Public Enemy Number One

Street-fighting dogs: Inside the world of the much-abused, ever-maligned pit bull

Streff is, in fact, a licensed peace officer. Occasionally, he moonlights for a suburban police department. But that's just a side gig. For the past 19 years, his main job has been at the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, the largest humane society in a five-state area and one of the 10 biggest in the nation. Streff, who serves as the nonprofit organization's director of investigations, delves into all manner of animal abuse, from starving horses on broken-down farms to pet-shop horror shows to cat hoarding by crazy old ladies. Over the years, he has also developed considerable expertise in the world of dogfighting, a topic on which he conducts educational seminars for police departments.

Tucked in a corner of his office Streff keeps a box filled with dogfighting magazines and paraphernalia he seized from an old-time Minneapolis dogman. The magazines, most of them more than a decade old, are filled with accounts of dog matches held across the country. The entries read like fight summaries in Ring magazine, blow-by-blow accounts of combat with references to particular dogs' biting style. There are nose dogs, leg dogs, chest dogs, and a running debate over which styles are best. And then there are the colorful monikers. One seized bill reads like a boxing card from hell: Evening Finals! Brutus vs. Dracula; Rabies Face vs. Bite Machine; Jaws vs. Ten Kittens.

On this day, Streff has decided to scout out several properties in north Minneapolis, where the taste for pit bulls seems more pronounced than anywhere else in Minnesota. Streff's got a stack of reports on his clipboard. Mainly, they come in the form of calls from neighbors or ex-girlfriends. Almost all of them wish to remain anonymous. It's one of the challenges of Streff's line of work: Informants on felony-level cases need a motivation, beyond mere compassion for the animals, to put themselves on the record and at risk. So Streff doesn't expect to make a case on complaints alone. He needs hard evidence. That's difficult to come by. Still, the cop in him likes to let reputed dogmen know that he's wise to them.

In the Harrison neighborhood, Streff checks on a house where a neighbor recently complained that two pit bulls seem to be in training for a fight. The house, a big and recently remodeled place, is battened tight. All the shades are drawn and there are none of the usual telltale signs in the yard—no spring pole, no doghouse, and, most significantly, no evidence of any dogs. Still, Streff figures it's worth it to bang on the door. No answer. "I'll just keep playing it," he says as he climbs back into the Crown Vic. "You have to understand that sometimes these cases will take years."

After that, Streff ponders a visit to the home of another suspect. Streff believes this guy is a big-time operator. "He's a bad dude, been into it for at least 10 years," Streff opines. "I hear his name mentioned often enough to know that he's a significant player." By significant, Streff means professional. For Streff and other investigators, "the professionals"—in contrast to lower-level hobbyists and street fighters—constitute the big game. So with rumors flying of an upcoming big-money fight, Streff is conflicted. He doesn't want to spook a main player and thus jeopardize an investigation. But he also likes the idea of rattling the guy's cage.

Arriving at the property, Streff spots an all-white, mastiff-like pit mix roaming off-leash in the front yard. While it doesn't appear aggressive, that doesn't signify much. Through generations of breeding, pit bulls have become expert at hiding their intentions. So Streff opts to wheel the Crown Vic around the block and approach the home from the alley. There is a high wooden fence in the backyard. As luck would have it, the gate is ajar. In the backyard, a squat, mottled pit is staked to a chain. Streff suspects it's a fighting dog but can't tell from this distance. Absent a warrant, he can't enter the property for closer inspection. Shortly thereafter, a middle-aged guy with a ponytail and a Vikings jersey emerges from the home. Streff asks about the big pit he spotted out front. The man flatly denies any knowledge of the free-roaming animal. By the time Streff has circled back to the front yard, the dog has vanished. Streff and the guy in the Vikings jersey talk for a moment, and Streff returns to the car. He's convinced that the guy simply called the big pit into the house. But there's nothing he can do about it.

As the day goes on, Streff checks a slew of addresses pulled from his complaint log. The weather is pleasant, so there are a lot of people out walking their dogs, which include a startling number of pit bulls and pit mixes. Streff can't help lamenting how much easier his job would be if only there was such enthusiasm for labs or, better yet, Pomeranians. He hits a last known address for a twice-arrested, once-convicted dogfighter from St. Paul. According to an ex-girlfriend, who called from a battered women's shelter, the man recently moved to Minneapolis and is still in the game. By all appearances, the house is now vacant. Streff isn't surprised by the dead end. "It's a very itinerant industry," he notes. "A lot of these guys don't stick around very long."

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