By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
At 10:48 on a late August night in 2003, a dispatcher at the Chisago County Sheriff's Department received a panicky phone call. The woman, who refused to identify herself, said she was in fear for her life. After that, the line went dead. The call was traced to a rural property in Sunrise Township, a remote spot wedged between Interstate 35 and the St. Croix Wild River State Park, some 50 miles north of the Twin Cities. The first three deputies at the scene noted a suspiciously large cluster of cars parked along the quarter-mile driveway leading to the main residence. Immediately, one of the deputies called for backup from the North Branch Police Department. The assembled clutch of officers then made their way to the main residence. Outside the house, there were three chained, agitated dogs—two Rottweilers and a pit bull. Cautiously circling the wooded lot, the investigators walked up to a large pole barn. Through an open door, they could see a crowd of 50 to 75 people. There was cheering and repeated shouts of "Get him! Get him!" As one deputy later put it: "We backed off and requested assistance from further law enforcement as we still didn't know what was going on."
Not long afterward, Steve Pouti, a supervisor with the sheriff's department, drove up from Taylors Falls. Outside the main residence, according to Pouti's report, he encountered a man who identified himself as the homeowner, 59-year-old Tommie Lee McClellan. McClellan claimed to have no idea what was happening in his barn. Pouti then told McClellan about the phone call from the woman who said her life was in danger and asked for permission to enter the pole barn to investigate. McClellan agreed, according to the report, and so, with guns drawn, Pouti and eight other cops entered the barn. After announcing their presence, they witnessed a spectacle few police officers, humane investigators, or other outsiders ever see: an organized dogfight.
"I was pretty shocked," Pouti recalls. "And the people around the fighting ring were shocked too, because they had no idea law enforcement was around. They were all just totally fixated on the fight." At the order of the cops, most of the spectators dropped to the ground, where they were placed in plastic flex cuffs. About a dozen people, meanwhile, crawled through a gap under a sliding door and fled into the woods. Most were captured or surrendered in the following hours. The two dogs in the makeshift pit were oblivious to all the commotion. Like any game dog (in the parlance of the dogman, "gameness" refers to lust for battle), the two pits remained locked in combat. It was, Pouti recalls, somewhat eerie. "They weren't making any noise. They were just chewing on each other like little machines," he says. "At that point, I asked whose dogs they were. Of course, nobody would answer. So I told the homeowner to separate the dogs. He said 'They're not my dogs.' I said, 'I don't care. Separate them.' So basically, he just went in there and kicked them apart." After that, the bloodied dogs were taken into custody by Chisago Lakes Animal Control. And as is almost always the case when authorities gain custody of pit bulls known to have been used for fighting, the animals were soon put to death.
In the end, the investigators charged two men at the scene with felony animal fighting: a 49-year-old Minneapolis resident named Neal Burton, who admitted to owning one of the combatants, and the property owner, McClellan. To this day, McClellan insists he didn't know what was going on in his pole barn that night and that he has no interest in dogfighting. "I don't know anything about that world myself. I'm really just a coon hunter," he offers by way of explanation. "But I ran into some guys, they seemed to be pretty nice guys, and they said they wanted to come up to exercise their dogs. So I just got caught in some bull crap that I shouldn't have been involved in and, man, I paid the price."
Investigators were never able to locate the owner of the other combatant dog or discover anything about his identity aside from his moniker: "Rat." (Nor did they ever solve the mystery of the initial 911 call from the frightened woman.) Still, by the standards of dogfighting investigations in Minnesota, the Chisago County case was a colossal success, resulting in two felony convictions—Burton and McClellan were each fined $500 and placed on five years' probation—and 39 misdemeanor citations for attending a dogfight. In the past decade, there have been just 64 animal-fighting convictions in Minnesota. But those modest numbers have less to do with the popularity of the practice than the inherent difficulty of penetrating an insular, secretive subculture. When police do stumble onto a dog case, it's usually the product of either pure luck or a separate investigation, into drugs, loud parties, or—as in the Sunrise Township case—a domestic violence call.
Cruising the streets of north Minneapolis in his Crown Victoria, Keith Streff looks like a cop out of central casting. He's a fit, middle-aged white guy. Short-cropped hair. Square jaw. He wears a brown and tan uniform with a gold badge and a sidearm. On this pleasant autumnal day, he's on the prowl for signs of fighting dogs. As he rolls down a side street in the Jordan neighborhood, he spots three hard-looking black kids. There are no dogs in sight, but one of the kids is puffing on a joint. With a crease of a smile, Streff pulls to the curb. "Want to jack these guys up?" he asks, before rolling down the passenger window and shouting out: "Hey, you shouldn't smoke in the street." The kid looks surprised, sizes up Streff's colors, and appears to swallow the roach. Only then does he seem to take note of the fact that whoever Streff is, he's not a Minneapolis cop. His expression flattens and he says, "Okay." Streff appears amused.
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."
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."
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.
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!'"
Grigsby, a 36-year-old native of St. Paul, is best known for his career as a professional boxer. In 1998, when he won the International Boxing Federation's junior flyweight title, he became the first Minnesotan to hold a major belt since World War I. Grigsby got into boxing when he was about 12 years old, when he wandered into the now-defunct Inner City Youth Gym. It was a good spot for a city kid like him to find an outlet for his aggressions. But boxing was not the only blood sport young Grigsby was drawn to. Living on a tough stretch of Selby Avenue, Grigsby saw plenty of pits while growing up. "A lot of my friends had dogs. I had pit bulls since I was 9 or 10 years old," he says. He says his first dog was a variant of the pit bull called an American Staffordshire terrier. Grigsby got the dog from former St. Paul cop Clem Tucker, a prominent figure in Minnesota boxing circles, who most recently appeared in the news following his guilty plea in a high-publicity drug bust.
At the outset, Grigsby was like a lot of young city kids—the so-called wannabes—who are drawn to the breed. He liked their rough looks and intense loyalty, and how those qualities reflected on him. "In the neighborhoods, people think the pit bull is part of us. You're tough because it's tough," he says. "I would take my dog around the neighborhoods, just to test him out, let the dogs fight in the alley. I always used to crush Minneapolis people."
As it turned out, Grigsby progressed in the dog game even more quickly than in boxing. A craftsman in the ring (he is currently training for yet another title shot), Grigsby still takes pride in his past career as a dogman. He claims he respected the sport and adhered to its most important protocols. He notes that, when walking his dogs, he always carried a breaking stick—a wooden, wedge-shaped tool dogmen use to pry open a pit's jaws. "You know," he explains, "there's nothing worse than not having a breaking stick when your dog's got a poodle in its mouth."
Grigsby's ascent from casual street fighter to professional was a matter of luck as much as anything. It began with his acquisition of a female pit he named Simba. "I went to this guy's house, he had a five-dog litter of pups and she came right up to me, grabbed my pant leg," Grigsby recalls. "I knew right then and there I wanted her." Grigsby, who was 16 at the time, paid $600 for the dog. It proved to be a good investment. Over the years, he matched Simba nine times and she only lost once. If it had been a boxing match, there would have been an asterisk next to that loss. "I put her in with a dog that was bigger. After 45 minutes, I saw there was no way she was going to beat that dog," he says. "So I picked her up. It was just one of those times, when you say, Okay, she's had enough. A dog's like a boxer. You can't win every fight." Indeed, in the world of dogmen, a five-time winner is referred to as a Grand Champ. That status adds greatly to a dog's value for breeding. Not surprisingly, Simba's successes attracted the attention of other, higher-level dogmen. One old-timer, whom Grigsby declines to identify by name, soon assumed the role of mentor. He introduced Grigsby to the inner circles and taught him rudimentary veterinary skills, such as how to stitch wounds, administer antibiotics, even use stimulants.
Once Grigsby broke into the upper echelon, he was surprised by the breadth of people involved: "White people, black, people, Vietnamese, drug dealers, gang members, rappers, professional athletes." In fact, Grigsby is far from the only professional athlete to wind up in the headlines because of dogfighting charges. Basketball and football players have also been involved in dog busts in recent years. Investigator Keith Streff says he spent a fair amount of time unsuccessfully pursuing a case against a former Timberwolf. The rapper DMX, whose videos and lyrics celebrate dogfighting, pleaded guilty to charges of animal cruelty after 13 pit bulls were seized during a 1999 raid at his home.
As Grigsby became more serious about his dogs, he found himself traveling more. He went as far as Oklahoma to attend a pit convention, an event that featured multiple fights and lasted three days. But generally, Grigsby's dogs fought in prearranged matches with a single bout, high stakes, and small crowds. Suspicion of infiltration was one constant. "You're usually checked at the door for weapons and tape recorders. But anything could happen," he says. When he picked up a bad vibe, Grigsby says, he'd fight his dog, collect his winnings, and get away as quickly as possible.
As time passed, Grigsby says, he became much more heavily involved in breeding, using Simba as his "base dog." Like a lot of the things Grigsby has done in both the ring and the pit, he regarded it as a business decision. In his experience, purses from matches ranged from as little as $50 to as much as $10,000. But, he says, he could make more money with less risk by breeding. Simba alone had nine litters; he sold the pups for $500 to $1,500 apiece. At one point, Grigsby adds, he had 35 dogs in his yard. By the time he was finally busted, Grigsby insists he was entirely out of the fighting end of the business.
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.
Much of what she heard and saw defied her expectations. Like the Chisago County deputy at the Sunrise Township raid, she was amazed at how quiet the dogs were while fighting. But the most surprising thing, she says, was how normal the spectators and principal participants seemed. In fact, Evans notes, many of the participants were middle-class businessmen—a phenomenon she attributes to the considerable expense of maintaining top-level fighting dogs. Befitting that social status, there was considerable adherence to code and protocol.
When one of the younger participants lit a joint during one match, Evans recalls, he was reprimanded. "The older guys said, 'That's disgraceful, smoking at the pit. The dogs won't be able to breathe the way they should be able to." For Evans, the other big surprise was the relatively low level of mortality she witnessed. In the course of 13 matches, she says, she saw just three dogs killed. Mainly, she figures, that was because owners wanted to save prize dogs if it appeared they were obviously going to lose. (John Goodwin, of the Humane Society, points out that deaths from dogfighting often come later, after the match, and adds that a lot of puppies that don't make the grade for fighting are used as "bait" dogs to train the real fighters, or are summarily dumped and left for dead.)
In the end, Evans co-authored four scholarly papers on dogfighting, concerning both its contemporary variations and its history. In the essay "Entertainment to Outrage: A Social Historical View of Dog Fighting," she traces the origins of the sport to the English practice of bull-baiting, in which bulldogs were set loose on livestock. At the time, Evans says, people believed the practice would help tenderize the meat. "In 17th Century England," Evans writes, "it was illegal to slaughter a bull without first baiting it against a dog. [But] while the spectacles may have arisen to serve vital functions, they quickly progressed from utility to sport." Over time, such baiting sports, including the even older practice of bear-baiting, evolved into an important form of popular entertainment, one that was governed by royalty and enjoyed by the masses.
The initial backlash against such spectacles came from the church. The objection had less to do with any notion about animal abuse, Evans notes, than "the fact that bear and bull baiting were being practiced on Sundays and therefore people were not attending church." In England, all baiting sports were outlawed in 1835. Because dogfighting could be conducted more furtively and cheaply than bull- or bear-baiting, it increasingly became the pastime of the underclass. So when the wave of poor immigrants from England and Ireland came to the U.S. during the 1800s, they brought bulldogs with them. Dogfights (and cockfights) soon emerged as a popular form of entertainment in city bars, especially in the main port of entry, New York. As in England, reformers pushed to outlaw dogfighting. In 1867, the New York Legislature banned all animal fighting. As a practical matter, the crusade served to drive the practice out of the city and into the hinterlands, most notably to the states of the American South, where it took root most deeply.
As the sport's popularity grew, fanciers established formal rules for matches. Breeders also began experimenting with bloodlines, mixing bulldogs and rat terriers. This ultimately led to the development of the dog that is now almost exclusively used for fighting in this country, the American pit bull terrier. (In other countries with dogfighting traditions, other breeds are used. In China, there is the Shar Pei—tenacious, loose skinned animals that are often referred to as the Chinese fighting dog, while Japanese dogmen prefer the Tosa—enormous beasts that engage in a peculiar, sumo-like style of combat.) American dogmen like to boast that no breed, large or small, is a match for a game-bred pit bull. With its unrivaled biting power, lowered inhibitions, and freakish tolerance for pain, the gamest pit bull can beat the best of any other breed.
Given the sorry state of their current reputation, it's hard to believe that pit bulls were America's favorite dog for much of the 20th century. In World War I, a bull terrier mix named Sergeant Stubby was smuggled across the Atlantic aboard the USS Minnesota by a soldier who discovered the dog wandering loose in New Haven. Embedded in the trenches with the 102nd Infantry, Sergeant Stubby earned acclaim for alerting his unit to impending gas attacks and incoming mortar fire; he was also credited with capturing a German spy. The most famous pit of all was the black-circle-eyed Pete of Little Rascals fame, who was registered as a Staffordshire terrier. But the pit bull's popular image as steadfast companion animal faded after World War II. The dogs were supplanted by breeds suddenly made fashionable by movies and TV: collies (Lassie), beagles (Snoopy), and Dalmatians (courtesy of Disney). In mainstream culture, the pit bull receded from view and into the underworld.
The American pit bull terrier is often confused with the similar-looking American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier. Even experts can't always tell them apart. All three are referred to colloquially as "pit bulls," and all three are powerful testaments to the efficacy of canine eugenics. Game-bred American pit bull terriers display a number of highly unusual characteristics. In combat, they don't bare their teeth or raise their hackles. And unlike most dogs, which will yield once dominance has been established, the game-bred pit will sustain astonishing physical punishment without submitting. The legendary Louisiana dogman Floyd Boudreaux celebrated the traits of the game dog in a bit of romantic doggerel: "He will not cower, he will not cry/For to be called a cur he would rather die/A cur and a fighter are not the same/A cur is a quitter, but a fighter is game."
If Floyd Boudreaux ever got a close look at Barney, he would surely deem him a cur. Barney, a 95-pound brindle, hides from cats, avoids puppies, and likes to gently press his muzzle against a stranger's crotch. He is a glutton for affection. Barney belongs to Rick Ruzicka, an affable 50-year-old Brooklyn Park resident who says God's purpose for him was to catch dogs. Ruzicka came across Barney two years ago while on duty in Maplewood. "I knew I wanted him as soon as I picked him up. He was just this big, goofy dog, oblivious to the world," Ruzicka recalls. As the owner of Animal Control Services Incorporated, Ruzicka has spent most of his professional life chasing dogs and cats.
He currently has contracts with 27 suburbs and small cities, mainly in the east metro, and estimates that he picks up about a thousand dogs a year. Over time, he's come into plenty of contact with pit bulls. Unlike Humane Society investigator Streff, Ruzicka developed a robust love for the breed. "They're very loyal," Ruzicka offers. "I'll tell you this, I get a lot more bites out of huskies, Akitas, and Chows." And he takes pains to dismiss some of the more popular misconceptions about the breed. "You hear things like, oh, pit bulls' jaws lock. Well, that's just bullshit." Like many of the pit's defenders—even dogmen like Will Grigsby—Ruzicka is fond of this mantra: It's not the dog, or the breed of dog. It's the owner.
After a long day of chasing futile leads, Ruzicka pilots his Ford Econoline van into the parking lot of his kennel in White Bear Township. He exchanges a few pleasantries with secretary and staff and then heads to a back room of the small, well-tended facility. There, in a pile of unspeakable cuteness sprawled out on a blanket, is a litter of pit bull pups. Ruzicka guesses they are six to eight weeks old. He found them behind a woodshed in a remote spot in Columbus Township, not far from Forest Lake. "When I got there, the mother was already gone," Ruzicka recalls. So he loaded the animals in his van, brought them to the shop, and pondered what to do with them. In the end, Ruzicka says, he was able to pass the dogs on to a rescue group in which he had confidence.
But in the world of animal rescue, pit bulls present some unique problems. If there is any evidence that a pit has been fought, most shelters opt for the needle. Even absent such evidence, rescued pits are more likely than other dogs to be put down. To be sure, there are legitimate, liability-based arguments: What if a rescued pit attacks a child? And then there is always the fear that people who want to adopt pits might also want to fight them. While studies have shown that pit bulls are less likely to bite humans thans many other breeds, there is an extra measure of concern because of their capacity for inflicting severe damage. If you're far more likely to be bitten by a poodle or a spaniel (and you are), you're also more likely to be killed by a pit.
That said, human deaths resulting from dog attacks are an extremely rare phenomenon in the United States. As the journalist Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in an article on the subject of profiling, pit bulls have fared remarkably well on tests designed to measure temperament. In a sample pool of some 1,000 pit bulls in a test administered by the Georgia-based American Temperament Test Society, for instance, 84 percent of the pits "passed." That, Gladwell writes, places the breed "ahead of beagles, Airedales, bearded collies, and all but one variety of dachshund."
But a high batting average doesn't usually count for much in the world of the abandoned or rescued pit bull. An especially pitiful spectacle played out this past August in the loading dock at the Humane Society of Golden Valley. There were 44 dogs there, almost all of them pits or pit mixes. The animals had been seized from a Sibley County woman who was running a "no-kill" pit rescue operation out of her home. According to Wade Hanson, an investigator with the Humane Society for Companion Animals, the conditions were beyond deplorable. The animals were stacked in travel crates three high. The air was all but unbreathable. "The ammonia smell was overwhelming, so a few of us had to get out of the house so we wouldn't pass out," Hanson said. It was, both Hanson and Streff agreed, an all-too-common story: a good-intentions-gone-bad saga in which private rescue efforts morphed into something that more closely resembled pathological hoarding.
For workers at the Humane Society, the provenance of the majority of the animals was a mystery. That presented a problem. So, amid a deafening chorus of barking and yelping, a team of vet techs and Humane Society employees set about examining the animals. Some were obviously in poor health—half-starved, diseased, or covered with lesions. None bore the telltale scarring that would suggest a history of fighting. One by one, the dogs were taken from their crates, given a cursory health examination, and tested for temperament.
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.