ST. PETERSBURG — A few weeks ago, St. Petersburg police rescued a 3-month-old boxer-pit bull terrier mix, its ears mangled by a barbaric tourniquet of rubber bands.
A year earlier, another dog in the same neighborhood suffered a similar fate, but by the time the pit bull terrier mix was found, its ears had already been sliced off, leaving behind raw, oozing wounds.
Animal advocates say the two incidents in Bartlett Park point to dogfighting, a felony in all 50 states and pursued surreptitiously in garages, back yards, alleys, abandoned homes, basements, barns and woods across the country. Those concerned about the inhumane treatment of animals describe a subculture of trained fighting dogs, specialized bloodlines, drugs, guns and big-money bets. In 2007, the blood sport came to jarring light when NFL quarterback Michael Vick was arrested for involvement in an interstate dogfighting ring.
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It's a felony to own fighting dogs in Florida, but the activity is growing, animal advocates say.
"It's happening right here in our own back yard,'' said Brent Bardell, director of humane care and facilities for the SPCA of Tampa Bay, who spoke recently to a small gathering of Bartlett Park residents.
Neighborhood association secretary Andrea Hildebrand had invited the SPCA to tell residents how to recognize signs of dogfighting.
"I know I've seen houses nearby that are breeding many, many pit bulls, and they are often renters," said Hildebrand, who recalled a former neighbor raising 18 dogs in his apartment.
There are quite a few pit bull owners in some neighborhoods south of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, Bardell said.
Alarmed by what is occurring in his neighborhood, which is generally between 11th and 22nd avenues S and Fourth and M.L. King streets, Bartlett Park resident Scott Swift contributed $100 to the $3,200 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person who mutilated the dog rescued by the SPCA a few weeks ago.
"This was a puppy obviously being groomed for dogfighting. That was its destiny, either to kill or be killed,'' he said.
Scott said he learned that dogfighting was taking place at a nearby rental property shortly after he moved to the area a few years ago.
"I was hearing dogs and a lot of yelling going on, at night and during the day. I didn't witness the fighting, but I started to figure it out'' after seeing groups of men in front of the house with pit bulls on leashes, he said.
Linda Britland, enforcement manager for Pinellas County Animal Services, said the department doesn't "actively go after'' people who might be conducting dogfights. It does, however, respond to complaints about people having numerous pit bulls in their homes, confined to pens or tethered in their yard.
"Many times, these folks aren't very agreeable to showing us the animals, but if we have a case where we can't get to visually see the animals, we will refer it to the SPCA or the police,'' Britland said.
Some people keep dogs in warehouses or storage lockers, while others "farm'' them out, she said.
"Say someone will own 15 dogs, they don't keep all of them at their own home. A friend might have one, another friend might have two. It's very hard to track,'' she said.
"Dogfighting is a very elusive sport,'' said Bardell, who participated in a 2009 raid in which hundreds of dogs were seized in an eight-state raid. He said he's unaware of any major busts in Pinellas County, though 13 dogs were seized in Childs Park near Ninth Avenue S and 40th Street a year ago. Charges have not been filed, he said.
Tampa resident Maurice Bayless and girlfriend Celena Brantley were recently convicted of owning dogs for fighting. Bayless owned 11 dogs and eight puppies. Investigators also found weighted collars, vests, scales, syringes, scalpels, sutures, needles, steroids and what appeared to be dogfighting records dating back several years in the South Tampa home. Brantley became the first woman in the country to be convicted of dogfighting.
The activity is growing at the street level, especially among drug dealers, said Janette Reever, deputy manager for animal fighting investigations for the Humane Society of the United States.
"It's just the large amounts of money that they can spend on these animals. We know of one person who actually spent $60,000 on a game dog. We've heard of a match where the purse was $250,000,'' she said.
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Dogfighters fall into three main groups: professionals, hobbyists and the amateurs who get involved in impromptu street fights to prove "my dog is badder than yours,'' Reever said.
"Professionals breed and cultivate a particular bloodline. The common term for them is 'dog men,'' ' she said.
Hobbyists, on the other hand, "might start by taking care of an established dogfighter's yard," she said.
Reever said dogfighting is not confined to a particular social class. "We've seen doctors, lawyers, priests. We've had preachers, all the way down to the blue-collar. There is no discrimination in this,'' she said.
The American pit bull terrier is the dog of choice and animal advocates say the dogs are rigorously trained, often on treadmills, and injected with steroids.
Bardell believes the dogs mutilated in Bartlett Park were probably being prepared for dogfighting. He said dogfighters cut off the ears because they can cause a dog to bleed heavily during a fight and removing them reduces the body parts an opponent can grab.
Both Bumble, the pit bull mix found a year ago, and Nikki, rescued just weeks ago, have been adopted. Kelli Chickos, who, with her husband, Steve, adopted Nikki, said the dog is thriving.
Chickos is unconcerned about Nikki's past.
"The only thing that I perhaps expected was for her to be timid of people,'' she said, adding that she educates people about the evils of dogfighting whenever they inquire about Nikki's cropped ears.
At the Bartlett Park meeting, Bardell gave his small audience tips for recognizing dogfighting. Much of the fighting will take place on holidays and weekends, he said.
"A group of people will come over to the house, where they would fight two dogs, four dogs in their garage,'' he said.
Beforehand, they might fire-up a barbecue grill.
"Then the sun goes down, and it's on,'' he said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.