) Report any animal fighting/training activities to police. Let them know that animal fighting is a felony under Section 351 of Article 26 of the Agriculture and Markets Law. Let them know they can get help from NYSHA or The HSUS on how to proceed.

2) Support NYSHA so we can continue to bring cruelty investigation workshops to law enforcement officers throughout the state.

New York State Humane Association Humane Review, Vol.XIV, No.3, Winter 2000.