reality of dog fighting
it was just the gangs running dog fights, the cops could ignore
it. But now children are doing it, cheering on dogs in fights
to the death in alleys and empty lots. Dog fighting has become
a "pervasive poison," officials say, and its victims
are not only the dogs. Children are growing up on a blood sport.
The potential for damage to their hearts and minds is frightening.
an animal welfare official visited a fourth-grade classroom on
the West Side recently, he asked the kids, "Who has seen
a dog fight?"
hand shot up.
don't mean Molly slipping out of the yard," he said.
every hand shot up.
only one Chicago police officer--Sgt. Steve Brownstein--works
full time on the problem. Since May 1999, Brownstein has seized
700 dogs and made 200 arrests. He has had bricks thrown at him,
been picketed and has alienated a number of fellow officers. They
call him "Dogman."
dogs are taken from airless garages, from abandoned apartments,
from dark basements. Already a crowd is gathering. The
dogs have heavy chains on their necks and deep, untreated
gashes on their legs and faces.
circle forms--lots of children. Bets are taken. The dogs
are kicked or "bumped"--slammed together to
get them going. Usually that's all it takes. The dogs
bite and rip each other, snarling, spattering blood. The
crowd cheers, shouts encouragement. Sometimes the dogs
are separated by a pry bar, to prolong the fight. Eventually
one is the victor and the other, if it is lucky, dead.
Money changes hands.
happens every day in Chicago, and also frequently in the suburbs
and Downstate. What started out as a recreation and gambling sport
among gang members has spread to the larger community, with even
young children raising stray dogs and fighting them in such numbers
that officials call it "an epidemic."
definitely getting worse," said Catherine Hedges, shelter
supervisor of Chicago's Fury Friends Foundation. "I see abuse
from dog fighting on an almost daily basis. Nearly every day a
volunteer comes back from walking a pit bull to say somebody approached
them and said: `How much do you want for that dog?' They think
he would make a good fighter. They don't want the dog as a pet.
They don't want to take it to the park and play. They want it
as a fighter."
dog fights is a felony, but cases are difficult to prove.
Dogs can't testify, and police officers, already overburdened
by the relentless crush of crime against humans, do not
put a high priority on trying to solve them.
one: Sgt. Steve Brownstein, a 46-year-old officer who
wages a one-man crusade against the abuse of animals,
particularly dogs, particularly dogs that are forced to
fight and kill each other.
has seized 700 animals since May 1999, and made 200 arrests. Operating
out of the public housing unit at 51st and Wentworth, he strolls
through the projects, chatting with residents, about rumors of
dogfights and animal hidden in basements. Holding a flashlight,
he crunches through the gloomy rubble of abandoned apartments,
looking for chained dogs guarding drug stashes.
has seen a lot.
beat these animals," he said. "They feed them
hot peppers. Feed them gunpowder. Lock them in small closets.
They do everything they can to make these animals vicious
said trainers will starve dogs, then throw a piece of
meat between them and have the dogs kill each other for
it. They'll put heavy weights on the animals to build
up their strength. When there is a dogfight, if the wounded
dog does not die, they will throw it alive on a garbage
dump or leave it in a vacant lot or apartment to die a
more fortunate dogs are the ones that die during the fight instead
of after the fight," he said.
will set dogs on fire when they lose a fight, or something worse.
"I've had dog fighters tell me, including teenagers, they're
angry at a dog if it loses a fight, they want it to suffer, that's
why they leave it locked in a closet to die a slow death of its
has seen children snap the necks of puppies, and it is the dehumanizing
effect that such violence has on children that worries him most.
He remembers one 12-year-old boy, "Speedy," who he first
met when he impounded the boy's dog for fighting, and next heard
of after the boy had raped a 7-year-old girl. The two events are
not unconnected in Brownstein's view.
think that when a child enjoys the suffering of an animal, has
no empathy and compassion, it becomes very easy for that same
child to grow into a teenager and adult who can inflict pain upon
fellow humans and still have no empathy or compassion."
his humanitarian zeal, Brownstein has made a lot of enemies. Top
police brass work to undermine him and some of his fellow officers
call him "Dogman" and "Gomer Pyle," for his
awkward, flapping manner.
those whose dogs he has seized are his fiercest critics, picketing
Brownstein and peppering him with official complaints.
gone crazy," said dog trainer Walter Ward, who had his dogs
seized this summer by Brownstein. "He does good, but he does
a lot of wrong. . . . Someone has to stop him."
Brownstein's allies admit that he is a man on a mission.
a driven individual, and at times that can be his undoing,"
said Dr. Gene Mueller, president of the Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society,
which just named Brownstein its Humanitarian of the Year. "He's
drowning in these reports [of abuse]. How can we expect him to
follow up on them all? It's impossible. People say this is all
Steve Brownstein, but it's so much larger, and has to be tackled.
He needs more assistance, more resources."
is a Class 4 felony that could, in theory, bring three years in
prison. Even witnessing a dogfight is a misdemeanor. But felony
dog fighting prosecutions are rare: there have been just nine
in Cook County in the past two years.
so common. You continually hear calls about dog fighting on the
radio. But the attitude is: `They're expendable; who cares?' "
said a police officer in the Deering police district on the South
Side. "The state's attorney will not approve felony charges
for dog fighting."
state's attorney's office said it is aware of the problem and
doing all it can.
people doing it are becoming more bold," said John Gorman,
a spokesman for the Cook County state's attorney's office. "It
is moving out of the basements and into the parking lots and empty
lots. More dogs are being killed and maimed, and when these cases
are brought to us, we prosecute them as best we can."
many police officers are not aware of the felony dogfighting law,
even though it has been on the books for more than a decade, said
Mueller, the former head of the city's Animal Care and Control
have been less than a handful of prosecuted cases," said
Mueller. "Because animal welfare laws are contained within
agricultural law--an archaic, infrequently used part of the code--the
police officer on the street, the reviewing desk sergeant, the
state's attorney at the district, didn't recognize the criminal
is not that police are unsympathetic. Many officers in inner-city
neighborhoods have stories of grim encounters with dogs abused
I was a lieutenant, I worked on a tactical team and went on narcotics
raids," said Lt. Nick Rotti of the Calumet district on the
Far South Side. "We'd come across dogs . . . it's heartbreaking
to see the things that are done to them. I've seen dogs on raids,
they leave them chained in these abandoned buildings or basements
where they hide their drug stash. I've actually seen the skeleton
of a dog chained to a pole in a basement. The dog just starved
to death. They left it there to lie dead."
bigger problem, police say, is building a felony case.
have to keep in mind, without admissions and without facts to
support it, it's very difficult to get that felony upgrade,"
said Pat Camden, a spokesman for the police department. "When
the facts support a felony, the state's attorney's office has
been more than cooperative."
lack of statistics on dog fighting is one sign of how recently
officials have come to understand the severity of the problem.
Only last year did the city began keeping track of emergency calls
regarding animals. So far this year, 1,764 complaints of animal
abuse have come into 911--triple the rate of last year--with another
2,061 complaints of "inhuman treatment" of animals to
done community education, tried to help people see the relationship
between animal abuse and interpersonal violence," said Ted
O'Keefe, director 311 City Services. "We've come to an awareness
that this is a problem, not just in terms of animals, but a problem
that can have an impact on our children as well."
concern for dog fighting is growing not out of heightened sympathy
for the dogs, but from a recognition that violence against animals
can lead directly to violence against humans.
is a child welfare issue," said Brownstein. "I do hear,
from people, that this is about animals. `People are shooting
each other and this is about dogs.' My response is that in addition
to the fact that this is extremely cruel to the animals, it is
a fact that when children and teenagers become desensitized and
sometimes actually enjoy the sufferings of animals it then becomes
a small step for them to commit violence toward their fellow human
said he did not fully understand the impact of dog fighting on
children until a chilling encounter as principal for a day at
a West Side magnet school.
was in a fourth grade classroom--10-year-olds, 11-year-olds--and
the subject came up," he said. "I said, `Let's talk
about dog fighting. Who has seen dog fighting?' Every hand shot
up. I said, `I don't mean Molly slipping out of the yard.' Every
hand. It was unanimous. The kids said it happens all the time,
in the alleys."
remembers in particular four boys in the class.
four little boys--10-year-old boys--said that this was so exciting,
that there was nothing as exciting in their neighborhood. This
is not a violent video game. These children are seeing in first
person this incredible cruelty. . . . This is not the cause of
violence, but we have this terrible, unrecognized poison in many
neighborhoods in Chicago that our children are being exposed to."
than a child witnessing a strange dog in a fight, Mueller said,
is when it is a dog that the child has learned to love, usually
while the adults are waiting for it to grow old enough to fight.
bulls are used for currency--someone will give a pit bull puppy
instead of $20," said Mueller. "They'll raise the puppy.
Build trust, and over the course of a year, the dog grows and
gets bigger. Then the person in charge of the family--the dad,
the cousin--says, `We're going to fight it.' They take it out
in the alley to fight. You can imagine these children having this
animal they may have developed love and empathy for, out in the
alley. All the other neighbors are there. They're cheering. They're
screaming. The whole neighborhood. One of the animals loses, which
itself is a terrible tragedy. But then there are these 10-year-old
fighting is a particular problem in the city, but it is certainly
not limited to urban areas. Earlier this year, Brownstein consulted
Elgin police on dog fighting after officers began receiving complaints.
don't think there is any part of the state that doesn't have some
form of dog fighting," said Officer Chuck Thomas, a 16-year
veteran of Joliet Township Animal Control. "What police run
into most are the backyard fights. But there's also big money
in it. It's organized. There are professional fighting rings all
over. It's very, very hard [to crack down on]."
the problem is the difficulty of locating, never mind gathering
evidence on, a dog fight, fleeting encounters which are either
hidden from view or easily dispersed at the glimpse of a squad
last week, Chicago police Officer Lyteshia Gunn, responding to
a report of a dog fight in the 10100 block of South Lafayette,
saw a group of neighbors gathered around two teenage boys, each
holding a pit bull on a leash.
the time she pulled over and got out of her car, the group had
scattered. Soon Brownstein and half a dozen other officers were
on the scene, which was spread over a block. At the center were
two bloodied pit bulls.
long have you had these dogs for?" Brownstein asked some
men nearby. "You know there was a fight going on."
was telling. The matter took almost a half hour to sort out. Two
men were handcuffed and put in a squad car, and two teens, 13
and 14, claiming ownership of the dogs, were also arrested.
don't know nothing about no dog fight," said one of the boys,
who said his dog had no name. "I just call it `girl."'
Asked about the wounds and the fresh blood glistening on the dog's
legs, the boy said: "That ain't blood."
officers stood watching Brownstein conduct the investigation.
get calls on this constantly. It's a daily thing," said Chicago
police officer Larry Dotson. "By the time we arrive, unfortunately,
the dogs are already gone. Or they'll leave the loser, maimed,
as we arrive."
least one of Brownstein's superiors described Brownstein as a
"loose cannon." But his most vocal critics tend to be
the people he has arrested.
of them, Doris Blumenberg, of the 10800 block of South Parnell,
said Brownstein kicked open a door in a business where she works
and seized six dogs without cause.
are so many complaints on this man, it's incredible," she
said. "How long has he been doing this? . . . He only takes
blacks' and Hispanics' dogs."
claims she is not a trainer and was not responsible for the dogs.
But in court she pleaded guilty of cruelty to animals. And her
neighbor said she has personally seen her hauling dead dogs out
to the garbage.
was fighting these dogs," said Bernadette Lewis, 31. "She
was supposedly training them, but she would leave the dogs in
the basement, all the windows boarded up, no air, no food, no
water. They were just in there dying. They were eating each other,
and all the dead dogs she would put them in garbage bags put them
in garbage cans at the side of my house and leave them there for
weeks at a time."
stench was almost unbearable, Lewis said.
a money thing," she said. "They bet. We saw it plenty
of times. These dogs, all they want is for someone to love 'em
and care for 'em. They're not asking to be abused. They don't
want nobody to abuse them. It's a shame. It really is a shame."
Brownstein's obsessive manner turns some off, others see beyond
to what he is trying to do.
social skills aren't the best," said Hedges, from the Fury
Friends Foundation. "But he is doing the right thing. He
definitely is not crazy, definitely not a menace. Everyone thinks
he's the bad guy, but he's risking his life to try to end the
No. 1 form of abuse toward these animals. The police department
should be supporting him."
the police department stands behind Brownstein. Recently, after
several months of working alone, he was assigned a new partner.
we don't think he's crazy," said Camden. "We think he's
very dedicated to what he's doing and takes a personal interest."
is not something that exists solely in Steve Brownstein's head;
I wish it was," said Mueller, who calls dogfighting "an
epidemic." "The terrible reality, I can tell you, after
being at Animal Control for many years, is this is a pervasive
poison in almost all the wards in the city of Chicago. This is
not a black issue, not a white issue, not a Hispanic issue. All
types, all creeds, are fighting animals out there. They do it
for gambling. They do it for fun. It's a terrible problem."