Public Enemy Number One

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

In all his years of investigations, Streff confesses, he has never actually witnessed pit bulls in combat. He's gotten close a few times. He's seen the videos. And he's seen the aftermath, more times than he cares to count. In his office, Streff keeps an appalling collection of photographs. One shows a pit that starved to death in a basement and was partially cannibalized by another abandoned dog. There's the photo of a "cur" pit (as dogmen dismissively refer to animals with no appetite for battle) dead from a shotgun blast. Streff figures that was an act of retribution from an owner embarrassed by his dog's showing. The grotesqueries Streff has documented aren't confined to the fighting dogs. He's got pictures of starved farm animals, and one of a dog whose owner sodomized it. (Streff's notation on the back of that photograph says the owner had "an alternative lifestyle.")

In recent years, the world of professional dogfighting has become markedly more secretive. That is partially because it is more stigmatized now than ever. It is a curious facet of modern American culture that the maltreatment of dogs, cats, and other animals often sparks more intense outrage than violence toward humans. Consequently, the criminal sanctions for animal fighting have grown much stricter in recent years, with some remarkably stiff sentences meted out to the most serious offenders. In South Carolina, an old-time dogman named David Trant recently received a 40-year prison term after he booby-trapped the property where he kept his dogs. Then there is the case of Floyd Boudreaux, one of the sport's legendary figures. Boudreaux bloodlines are all over the pedigrees of top-drawer fighting dogs. Last year, state police in Louisiana charged Boudreaux and his son with 57 felony counts related to his breeding operation. The arrest sparked outrage among fellow dogmen and cheers of glee among anti-fighting advocates.

"You've seen this huge response because there is a recognition that this is a brutal, cruel activity that comes with enormous social costs," opines John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States and an expert on dogfighting. High-publicity busts of professional dogmen like Boudreaux, Goodwin adds, "have shaken out some of the hobbyists and the pros, but the street fighting is booming."

Mike Mosedale

In certain parts of north Minneapolis, some residents say, impromptu matches have become disturbingly common. One woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, says she routinely calls Minneapolis Animal Control in the hope that they will investigate a neighbor kid she is certain has been fighting his dogs. To her knowledge, Animal Control has never been able to make the case against the youth. Such outcomes are more rule than exception. "There was another guy across the street who would put a blanket over the dog's head, kick it, trying to toughen it up, make it mean," the woman adds. "That's the part that frustrates me. It's so out in the open. I see these two guys around here quite a bit, walking their dogs on their leashes, and then they let them get into a squabble. And the funny thing is, a lot of the folks I see doing this sort of thing, I don't recognize as residents of the block. It just goes hand in hand with the drug dealing."

Kim Kenitz, a 36-year-old dog groomer who lives and works on the North Side, says she sees a lot of abused pit bulls in the neighborhood these days. In mid-October, she found a battle-scarred pit wandering the street near her home. At first, she says, the dog, whom she dubbed "Buddy," was standoffish. But she was able to leash him and bring him into her shop. After a couple of days, he warmed up to her. Now she's looking for a permanent home for him. She's reluctant to call Animal Control or the Humane Society because she figures, rightly, that taking him there would probably amount to a death sentence. So now she's looking around for an informal solution. "It's weird, but in cases like this we've got to develop our own underground," Kenitz explains, "because if the dog goes to the pound they get put down or, worse, wind up back with the people who abused them."

Kenitz recently found another pit bull, a badly emaciated female who had obviously just given birth to a litter. "Poor thing was mostly milk weight," Kenitz says. When she left the dog in her backyard, a woman passing by claimed it was hers. The Minneapolis police were summoned, Kenitz recalls, and after the woman produced a photograph of the dog, the cops insisted Kenitz surrender the animal or face arrest. As an owner of two pits (Meanie and Mugsy), she was galled by the incident. She suspects the cops' apparent indifference to the dog's well-being had more than a little to do with the stigma the breed carries. That stigma has grown in step with the pit's popularity on the street level.

Streff and other investigators echo the opinion that there has been a marked uptick in the number of dabblers—"wannabe tough guys"—who now use their pits for purposes of intimidation rather than combat. Instead of flashing a gun, Streff says, the corner drug dealer can mark his territory with a nasty-looking dog. For the random pedestrian or rival drug entrepreneur, such posturing can be just as effective as a .44. But for the dealer, the legal risk is greatly reduced. That's one reason a lot of experts believe that pits and pit mixes are changing—and not in a good way. The use of pits for these purposes, coupled with careless breeding practices, has led to an increase in aggressive behavior directed toward humans.

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