Dog fighting remains big business in Louisiana
Stiffened penalties starting to tighten leash on blood sportby Richard A. Webster
In the past two years, Louisiana State Police have confiscated hundreds of scarred pit bulls attached to 4-foot, 100-pound chains living in their own filth, devoid of human contact, destined for short lives and violent deaths for their owners’ financial benefit.
This is the brutal reality of dog fighting. But evidence discovered in recent raids indicates dogs are not the only victims of this blood sport.
Jacob Dickinson, senior Louisiana state trooper and former undercover investigator, said the bounty collected at organized dog fights has included kilos of crack and powder cocaine, hundreds of pounds of marijuana, AK-47s, SKS machine guns and explosive devices.
But the most chilling items were found at a dog fighting pit on Highland Road in eastern New Orleans, said Kathryn Destreza, director of humane law enforcement for the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“We found cookies and milk,” Destreza said. “There were young kids there watching this with their mothers.”
In the past 15 years, rising dog-fighting popularity has been fueled in Louisiana and across the country by inner-city youth.
The Humane Society of the United States estimates 40,000 people nationwide are involved in organized dog fighting and 100,000 at the street level. Combined, they fight more than 250,000 dogs annually.
It is not just an animal cruelty issue. Police say dog fighting is controlled by armed drug dealers who threaten the community and desensitize children to violence.
Post-Katrina, the SPCA reported a surge in dog-fighting cases in the metro area with more dogs brought in with fighting scars.
“In our parish it’s not just dog fighting but cruelty to animals that is on the upswing since Katrina,” Destreza said.
In the two years since the storm, state police have started more than 150 dog-fighting cases, mostly in Shreveport and New Orleans.
Destreza said the post-hurricane landscape offers thousands of empty shotgun homes and warehouses that provide perfect cover for fights. In April, seven people were arrested for fighting dogs in the garage of an abandoned home in Gentilly. The police confiscated a .45-caliber Glock and two magazines loaded with hollow-point bullets.
Purses can run $100,000 or higher at a single fight but the real money is in breeding. A champion dog put out to stud can command as much as $5,000 per puppy produced.
When state police arrested dog fighter and breeder Floyd Boudreaux in Lafayette in 2005, the LA/SPCA estimated the worth of the 59 dogs found on his property at more than $300,000. Boudreaux’s grand champion dog, Reno, was valued at $25,000.
In the past 15 years, dog fighting has expanded from rural communities to urban areas, said John Goodwin, HSUS manager of animal fighting issues.
“The major breeders are in the rural areas but that’s not where the soldiers are, the guys handling the dogs and fighting them every weekend,” Goodwin said.
The inner-city dog fighting boom started when high-end drug dealers sought out old-school dog fighters and paid them to teach them how to condition and breed dogs.
“Dog fighting has become the preferred form of recreation for criminals,” Goodwin said. “The old generation were thugs and criminals of their own. But while they sold meth and carried shotguns, the new guys sell crack and carry MAC-10s.”
Of the 8,000 dogs HSUS took in from the New Orleans area after Katrina, 1,000 were pit bulls and many bore fighting scars.
“After the drug dealers abandoned the Ninth Ward, all that was left were pit bulls,” said Elizabeth Sprang, office manager of the Southern Animal Foundation.
In Louisiana, dog fighting and the possession of a dog for fighting are felonies. Only two states have dog fighting listed as a misdemeanor — Idaho and Wyoming.
Louisiana and Oklahoma have the toughest laws carrying up to a $25,000 fine and 10 years in jail for each offense.
The Louisiana Legislature made dog fighting illegal in 1982 but it wasn’t a felony until 2001. Two years later, Capt. Joseph Lentini, head of the Louisiana State Police gaming enforcement section, decided to aggressively target it as part of a crackdown on illegal gambling.
Dickinson said their dog-fighting knowledge before 2003 was limited so they were shocked by what they discovered during the raids.
“Everybody I’ve come across involved in dog fighting has extensive violent criminal histories,” he said. “We’ve gotten an unbelievable amount of narcotics. We’ve seized kilos of crack, kilos of powder cocaine, automatic weapons, explosive devices.
“When we started in 2003 we had to devote a lot of manpower because not only were we arresting the dog fighters, we were making arrests for wanted violent offenders and a tremendous amount of other illegal activity that goes hand-in-hand with dog fighting.”
Dog fighting was a wide-open sport in Louisiana before the 2003 crackdown, Dickinson said. Internet sites, magazines and fliers publicly advertised upcoming fights.
The sport has gone underground but is still widely practiced, said Lt. Rhett Trahan of the Louisiana State Police gaming enforcement division. But word is getting out among dog fighters: Louisiana is no longer a friendly state.
“It’s like hitting a wasp’s nests,” Trahan said. “Everyone starts running because they realized they were being investigated, that there are snitches in the bunch and the more people are arrested the better chance they’ll get caught. Now our informants are saying some dog fighters won’t come to Louisiana because it’s too hot here.”
Dog fighting is numbing a new generation of children to intentional brutality and violence, Destreza said. She once caught a 10-year-old behind a strip mall on Chef Menteur Highway with several scarred pit bulls. He was bending nails to use as makeshift gaffes, which are weapons tied to rooster legs for cockfighting.
Destreza asked the child why he wanted to harm these animals. The boy told her dog fighting is something generations of his family have passed down.
“He said he was better than his dad and he was really proud,” Destreza said. “We’re talking about a violent crime. They intend these dogs to fight and hurt each other. This is a 10-year-old kid and he’s so desensitized to violence. It should be very scary for people to know that kids are doing this because if a kid has gotten to that point it’s a small stepping stone to other crimes.”
Louisiana juries are sometimes reluctant to convict someone of felony dog fighting because many people still have the attitude of, “It’s just an animal,” said Destreza. But when educated about what a dog fight entails, they often change their minds.
A dog fight is not the same as two dogs fighting over a bone or a chew toy. Dogs bred to fight don’t have an “off” switch, Destreza said. The most valued trait in a fighting dog is called “dead game,” the willingness to fight to the death no matter the severity of its injuries.
And in the dog fighting world, the worst atrocities often take place outside the pit.
Dog fighters often kill losing animals, sometimes hanging or electrocuting them. Other times they will tape the losing dog’s mouth shut and use it as bait, allowing their other dogs to rip apart the defenseless animal.
“Then they cut them up and feed them to the other dogs,” Destreza said. “What happened? We used to be this community that opened the door for each other and now we’re thinking of unique and violent ways to kill your dog because they embarrassed you in the ring. It’s truly sick and now they’re bringing these young kids into this world.”•