Public Enemy Number One

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

Historically, pit bulls were bred to be friendly to people. For that, there was a purely practical reason: Organized fights are conducted in a small ring—typically 14 by 20 feet—which is occupied not only by two powerful dogs, but also by two handlers and a referee. Because any dog inclined to attack people would spoil the night's entertainment, there was always a strong incentive to eliminate biters from the gene pool. In the pit magazines of yore, the "gamest" dogs, the fiercest combatants, are often photographed in the company of small children. Such images may be self-serving. But they are not strictly PR; they are a testament to the people-friendly disposition of many a game pit.

Despite the open nature of the street fighting—in parks, alleys, and school yards—it has proven a problematic crime to prosecute. Tom Doty, the manager of Minneapolis Animal Control, estimates that a third of the pits picked up in Minneapolis bear marks of combat. Nonetheless, Doty says, Animal Control has not been able to produce enough evidence to generate a single dogfighting conviction in Minneapolis. Part of the trouble, he says, is a matter of timing. Street fights typically don't last long, "so by the time we get there, the people are gone." Even when investigators come across likely suspects, it's tough to make a case absent a confession. As a matter of routine, dogmen questioned by police will simply claim that their animals broke off the leash or jumped a fence.

For Doty and others in the field, that's why a change in Minnesota's animal-fighting law in 2005 seemed like cause for optimism. Among other things, the new provisions created a presumption of guilt if a dog displayed the wounds or scars commonly associated with fighting, and the owner was found in possession of paraphernalia associated with dogfighting—spring poles, treadmills, "breaking sticks" used to pry apart the dog's jaws in an emergency. "If you've got a bitten-up dog, a treadmill, and some steroids," says Doty, "that's evidence you're fighting that dog."

So it seemed that Minneapolis Animal Control's long, frustrating streak would come to an end when the wife of a 45-year-old Minneapolis resident named Maurice Wallace placed an emergency call to Animal Control this past March. The woman, identified in court documents as "C.W.," told the officers that she believed her husband had abused his three pit bulls. According to the criminal complaint later filed against Wallace, the officers observed that one of the dogs—Shotgun—had "partially healed wounds on his face, head, and legs." Another dog, Crime, was said to have "bleeding wounds on his face and head"; the third, Kilo, was bloodied on the ears.

At that point, the complaint continues, C.W. led the officers to a small room at the back of the residence, where they located a bottle of Ivermectin, a horse supplement called "Red Cell," and some syringes; in a shed next to the kennel there was a treadmill. Additionally, according to the complaint, the investigators discovered a rope hanging from a basketball hoop and a three-ring binder containing Wallace's high school diploma, birth certificate, and "several documents regarding dog training, treadmills, pit bull bloodlines, and dogfighting." The cherry on the top? Wallace, it turned out, was one of the spectators convicted in the wake of the big bust in Chisago County in 2003, a misdemeanor offense for which he was fined $300.

The apparent slam dunk for the prosecution became far less certain after Wallace's public defender, John Ryan, filed a motion disputing the constitutionality of the two critical provisions of Minnesota's dogfighting law. Under the revised statute, the evidence gathered in the Wallace investigation—the documented wounds to the animals and the assorted dogfighting paraphernalia—created what in legal jargon is called a "rebuttable presumption" of guilt. In Ryan's view, that standard shifted the burden of proof from the state to the defendant and thus violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. Hennepin County Judge Kathryn Quaintance agreed, issuing a written opinion on September 6 that declared the critical provision of the new law unconstitutional. The charges still stand against Wallace, but a conviction looks much less likely. According to Ross Corson, a spokesman for the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, prosecutors are currently reviewing whether to even proceed with the case.

A flash of recognition crosses Will Grigsby's face as he leafs through a copy of The World of the American Pit Bull Terrier. "I learned a lot about the dogs by reading this book, a lot about bloodlines and where the pit pull came from," Grigsby says with a smile. The book, published in 1983, is probably the closest thing to a bible the modern dogman has—especially since so many of the underground journals have been put out of business. Its author, Richard Stratton, argues that dogfighting is a legitimate sport, one that is no worse than such socially sanctioned activities as hunting or modern animal agriculture. Like a lot of dogmen, Stratton has a preferred term for the activists who've worked so tirelessly to criminalize his sport: They are "humaniacs." Grigsby, a more taciturn sort, doesn't use that term. But, as befits the subject of one of the highest profile dog busts in Minnesota history, he also doesn't regard dogfighting as inherently cruel. "If you do it the right way, I don't see anything inhumane about it," Grigsby argues. "The dogs I had, man, they lived for it. If they got off the chain, they knew it was time to fight or it was time to work out. Either way, they'd go crazy. It was like, 'Pick me, pick me!'"

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