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Bulloch official: Dog fighting still goes on

Police urge people report offenders

    In a fighting pit, when two dogs run at each other intent on death, it’s not a pretty sight — or sound.
    "They would come at each other across that pit, and when they hit each other, it was like a fist hitting flesh," said Howard Thrower.
    "It's like a bullet hitting a deer — just WHAP!"
    Thrower attended an illicit dog fight in Bulloch County more than 25 years ago while writing a series of stories on the underground practice for the Statesboro Herald.
    Bulloch County animal control officer Joey Sanders said dogfighting still goes on here.
    "We have a lot of backyard dogfighters here, not professionals," he said. "They want to see who's got the baddest dog in Bulloch County."
    In the past, people have been arrested in the area for dogfighting. Lately, there have been few arrests, though. One area of the county is particularly bad, he added.
    The first rule of dogfighting? You don’t talk about dogfighting. That cloak of secrecy makes things hard on law enforcement.
    "Dogfighters are a pretty tight-knit family," Sanders said. "Unless you get a tip on them where something's going to be happening — that's the only way you're going to get them."
    Dogfighting has hit the news recently as Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was accused by Federal law enforcement officials of running an interstate dogfighting enterprise, “Bad Newz Kennels” from Vick’s property in Virginia.
    Tony Taylor, one of Vick’s co-defendants pled guilty to the charges on Monday, and said that the dogfighting conspiracy was financed almost entirely by Vick.
    The summary of facts signed by Taylor supports the indictment’s claims that the dogfighting ring executed underperforming dogs by drowning, hanging and other brutal means. Taylor admitted shooting one dog and electrocuting another when they did not perform well in test fights in the summer of 2002.
    Vick, 27, attended several dogfights in Virginia and other states with his partners, according to the statement. Prosecutors claim the fights offered purses as high as $26,000.
    Thrower first found about about dogfighting in the area when a man approached him and asked him to write a story comparing dogfighting to human sports like boxing or horse racing.
    Thrower didn't publish the story, but did end up going to a cockfight. Sources began to trust him to keep their anonymity, and he soon ended up at a dogfight.
    "I had to get with my source, and I couldn't take my car, couldn't take a camera," he said.
    Even today, 25 years later, Thrower doesn't mention the names of his sources.
    He didn't know where the field for the fight was, but it was in Bulloch County, and lit by a portable generator.
    About 75 people were at the fight, he said, but one stood out to him. Thrower estimated she was in her teens and "about nine months pregnant."
    "She was having the time of her life leaning over the dog pit," he said.
    Thrower said he didn't see any dogs put down or killed in action at the fight he attended. In fact, there was a large drum filled with disinfectant that the dogs were dipped in after a fight to prevent infection.
    "The owner could let a dog fight until he died, or they could go in and break it up," Thrower said.
    At the fight, when one dog had another by the throat, owners would pry the winner off of the loser using a "break stick," he explained.
    The backyard dogfighters don't give their dogs any medical attention.
    "We find them chained in people's yards," Sanders said. "They've been fighting them, but you can't prove it. They'll have an excuse like 'the dog got off the chain' or something like that."
    Unless there's dogfighting paraphernalia around, it can be difficult to secure charges. Sanders said he and his fellow officers have found injured dogs with heavy scarring and even maggots in open, untreated wounds from fights.
    Pit bulls tend to be the dog of choice in fights, but other breeds have been stolen in the area and used for "training" fighting dogs.
    "They'll let it tear (the smaller dog) to bits," Sander said. "In one of the areas of Bulloch County, we were finding stray dogs that were just mauled. We could never find out more about the situation or make an arrest of the person who was putting them out like that."
    One person was caught stealing pit bulls from pet owners and then using the dogs in fights.
    The penalties for dogfighting are harsh. In addition to fines and jail time, if a property owner is hosting a fight and is present, his land can be seized.
    "Everything can be seized there — the cars people come in, everything. It's like drugs," Sanders said.
    Fighting can make dogs much more aggressive towards other animals — but not necessarily towards humans, Sanders explained.
    "If a dog turns on a person in the dogfighting ring, they'll actually kill that dog," he said.
    "They can't have a dog biting the judges or the handlers in the ring."
    In the Vick case, Sanders feels that dogs were probably killed because they were aggressive to handlers or severely injured in a fight.
    Thrower said his source's family pet pit bull was used in fights.
    "It was just a sweet dog," he said, "until he saw another dog and was told to go fight."
    Sanders raises pit bulls himself, and says they are wonderful pets that have been maligned by poor owners.
    "Dogfighters give pit bulls a bad name," he said. "It's the way they're brought up and the way they're treated. Any dog can be mean."
    In Bulloch County, pit bulls have bitten fewer people than any other breed, he explained.
    Like any large dog, however, they require special attention and care, Sanders warned.
    Dogfighting isn't the only popular animal bloodsport in the area. Sanders said that cockfighting is growing in popularity in Bulloch County and Metter, and that it's easy to drive around the county and find people raising roosters for combat in their yards.
    "Again, that's a close-knit group," he said. "They say they're raising them and selling them for breeding."
    If people hear something that sounds like a dogfight, they should contact the Bulloch County Sheriff's Office at (912) 764-8888, Sanders said.

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