Sunday, January 4, 2009

She's fighting FOR pit bulls

SCARFACE ISN'T named after the famed thug in the Miami-based gangster movie. The little, fawn-colored pit bull wasn't given that tough title so that his owner could pump up his own street cred.

It was simply a sad observation by the people who rescued the dog, an obvious label for an animal with ragged, half-chewed ears and a thick head covered in crisscrossing gashes in various stages of healing.

"Nobody knows his real name," said Kathy McGuire, president of New Jersey Aid for Animals, as she stood next to his kennel at the Halo House in Franklinville, Gloucester County. "He kind of looks like he's smiling, though."

Scarface was a fighter. Miracle was probably a dog on whom fighters practiced. Noel was simply a "breed bitch." They were three of the seven pit bulls found in November, chained up and emaciated, at a home on Lanning Avenue in Penns Grove, Salem County. Three men were charged with 31 counts of animal cruelty in the case.

A pit-bull-fighting ring was found in the basement of the home, police said, but there's no telling how many times Scarface stared across the makeshift battlefield at his opponent down there.

"He's been fought so many times, it's really hard to tell," said Perry Parks, a Burlington County-based trainer who evaluated the animals after they were rescued.

Vick case significant

Historically, a dog rescued from a fighting house simply won a gentler death - administered by a veterinarian rather than having a stripped extension cord clipped to a lip and tendon by its owner.

Michael Vick may have changed that.

The suspended NFL quarterback has been in federal prison since November 2007 after pleading guilty to conspiring to run an interstate dogfighting and gambling operation on his 15-acre property in Virginia. He is serving a 23-month prison sentence in Kansas, with a scheduled release date of July 20.

Most of the dozens of dogs seized by investigators in the Vick animal-cruelty case wound up in foster care at various facilities across the country, thanks to the nearly $1 million in restitution Vick was ordered to pay.

McGuire, who has spent $800 of her own money bringing Noel back from the "brink of death," said the Vick case was a landmark that has opened the eyes of authorities who investigate dogfighting, judges who hand out sentences, and even animal-welfare activists who believe that money shouldn't be spent to help trained killers.

"We're going to get restitution for these dogs," she said proudly. "Well, we're going to try, at least."

Scarface is heading to Texas, possibly by next month, to live out his life on a sanctuary that's home to some celebrity Vick dogs.

The suspects in Salem County don't have Michael Vick money, though, so McGuire is asking for donations.

"A lot of people wonder why we are doing this, why we're spending any money on these dogs," she said, as she scratched Scarface's ears. "This dog had such a terrible life. I think we need to give something at the end of his life."

Like handguns, pit bulls are perceived as dangerous in distinctly different ways by advocates and opponents.

Those in favor of banning the breed with legislation say it's the very nature of the dog that's dangerous. The Web site, which advocates breed-specific legislation, says pit bulls and Rottweilers are consistently the top breeds involved in fatal attacks on humans. Some courts even have deemed pit bulls to be lethal weapons and have banned them in major U.S cities, including Denver.

Those against breed-specific legislation blame negligent owners for turning what they believe is a loyal and loving family dog into a bone-crushing, muscle-tearing killer. A study conducted in Denver after pit bulls were banned found that most dogs that bite are unneutered males who are chained outside - a sign advocates say proves that negligent owners create dangerous dogs.

Parks, the trainer from Burlington County, said dogs which, like Scarface, are trained to fight other dogs are usually "notoriously great around people." Owners often have to intervene during bloody, intense fights and don't want to get their hands bitten.

The dogs are trained to attack other dogs, however - something that Perks noticed immediately when he placed Scarface next to another dog.

"You could see his body language right away - he locked right up," said Perks, who trains Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb's two American bulldogs. "His eyes got real round, his ears are up and alert and his mouth closed. He was setting up for a fight."

At local animal shelters, it doesn't matter whether a pit bull was trained to fight, or loved and socialized with humans and animals from birth: Most people don't want them.

"It's such a burden we put on shelters," said McGuire, who has knocked on strangers' doors to ask them to turn over mistreated dogs. "It's not like we're saying, 'Who's going to step up and take these cute little Maltese?' Pit bulls become the forgotten ones. They're forgotten in yards and they're forgotten in shelters."

Niki Dawson, president of the Camden County Animal Shelter, said pit bulls make up 75 to 80 percent of the shelter's population.

Most are strays from Camden.

"Hard-core dogfighting pits don't wind up in shelters," said Dawson, a pit-bull owner.

"They're worth too much money."

South Jersey


Stu Goldman, an animal-cruelty investigator with the Monmouth County SPCA, said dogfighting remains prevalent in all parts of New Jersey, particularly in the rural counties in the southern reaches of the state.

Goldman said the only way to move forward with dogfighting cases is to pursue large-scale breeders in South Jersey and the Poconos, which are similar to Vick's "Bad Newz Kennels" in Virginia.

Pit-bull breeders often pepper their advertising with references to fighting, such as "champion bloodline," "game," or "hard mouth."

Goldman said the smartest way to legislate dangerous dogs is to legislate the behavior of their owners - namely by investigating and enforcing animal-cruelty laws, requiring all dogs to be spayed and neutered, banning dog-breeding - as Camden has done - and keeping tabs on large-scale pit-bull breeders.

"I mean, what is someone doing with 40 unneutered pit bulls?" Goldman said.

Goldman said at least 20 breeders in New Jersey are simply catering to the fight crowd. He estimated that "hundreds of thousands" of pit bulls in the state are actively involved in fighting for money.

In the next month or so, New Jersey will have at least one fewer fighting dog when Scarface ships off to Texas.

McGuire said she was going to change his name to Chance before he left.

"As in second chance," she said. *

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