ABUSE: PIT BULL BRAWLS
It's a dogfight out there
Bloody and brutal, the GTA's dog battles have gone underground - but they
haven't gone away
PETER CHENEY - July 28, 2007
As the recent indictment of National Football League quarterback Michael
Vick has demonstrated, the ancient, brutal sport of dogfighting is alive, if
not exactly well. And here in Ontario, while crackdowns and public outrage
have driven the activity deep underground, animal officials say it still
"You aren't dealing with nice people," says Hugh Coghill, head investigator
for the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Of all the
crimes that Mr. Coghill deals with, organized dogfighting is the most
disturbing. "We're talking about tough, tough situations," he says.
In the United States, Mr. Vick, who plays for the Atlanta Falcons, is
accused of having run a Virginia-based operation known as Bad News Kennels
that involved tens of thousands of dollars in gambling and the systematic
execution of losing and underperforming dogs.
That is a typical scenario, often involving terrible conditions for the
animals. "It's a brutal scene," says Mr. Coghill, who ran a 2004
investigation that led to charges against a man who ran dogfights in the
Barrie area. In 1999, the Ontario Provincial Police seized 19 fighting pit
bulls from another farm near Beeton after allegations of a dogfighting ring
were made. They found evidence of fighting pits, along with a treadmill, a
baiting pole, dog-training weights and the bodies of five dogs. All 19 of
the seized dogs were destroyed a year later - trained to attack and too
dangerous to be released.
And Mr. Coghill recalls an earlier case that began when a woman riding a GO
train noticed two dozen dogs chained up in a field north of Toronto. The
next day, inspectors from the OSPCA were at the field, asking the owner some
pointed questions about why his dogs were left out all day in the sun
The owner agreed to make changes. But when the inspectors returned, the
owner and the dogs had vanished. They soon found out why: The owner's
address was a rented house that had been turned into a canine death trap. In
the basement were a blood-stained fighting pit, cases of steroids and
treadmills where the dogs had run for hours on end to stay in fighting
Like many cases, the Maple fighting pit led to a dead end - the owner had
provided a false identity, then disappeared. This incident, in the
mid-1990s, was one of more than two dozen organized dogfighting cases Mr.
Coghill has investigated in his 30 years with the OSPCA, and only a handful
have resulted in convictions.
Mr. Coghill says many dogfights take place on farms near border towns like
Hamilton, Kingston and Sarnia, with activity spilling over from the United
States. Many of the dog owners are American and are drawn by Canada's
relatively lax dogfighting legislation; the maximum penalty is $2,000 or six
months in prison, and no U.S. citizen has ever been extradited to Canada to
face dogfighting charges.
Dog owners have devised effective ways of avoiding detection. Typically,
owners meet in large parking lots, then transfer to a van that is driven to
a remote farm, where the fights take place inside a barn. "There's no
concentration of vehicles to tip anyone off," Mr. Coghill says.
In Toronto, dogfighting typically takes the form of "brawls" - impromptu
contests between two dogs staged in parking garages or public parks. Toronto
veterinarian Jack Gewarter, who operates the Bloorcourt Veterinary Clinic,
says he has treated pit bulls and Staffordshire terriers that were
apparently used in fights that took place in downtown locations, including
nearby Dufferin Grove Park.
Dr. Gewarter says large-scale dogfighting flourished in downtown Toronto as
recently as the mid-1990s. At his Bloor Street practice, for example, he
used to deal with badly injured dogs owned by Eastern Europeans who were
reputed to operate a dogfighting pit and gambling operation.
"You don't see that anymore," Dr. Gewarter said. "It's all gone
Mr. Coghill says brawls have largely replaced the kind of large,
well-organized dogfights Mr. Vick is accused of staging. "Brawls are a lot
easier to get away with," he says. "By the time someone calls police, it's
Mr. Coghill says it is now standard policy to euthanize dogs seized as part
of a fighting investigation. "Typically, these dogs are incredibly friendly
toward humans," he says. "But they're extremely aggressive toward other
dogs, because that's how they've been bred and trained. Unfortunately, you
can't change that. Fighting dogs are not capable of rehabilitation."