Monday, December 29, 2008

Dallas animal cruelty task force in works

By JESSICA MEYERS / The Dallas Morning News

Sarah Tunks walked onto the West Dallas property earlier this year and knew immediately why the animals before her looked so abused.

Seven pit bulls looked up at her, two with scarred faces and chopped ears. The others hobbled on skeleton legs, emaciated from frequent breeding. A rectum dangled out of the skinniest one, a puppy.

All of them involved in dogfighting.

Neighbors had notified Ms. Tunks, a member of Texas Animal Defense Coalition, about chained dogs on abandoned land. Animal Services was backlogged and the Dallas Police Department said no crime had occurred to warrant their entrance.

A few days later, the dogs disappeared, Ms. Tunks said, most likely to their next fight.

"There's nobody to turn to with this information," she said.

Prompted by recent media attention on the issue, she's spurring the makings of an animal cruelty task force to address this gap. The discussions have attracted legal heavy hitters like the district attorney's office, as well as the city, the police department and local animal rights agencies.

Lt. Kimberly Stratman, who represents the Dallas Police Department at the meetings, said "the timing is right" for such a task force.

Her beat includes West Dallas, where some of the worst dogfighting occurs. She said the department has nailed down at least three locations with organized dogfights.

"We're not talking about two teenage boys in the middle of the street with leashes," she said. "These are people coming from across town with large amounts of money, guns and drugs. These are drug locations."

Holding a dogfight became a felony in Texas in September 2007, raising the stakes on an act previously ruled off as a misdemeanor unless it involved gambling. The issue has lingered in the spotlight with the prosecution of former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick for organizing dogfights at his rural Virginia home last summer.

Texas authorities broke up one of the largest dogfighting rings in the country near Houston this November. And recent dogfighting busts have also occurred in North Carolina.

Confusion over roles

This activity has forced law enforcement and animal control agencies across the country to recognize their dependence on each other, said Jay Sabatucci, the Humane Society's Texas state director. He holds training sessions for police departments throughout the south and plans to teach an animal cruelty course for about 100 Dallas police officers in January.

"In Dallas, we're seeing a new era of cooperation," he said. "It's really not about saving Fluffy as much as getting a foot in the door for more serious crimes," he said.

That's why the blurry line between the city's role and the police department's must be made clearer, said Dallas Animal Services Manager Kent Robertson.

"We need to figure out where everybody fits in," he said. "Your average animal control officer can't go in to these situations with a catch pole. And police officers need to be made aware of what they are running into with doggie treadmills and dogs chained in the back yard."

Dogfighting cases have not increased in courts in Dallas even with the new stepped-up penalties. The police department made one dogfighting arrest this year. Last year, it didn't make any. Officials blame it on the confusion of roles and the difficulty of unearthing a culture that has gone even further underground.

Jim Bias, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Texas, said the agency routinely sees dogs that look like they've been used as fighters but doesn't officially count them. The SPCA offers a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of dogfighters. It hasn't received any calls.

Other cities, like Houston and Chicago, are documenting a rise in urban dogfighting among children. But both the police and local animal rights advocates say they don't know about its prevalence in Dallas.

'That's where it starts'

At least 40,000 people are involved in organized dogfighting in the U.S. and more than 100,000 participate in street dogfighting, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

David Alex, who represents the district attorney's office at the discussions, said the Dallas monthly meetings are intended to "get at the heart of why cases aren't getting filed."

"Historically, animal cruelty has taken a back seat to crimes in person, but these are the same people involved in violent crimes against humanity," he said. "It's a matter of refocusing so that next year we see a tremendous rise [in prosecutions], indicative of what's out there."

Even with the encouragement of the city, no formal task force exits yet, warned Mr. Robertson. But the negotiations represent a shift in mentality, he said, if nothing else.

"Right now it's a bunch of people sitting around a table and talking," he said. "That's where it starts."

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