Dogfight Club

Brown Dog vs. White Dog for the macho championship of South Florida

 1. Preliminaries

I got an e-mail from a potential editor early one morning a couple of months ago. It gave me the okay to preach my particular brand of smack via an article on gambling for New Times. The editor didn't come right out and say so, but I gleaned that what he really wanted was an article on dogfighting, which is a felony in the State of Florida (as well as in 45 others). It was left up to me, and I could have gone on a casino boat with blue-haired gamblers in dresses, or hung around some senior pinochle games in Kendall or something.... But the thought of attending, wagering on, and writing about a dogfight suddenly intrigued me greatly. The problem was, it wasn't like going to Calder Race Course or Hollywood Greyhound Track, where you could just jump in a cab and arrive. I had to find a dogfight before I could figure out what I'd say about it.

When I'd done that, I sent word to my potential editor. It hadn't taken me more than a couple of hours to run across someone who could get me in -- or so he said. Then it got complicated. Occasionally I forget that you can't take anyone, anywhere, at face value -- but especially not on South Beach. My contact, "Gene" we'll call him, interjected himself quickly into the situation as soon as he heard what I was up to. "Yeah, yeah, this Puerto Rican kid that owns the fighting house is a friend of mine," he assured me. "I own a Pit, but just for show. I don't fight him. Listen. You're not a cop, are you?"

"No," I said. "I hate cops."

And took him at his word. He talked a good game by giving me an exact address in Wynwood and the name and age of the owner. He told me the price of admission would be about $60. It seemed impossible that someone could know so much\ about the whole thing without actually knowing the people involved ...

We were set to go look at the "fighting house," which is slang for a breeder's kennel of "gamebred" pit bulls, and it's also where the dogfights can be -- but aren't necessarily -- held. The "fighting house" exists illegally in Miami-Dade County due to Section 5-17.1, Miami-Dade Code, which makes it "illegal to acquire a new Pit Bull dog since April 14, 1989." The county has been hell on "Pit Bull type" dogs since the '80s because of several instances of fatal attacks, especially on children and the elderly. The county classifies them as dangerous: "Failure to register, muzzle, confine, or insure a Pit Bull is a violation of [the civil] law subject to severe penalty." According to Sgt. Rudy Espinoza of the Miami-Dade County Animal Services Unit, "Miami-Dade is the only county in Florida with a breed-specific ordinance against pit bulls." That range of breeds includes all purebred American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, bull terriers, or any mixed variation of these dogs. Any yard with more than one pit bull in it is usually a dead giveaway that the people in there are involved in organized dogfighting. Miami-Dade County government, however, is catching flak from petitioners who want repeals or vetoes of existing and proposed breed-specific ordinances like the one I just finished telling you about. They say the definition is too broad. The decision to ban pit bulls from Miami-Dade has been challenged in court (American Dog Owners Association v. Dade County, Florida, 1989), but the decision was upheld.

The truth is that these dogs have been bred to fight since 1835, when "bullbaiting," the precursor to organized dogfighting (and an early form of steak tenderizing -- the masticated dead steers were discovered to be easier to chew), was outlawed in Great Britain. Breeders valued the "tenacity, fierceness, and courage" of the dogs, which had been previously used to tear at and otherwise torment large bulls to death for the edification and amusement of peasants and gentry on dull gray days in the U.K.

After bullbaiting was outlawed, breeders created the bull and terrier dog. "The Bull and Terrier was bred for aggression to other dogs, unrelenting bravery, a high pain threshold, a willingness to fight to the end, and an affection for people(!)... The United Kennel Club recognized the Bull and Terrier Dog as the American Pit Bull Terrier in 1898." This is all established in the American Dog Owner's Guide. The big time was reached by "dogmen" -- as they've come to call themselves -- a hundred years later when the occurrence of seized dogs exploded, and cops estimated the number of "players" involved in the game in the U.S. alone at 40,000. It is equally big in Russia, Italy, and Africa, for reasons that no one can figure out, except general escalated pissed-offedness among the lower orders with no other way to express it.

Organized dogfighting is a felony in every state except Idaho, Iowa, West Virginia, and Wyoming, where it is a misdemeanor. Dogmen generally split into two groups: professional dogfighters and streetfighters. "Professional dogfighters" move in close circles and breed and trade pups with each other. They contract fights by word of mouth or through underground information sources like American Pit Bull Terrier Gazette or Sporting Dog Journal. (An existing SDJ subscriber must sponsor you before you can receive it.) Professional dogfighters are of the type to close a fight down at the sight of someone they don't know. They are most concerned with the "gameness" of their dogs. They view that as an extension of themselves and a validation of their own masculinity, especially in the Southern Region of the United States. Gameness is defined as the unwillingness to give up, even under the most difficult circumstances and despite the threat of death. Professional dogfighters insist that the only way to preserve the trait of gameness is through breeding for purity and in the fighting pit. Their circle is so closely knit that it borders on an obscure fraternity, like the John Birch Society or the Ku Klux Klan. According to Sergeant Espinoza, "We're in the middle of an investigation [now], but these guys are such a tight and underground group that we are lacking for information." Anyway, you can find these people in working-class Hispanic and white neighborhoods around here, like Wynwood, Hialeah, and Cutler Ridge.

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