WASHINGTON–It's a disturbing narrative, the 19-page indictment of football star Michael Vick and three of his friends. Perhaps the details shocked people unfamiliar with the secretive world of illegal dogfighting: the breeding and training of pit bulls for savage, high-stakes combat and the brutal executions of dogs that failed to measure up.
Dogs shot, hanged, drowned, beaten, electrocuted. An awful story.
Yet to animal-welfare workers, the ugly particulars were far from surprising. They said the dogfighting subculture is deeply entrenched in the United States. And in that shadowy realm, they said, the sort of business allegedly conducted on property owned by Vick in rural Surry County, Va., has been going on for generations, especially in the rural South.
"For us, the Vick case has had tremendous value," said Jeff Dorson, a Louisiana Humane Society official. "We've been trying to tell the public how typical this is, how widespread it is, the horrors the animals go through. It's opened the curtain so everyone can see what's going on."
Vick, quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons and a former Virginia Tech all-American, is scheduled to plead guilty Monday to dogfighting-related offences, with federal guidelines calling for a prison term in the range of 12 to 18 months, according to his attorneys and sources familiar with the case. His co-defendants have pleaded guilty.
The blood sport goes on.
"Dog men," they call themselves, the untold numbers of breeders and fighters. With their pastime illegal everywhere in the country, they stay in touch through secret networks and underground magazines. They say they love to compete. They tell themselves the pit bulls love it, too.
"The reason for the Michael Vick thing ... is because athletes have a keen insight into courage and determination, which is what pit bulls possess," said Bill Stewart, a breeder in Romance, Ark., who publishes the Pit Bull Reporter.
"Athletes understand better than anyone what dogfighting is about. It's about two highly conditioned athletes going at each other with everything they have to try to win. It's the purest form of combat on Earth."
To dog men, all dogs are curs except the American pit bull terrier, descended from canines used in English blood sport centuries ago.
Animal-protection workers and others who have infiltrated the underworld of pit bull fighting say dog men train their animals for weeks before bouts, perverting the dietary and fitness sciences to build ferocious canine maulers.
They perform unlicensed veterinary surgery on the grievously wounded and stud their battle-scarred champs, often for fees in the hundreds of dollars. A pit bull in its prime with a string of victories can fetch $10,000 (U.S.) or more. To save on upkeep and preserve the breed, weaklings are destroyed, either painlessly or with a vengeance.
The illegal bouts, in carpeted 4.8-metre by 4.8-metre pits surrounded by 1.2-metre walls, are staged in hidden venues, usually with no more than a few dozen spectators allowed. Elaborate, decades-old rules are followed. Bets are posted in cash, sometimes five figures. Afterward, dog men tend to their pit bulls' injuries, provided the animals fought gamely. They won't tolerate dogs that quit.
Young pit bulls that survive training become "match dogs," weighing 16 to 25 kilograms and fighting in weight classes. With a pile of cash riding on the outcome, a regulation match is officiated by a referee. A typical bout lasts 45 minutes to an hour, usually ending when one of the bloodied combatants is too torn and gouged to go on.
Dog men have too much invested in their animals to let them fight to the death, so fatalities in the pit are rare. But grave, disfiguring wounds are the norm.
"At the top level, there are probably several thousand guys," said John Goodwin, the national Humane Society's manager of animal-fighting issues.
"When you include the guys who are part of organized dogfighting but don't have quite as sophisticated an operation as we saw in Surry County, we're talking about upwards of 40,000."
The July 17 indictment accused Vick and the others of running Bad Newz Kennels, a boot camp for fighting dogs on six hectares near Vick's home town of Newport News, Va.
Starting in 2001, officials said, the men entered pit bulls in more than two dozen fights in several states, with bets of up to $13,000 per side. Officials said they seized 66 dogs, pit bull carcasses and training gear at the compound.
Authorities say the pit bull fighting subculture encompasses not only "dog men" with their training kennels and scheduled matches; it also includes less organized dogfighting that frequently takes place in poor urban neighbourhoods.
Although in both types of fighting the dogs maul each other in a frenzy of blood and saliva, inner-city fights usually are spontaneous. One gang member strutting with his nasty pit bull sees another, egos swell, and soon they're in a vacant building, the dogs ripping into each other while still on leash chains.
"Street fighting," these impromptu bouts are called.
Unlike a dog man's pit bulls, most street maulers aren't carefully bred from fighting stock. They aren't put through weeks of cardiovascular training on treadmills and in swimming pools. They're not steroid-enhanced. Their jaw muscles aren't pumped from a regimen of "bite-and-shake" exercises. Their teeth haven't been sharpened with electric grinders while they're sedated.