Sunday, October 31, 2010

The face of dog fighting

By Roger Bell, Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald

Animal control officer: ‘Pretty big problem’ for county

The pictures of dogs with mangled faces taken at the residence of Calvin Jerome Champion Oct. 19 have brought the issue of dog  fighting into focus for many in the Roanoke Valley. While Champion’s arrest on felony charges relating to dog fighting seems like an isolated incident to some, others say signs indicate dog fighting could be a large problem throughout the Roanoke Valley and perhaps the state.

“It’s a pretty big problem,” said Robert Richardson, animal control officer in Halifax County. “I’ve been doing this for 16 years, and it’s been a problem ever since I’ve been here — all over the county.”

Richardson said the central issue with dog fighting in the county is simply catching people doing the actual fighting, but from his perspective, there are signs this problem is widespread throughout Halifax County.

In the Champion arrest, approximately 30 pit bulls were found in his yard, some tethered with very heavy chains staked to the ground with half-buried axles. Some of the dogs did not have food or water.

Where are the dogs?

Around half the dogs were removed immediately, the rest were ordered by a magistrate to be found suitable, police-approved homes, a process Capt. Andy Jackson, head of investigations for the Roanoke Rapids police, said is ongoing.

Roanoke Rapids police have also contacted pit bull rescue agencies about helping place the dogs.

In the meantime, Jackson said the city’s animal control is conducting daily monitoring to ensure the remaining dogs are all right and Champion complies with the magistrate’s orders to not interact with the dogs.

Richardson said he sees scenes such as this in Brandy Creek frequently. He and his fellow animal control officers investigate yards with multiple pit bulls nearly every day, he said, but proving the dogs are being used for fighting is tough.

“You can’t file charges unless you find evidence,” Richardson said. “When we come out, we’re looking, but if we find cut up dogs, the owners will say they broke the chain.

“We might not believe it, but you have to have proof they’re fighting. We can’t prove they didn’t break the chain but we monitor it.”

One of the biggest problems, besides proof, is simply locating the trouble in the first place, Richardson said.

“They’re not going to keep them where anybody can see them from the road,” Richardson said. “They’re kept out of sight.”

Process of the fight

These scenes, multiple pit bulls in yards tethered with heavy chains, is one of the first steps toward getting them ready to fight, said John Goodwin, manager of Animal Fighting Issues for the Humane Society of the United States.

Goodwin said putting the dogs in the yard and neglecting them leads to the next period, where a fighting dog is selected and put into a six- to eight-week period called a “keep,” where the dog receives personal attention and training.

“They’re being neglected, neglected, neglected,” Goodwin said. “And then they’re getting a lot of attention.”

After the eight weeks are over, Goodwin said, it’s time for the dog to fight.

Richardson said this period where the dogs are being kept in the yard is when the problem is most likely to be discovered, but most of those who train these dogs to fight don’t keep additional evidence in the yard, so there’s little animal control can do without proof.

Finding actual dog fights, Richardson and Goodwin agree, is very difficult.

“It’s a network that not just anybody can get in,” Richardson said. “The dog fighting world to me is pretty much like the mafia. They don’t tell just anybody what they’re doing.”

Goodwin said these things happen in the shadows because dog fighting is a felony crime and it is something regular people despise.

Jackson said detecting dog fighting in rural areas is a challenge.

“dog fighting is easy to keep under wraps,” Jackson said.

“There’s no telling where these rings could pop up in rural settings, and, unless the community comes forward and gives information, it’s difficult to detect.”

Impact in the Roanoke Valley

Jackson said Roanoke Rapids does not have a widespread problem due to its urban layout, but rural areas are particularly vulnerable.

City Councilman Ed Liverman, who along with Councilman Greg Lawson represents Brandy Creek, said via e-mail he had not heard anything in the district about suspicious activity related to dog fighting prior to the Champion case. A message left with Lawson was not returned.

Northampton County Sheriff Wardie Vincent said his county has not shown a lot of issues with dog fighting.

“It has not come up frequently,” Vincent said. “But we are always looking for those kinds of activities and investigating any reporting of those activities.”

All involved seem to agree the public giving tips is vitally important to stopping dog fighting.

“If it weren’t for the public giving us information, we might not ever find them,” Richardson said.

Goodwin advises Valley residents in rural areas to be on the lookout for cars coming and going late at night or early morning, especially large groups of cars and out-of-town cars.

Richardson said North Carolina’s location in the middle of the east coast makes it an ideal setting for dog fighting rings because people can come from northern or southern coastal states to watch or participate in a fight, so watching for out-of-state vehicles is a good indication this type of activity is happening, as well.

Goodwin thinks, with public support, the war against dog fighting can be won.

“I think it’s a winnable fight for decent people,” he said. “It’s something we can eradicate.”

Anyone with information on dog fighting in Halifax County can call Halifax County Crime-stoppers at 252-583-4444. Those in Northampton County can call North-ampton County Crime-stoppers at 252-534-1110.

The Humane Society of the United States also has a tip line and they offer cash rewards of up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone for animal fighting.

That number is 1-877-TIP-HSUS.

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