Public Enemy Number One

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

The proceedings were remarkably quick. Twenty of the animals were taken to larger holding cells. The other 24 were placed back in their crates and hauled to a separate part of the loading dock. Those animals, it had been determined, would be euthanized. The fate of the remaining dogs was undecided; they were not pardoned so much as granted a temporary stay of execution. With very rare exceptions, the Animal Humane Society does not offer pits or pit mixes for adoption. Perhaps they could be adopted out by some other rescue organization. In investigator Streff's view, there seemed to be little point to that. Why feed and house potentially problematic dogs when the shelters are already brimming with more adoptable animals? Why risk exposing the dogs to a future as fighters or bait animals?

Dogfighting has no defenders outside its own insular confines. The inherent cruelty of pitting animal against animal is hard to ignore. As sociologist Evans points out, dogmen rationalize their participation by claiming that the animals are expressing their nature in combat, that they enjoy the fight. Of course, all those instincts are the product of selective breeding and training.

Still, the vehemence of society's collective condemnation of dogfighting does raise larger questions about the exploitation of animals by humans. There is a huge spectrum of animal suffering in modern society. Dogfighting, despite its popularity within various subcultures, represents a tiny sliver of that suffering. Which raises the question: Why the vehement outrage and nearly universal condemnation of the practice? Does it serve as some sort of moral inoculation against our collective culpability for the brutalization of other animals? Consider the confinement facilities where pigs—smarter animals than dogs and, by that crude measure, more deserving of our sympathy—are raised for slaughter without ever seeing the light of day, without contact, without affection of any sort. Is the behavior of the corporate pig farmer inherently morally superior to that of a professional dogman with a well-tended yard?

And what of chickens? Under Minnesota law, cockfighting is, legally, the equivalent of dogfighting. It is true that the life of a Thai fighting cock usually ends brutally and painfully. But, as Burkhard Bilger points out in his excellent essay, "Enter the Chicken," the fighting cock's life is hardly as awful as that of the commercially produced broiler chicken: "The average broiler chicken lives for six weeks, wing to wing with tens of thousands of others. These gamecocks, by contrast, typically lived for two to three years. And they lived like pashas...if the birds went a little stir crazy, the trainers might even bring around some nice, plump pullets [young hens] to calm them down."

Back in his office, Streff keeps photographic souvenirs of nature outings. He grew up on a dairy farm in central Minnesota. While vehemently opposed to dogfighting, Streff—like most Minnesotans—regards hunting as an acceptable form of recreation. To Will Grigsby, who fought and raised pits for nearly half his life, hunting seems like the real atrocity. "To me, going out and shooting an innocent animal in the woods, well, that's just not right," Grigsby says. Of course, that's just one dogman's perspective.

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