Public Enemy Number One

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

For years, Streff had suspected that Grigsby was big-time. In April 2000, Streff received a formal complaint from an unnamed informant claiming Grigsby was keeping a stable of fighting dogs on a rural property the boxer shared with his then-girlfriend. Streff decided to poke around. On his initial visit, Streff noted 10 pit bulls and two Rotts chained outside the residence. A few days later, the same informant called again, this time reporting that the girlfriend was pressing a domestic violence complaint against Grigsby and was now willing to grant Streff full access to the property. The following day, Streff, accompanied by two Sherburne County deputies, searched the residence. Streff rounded up 13 pit bulls, the two Rotts, and about a dozen piranhas. According to Streff, some of the dogs showed signs of having been fought recently. There was plenty of other evidence as well, including a blood-spattered boxing ring, assorted paraphernalia, and a videotape of dogfights. All the animals were seized and, not long afterward, put to death.

Grigsby denies that he was still fighting dogs at the time of the raid. The tape, he says, consisted of video shot by a friend years before, then given to him as a birthday present. "I always told him, 'Man, you shouldn't be recording this shit,'" Grigsby says. Despite the considerable evidence, Grigsby was never convicted on a felony animal-fighting charge. Under a so-called Alford plea (in which a defendant concedes there is enough evidence to convict but doesn't admit wrongdoing), he pleaded out to a misdemeanor charge of animal neglect. His biggest regret about the episode, he says, was the death of Simba. By then, he says, she was a family pet, the one dog he professed to feel deeply for, the dog he had "given" to his three children.

Grigsby has disdain for many of his fellow dogmen, especially the younger, less experienced ones who don't follow established protocols. "It is wrong for some people to own these dogs. Pit bulls are a dangerous animal," he declares. "A lot of these kids today have a basement full of dogs. I just don't think that's right." But Grigsby still regards dogfighting as a legitimate sport; he boxes in the ring, they fight in the pit. He says he now stays away only because of the legal risks. "It will always be a part of me. If I ever get another dog it would be a pit bull. I like the personality too much. They're loyal dogs. They do what you tell them to. And if you raise 'em right, they're the best dogs you can have." Despite all the legal and public relations troubles that dogged him in the wake of his arrests, Grigsby professes little regret. "Those dogs put food on my table and clothes on my kids' backs," he says. "I made a pretty penny off 'em."

Grigsby acknowledges that not all his dogs would make for decent pets. But he says none of them ever bit a person. The one time he came across a man-biter, he says, he responded as generations of dogmen before him have, summarily removing the animal from the gene pool. The dog that bit him, Grigsby explains, belonged to a cousin who left it in Grigsby's yard. When Grigsby placed a bowl of food before the animal, the animal snapped. "So I called my cousin and asked, 'Why do you have this people-biter on my property?'" Grigsby recalls, with a smile that bears a trace of the indignant. "So then I went and got my best dog—Thunder or Rumbo, I don't remember which—and I just set him loose. It killed that dog pretty quick. At first, my cousin was mad when I told him. But I let him pick up another puppy. He was cool with that."

For much of her professional career, Rhonda Evans has devoted her energies to studying various forms of social deviance. Recently, she has focused on people involved in the world of Medicare fraud. But as a budding sociologist and undergraduate, Evans got her start in a seemingly very different area of research: the world of professional dogfighting. Police, humane investigators, and journalists all complain about how difficult it is to penetrate the realm of the dogmen. Sometimes such efforts can have disastrous consequences. In the early '90s, one Denver TV reporter, Wendy Bergen, was so frustrated by her inability to "get inside" that she hired a dogman to stage a fight. Her efforts provided some eye-popping footage for a four-part, sweeps-week investigative series. But after the ruse was uncovered, Bergen lost her job, got convicted of three felonies, and was fined $20,000.

Rhonda Evans had an important advantage over Bergen and many others who have attempted in vain to penetrate the pit: A native of Louisiana—the epicenter of organized dogfighting in America—Evans was related to an elite dogman. With him vouching for her, she gained near-unfettered access to the high end of the sport. Over a two-year period, Evans attended 14 formal matches and conducted extensive interviews with 31 dogmen. As far as she knows, she is the only academic researcher to have penetrated the world.

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