Hidden Horrors

Illegal dog fighting remains one of Cleveland's best-kept secrets.

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One day in mid-June, a strangely unemotional man came to the Animal Protective League and asked the staff to put his bloody pit bull to sleep.

The dog had "marks all over his face and his neck, puncture wounds from where another dog had bitten him," remembers APL Deputy Director Matt Granito.

Though the staff euthanized the dog, Granito didn't believe the owner's story that a random stray inflicted the wounds. He thinks the dog was injured in an organized pit fight.

"You just know by the owner's reaction and the way the dog looks, it had to have been a fight. There was no emotion shown. He was unwilling to take him to a vet to get medical treatment. You just know there's something else going on."

Granito has seen pit bulls with scars from similar wounds wandering in the APL's Tremont neighborhood and other parts of Cleveland. About once a month, a city resident calls in a tip that men with pit bulls are congregating somewhere.

Though animal-cruelty laws long ago drove dog fighting underground, the blood sport persists. While a new statewide task force is searching for ways to curb dog fighting, police in Cleveland are turning up new evidence of it.

But people who sic dogs on each other are elusive. Matches attract heavy gambling and the weaponry that protects it, as well as drug dealers whose dogs guard their stashes.

Fights, often held in basements with hazed-over windows, typically break up before police arrive. "They usually have people stationed outside to alert the others," says Granito.

Granito once rode with police on a raid near Lorain Avenue. "We entered the property. It was an abandoned house. By that time, there were only three people present. None of the three had any dogs on them.

"We went down in the basement. There was probably a 10-by-10 wood ring. The wood stood about two feet high . . . There was blood on the ground, blood on the walls and on the pieces of wood." But the men in the house had no dogs and no weapons, and claimed they had arrived after everything happened, so police couldn't charge them.

In May, Cleveland police got a tip that a man was raising several pit bulls in his dilapidated East Side home. Wielding a search warrant for suspected building and housing code violations, police found 40 dogs, which turned frenzied and started attacking each other as the raid went on. They also discovered a canine-sized treadmill for conditioning, a paper with a tournament bracket on it, and pictures of dogs with captions such as "won first match."

But, says Chief Dog Warden John Baird, there wasn't enough evidence to charge the man with felonious animal cruelty, just misdemeanor violations of Cleveland's vicious dog ordinance.

In another case in February, police raided two suspected drug houses owned by the same man and found 15 pit bulls, plus fight videotapes. But the suspect's attorney claimed the dogs on the tapes belonged to someone else. The felony dog-fighting charges -- which could have earned the man up to 18 months in prison -- were dropped when he agreed to plead guilty to drug charges.

Some Clevelanders breed dogs for fighting, but take them to isolated areas of southern Ohio and Pennsylvania for matches, Baird suspects.

The last time police caught a fight in the act was about two years ago. Investigating a noise complaint in Hough, cops found a hundred people watching two dogs battle.

"The best part about the story, that I enjoyed, was that the hundred people that were in the garage . . . took off when the helicopter was heard above [and] ran through where all the dogs were staked outside," says Baird. The dogs chomped on some of the fleeing men. Police arrested one guy who was too drunk to run away.

The two dogs in the ring kept fighting despite the chaos, until police shot them. When Baird reached the scene, he found a lawn full of dogs and a garage full of empty chairs, plus a fridge filled with beer, a scale for weighing dogs, and drugs used to thicken dog blood.

The arrested man was eventually convicted of witnessing a dog fight -- a felony -- and served 11 months in state prison. The property owner was indicted on a dog-fighting charge, but died before trial.

Pit bulls -- the common term for a few types of terrier historically bred for fighting -- are still fought much more than any other dog breed. Baird says his wardens pick up a lot of stray pit bulls, but few with severe scarring -- indicating that dog fighting is not as widespread in Cleveland as in other cities. More troubled, for instance, is Toledo, where police gang squad members double as a dog-catching force and often call Baird for advice.

This month, a new task force to combat dog fighting held its first meeting in Columbus.

"The stream of comments and opinions about dog fighting in Ohio . . . and what should be done about it has never stopped," says Mark Anthony, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, which organized the group. "There are a lot of people concerned about what they believe is a persistent if not growing problem."

Dog fighters don't often reveal themselves to people outside their circles. Pit bull breeder David Damron of Lorain says he doesn't get approached by anyone who seems interested in fighting dogs.

"From my understanding, the people who buy pit fighters want to buy their dogs from former champions. Take an average family pit bull terrier. He's not going to have the average characteristics and aggressiveness [that] the fighting lines do."

Most Cleveland-area veterinarians say they don't see much evidence of dog fights, or that they can't tell the difference between victims of organized contests and random scuffles between dogs on the street. But Candy Winch, a senior veterinary technician at the All-Animal Clinic in Shaker Heights, says she used to see torn-up canines at a now-defunct clinic on Cleveland's West Side.

"Some of the guys used to really brag about fighting the dogs," she says. Often, the owners waited days before bringing their animals in. The dogs had wounds on their legs, necks, ears, and faces. "We'd have to stitch them up. There was swelling from lacerations and infections."

Winch says she tried to talk owners out of fighting their dogs, with little success. "Some people said, 'It's my animal. I'll do what I want.'"

Sometimes, the owners would tell Winch that the injured dog won the fight. "Even the dogs that win sometimes don't live," says Baird. "If someone has had a pit bull for a year, you can be pretty sure they're not fighting it."

Losing dogs suffer even more, during and after the fight.

"A lot of [owners] feel, if the animal does not perform for them, it's useless to them," says Granito. "They'll take them out back and shoot them themselves or turn them loose or turn them in to us. They have no regard toward the animal itself as a living creature."

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