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Dogs inspire controversy in communities

LAWRENCEVILLE - Bear's blood stains the blue carpet. It cakes his yellow fur. And it's scattered along the white, plywood walls that have enclosed him in a makeshift ring.

People crowd around to watch and cheer as Bear's owner encourages him.

"Good boy. Not my Bear," Bear's owner says in a high-pitched voice that someone would use to coax a dog into chasing a Frisbee.

But this is no walk in the park for Bear - it's life or death.

"You pull this off, this'll be incredible," an onlooker tells Bear, but the incredible does not happen.

The fight began some six minutes prior and Bear's opponent, Toby, quickly had Bear on his back.

Bear's muffled howls can be heard over the crowd as both dogs try to gain hold of each others' necks.

The owners are in the ring, circling the dogs, shouting instructions in their ears.

"Get into it, Toby! What're you doing? God!" Toby's owner yells.

Toby seems to respond to his owner's demands and so does the crowd as a critical moment in the fight occurs.

Bear begins bleeding profusely. It's unclear from where, but the blood covers his upper torso.

Bear is pinned to the wall now, and both owners are down on all fours urging their dogs toward victory.

"Bite! Bite! Bite!" Toby's owner instructs.

As the fight continues, Bear can only muster enough strength to fend Toby off every few minutes.

Toby appears to become uninterested in killing his opponent for a moment and actually begins to lick Bear's ear, but his owner is right back in his face.

"Get him, Toby! Kill him!"

Toby obeys, latching on to Bear's neck. It's clear the fight is over.

This is the world of pit bull fighting, and it's one that's closer to home than some might imagine.

The above was a description of a video of a pit bull fight obtained by the Daily Post. The fight was recorded in Michigan, but authorities say dogfighting is alive and well in Georgia, too.

Dogfighting close to home

While the general public may not be aware of it, Humane Society of the United States officials estimate anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 people are involved in pit bull fights around the country.

In north Georgia, 131 people have been arrested in connection with four different dogfighting cases over the past two years, the most recent being in DeKalb County.

A little over a year ago, 236 people were arrested at a Barrow County residence while attending a cockfight. Authorities believe pit bull fights also were held at the location.

"Fighting is a big problem everywhere," said Amanda Conrad, president of Pit Prints Pit Bull Rescue and Rehabilitation in Canton. "Whether it's street fighting, very small groups or very organized groups, it's a problem everywhere."

Fights can mean big money, with winners taking home tens of thousands of dollars in some instances.

At a dogfight in Covington last year, the payout was a winner-take-all $50,000 pot.

At the fight in Barrow County, police seized $136,000.

The amount of money and reasons for fighting depend on the type of fighter, said John Goodwin, deputy manager of Animal Fighting Issues at the Humane Society.

Goodwin said there are three levels of fighters, with the first being the professional who travels around and makes a living fighting dogs. These fighters, of which there are about 500 around the country, are concerned with breeding and put dogs through heavy conditioning and training, he said.

"The Carolinas and Georgia and really the entire Southeast have traditionally been home to more of the high-end dogfighting," Goodwin said.

The second level of fighter, Goodwin said, is the hobbyist that aspires to be like the professional. He said that authorities are gaining momentum on catching these types of fighters.

The final level of fighter can be found in urban areas and is experiencing the most growth, Goodwin said.

"We've seen a real boom on the street-fighting level and it's usually related to gang activity," he said. "It's definitely more of a status, macho type thing."

Goodwin said that rap music such as Jay-Z's unedited "99 Problems" video and DMX's album "Grand Champion" glorify dogfighting.

"It's tough to fight the problem when we have celebrities that people look up to romanticizing this type of behavior," Goodwin said.

For Gwinnett County Animal Control officials, it's often difficult to catch people involved with dogfighting in the act.

"(How much dogfighting goes on in Gwinnett is) tough to answer because we've responded to reports of dogs that look like they have been fighting, but they were not actually fighting at the time," said Sammy Jeanes, Gwinnett County Animal Control manager.

Georgia law requires police to catch the perpetrator in the act before they can make an arrest, but that could soon change.

Georgia Senate Bill 229 was drafted by the Legislature last session and could bring changes in the law that would allow police to assess the dog's injuries as evidence. Possession of animal fighting equipment and advertising of animal fights would also become criminal offenses.

People involved with pit bulls say it's the dogs that have been trained to fight or the dogs that are neglected that result in attacks.

Attacks in the

county, country

In February, a 5-year-old Lawrenceville boy and his mother were attacked by pit bulls owned by the man they were staying with.

The boy, Brandon Spencer, had puncture wounds on his forearm, back and shoulder, and his mother had to fight to rip his sweatshirt off to keep him from being choked by the dog.

In January 2003, a 52-year-old Norcross woman was killed by the family's pit bull in an attack that then-Gwinnett County police spokesman Dan Huggins described as "pretty heinous."

Flora Lubin died, according to the medical examiner, from sharp force trauma to the neck.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention titled "Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998" looked at the number of fatal dog bites by certain breeds and found that pit bulls account for more fatal attacks than any other breed.

But the question regarding pit bull attacks is who is to blame: the dogs or the owners?

Pit bull rescuer Conrad said she felt the biggest factors in pit bull attacks are neglect and a lack of socialization by owners.

"A lot of people, especially men, get pit bulls to show how tough they are and then stick them on a chain for a couple of years," Conrad said. "Of course when they get loose they have the potential to react poorly in situations with humans, much like any other dog would."

"Dogs that cause problems can usually be traced back to the owner," said Michael Wanchick, doctor of veterinary medicine at the Russell Ridge Animal Hospital in Lawrenceville. "It's ridiculous to pass laws banning pit bulls after an attack occurs."

Legislation: Outlaw

the dog or make ownership more difficult?

But passing a law that would ban pit bulls is exactly what several members of the Georgia House tried to do when they proposed House Bill 78 this past term.

Rep. Earnest Williams, D-Stone Mountain, who had a colleague who had a family member killed by a pit bull, said he's heard from a lot of people who want to prevent attacks like this.

"I want to get something done so people can walk in a safe environment," Williams said.

The bill failed to gain enough support last term, but Williams said he will continue to work to pass legislation that will help prevent attacks.

This type of legislation, known as breed-specific legislation, has drawn the ire of many pit bull supporters.

Conrad said breed-specific legislation fails to punish the dogfighters and ends up punishing good owners instead.

"It's a waste of taxpayers' money, animal control's time and causes a lot of tears and headaches for responsible owners," Conrad said.

Several cities have outlawed pit bulls and done so in different manners:

n In Denver, pit bull owners have been forced to move out of city limits or else have their pets euthanized after a city ordinance outlawing the dogs was upheld by a court decision. The Associated Press reported that since May an estimated 260 dogs have been destroyed and many of the dogs have been taken from their homes by police and animal control officials.

n In Miami, pit bulls have been banned since 1989. Dogs that were already owned and registered in Miami were grandfathered in, but no more pit bulls were allowed. Ironically, the city has an American Basketball Association team named the Pit Bulls.

The city of Lawrenceville, the only city in Gwinnett to enact a specific ordinance against pit bulls, takes a different approach to governing this type of dog.

Lawrenceville seeks to do a better job of holding pit bull owners responsible for their animals' actions. Several of the stipulations of the ordinance are:

n Pit bull owners must pay an annual registration fee of $50 per dog to register their dog with Lawrenceville police.

n Pit bull owners must have $300,000 in liability insurance.

n The pit bull must wear a registration tag on a bright red collar.

n The pit bull must be restrained and wearing a muzzle if off the owner's property.

Owner responsibility is the key to the pit bull regulation, said Conrad, who proposes three things that could be done to reduce the number of irresponsible owners:

n All pit bulls should be spayed or neutered unless they are involved with conformation shows, search and rescue efforts, American Dog Breeders Association events or similar activities. Excess breeding leads to problems, and association with one of these types activities tend to show owners are responsible.

n Pit bulls should be microchipped and registered with the city or county they live in so that they can be traced to owners if they get loose, attack or are found fighting.

n Punishments should be imposed on anyone who does not abide by the leash law, county or city ordinances or anyone who is using their pit bulls for illegal purposes.

Wanchick agrees that owner accountability is important, as well as owners being educated as to what is needed to care for and socialize a pit bull.

The CDC study on fatal dog attacks agrees that "targeting chronically irresponsible dog owners" may be one of the best ways to prevent attacks. The study also points out breed specific legislation doesn't "address the fact that a dog of any breed can become dangerous when bred or trained to be aggressive."

A misunderstood breed?

Despite the animal aggression that's manipulated for fights, most people with pit bulls characterize them as remarkably human friendly.

"They love humans and are very loyal," Conrad said. "They will follow their owners everywhere and love to be around them."

"They're actually not very good guard dogs because of how friendly they are toward humans," Goodwin said.

Conrad said pit bulls will tolerate the normal abuse children can give animals better than most other dogs.

Jill Spence of Snellville feels perfectly safe letting her 19-month-old son, Triston, be around their pit bull, Gage.

"Gage just follows him around and cleans up whatever food he drops," Spence said.

Spence said Gage, who they rescued as a puppy from people who planned to use him for fighting, is not as imposing as people might think.

"He's just hyper and wants to jump on you and lick you," she added.

Those involved with pit bulls say it's the owners that can make the dog dangerous.

"I would say 99.9 percent of the time it's the owner that determines the temperament of the dog," Wanchick said. Wanchick also said if properly trained, pit bulls can be extremely good pets.

"I would trust my dogs around anybody," said Rodney Hadfield, a local pit bull breeder. "But it's all in how they're raised."

Pit bulls without a home or coming from a bad one

So what happens to pit bulls that are left without a home? Are all pit bulls taken to animal control euthanized?

Gwinnett County Animal Control officials said they will adopt out pit bulls that come into their shelter as long as they are not aggressive and have a suitable temperament.

The shelter was flooded with pit bulls on July 12 when 37 were taken from two Norcross men accused of animal neglect. On Tuesday, a Gwinnett County judge released ownership of the pit bulls to Animal Control and those that are safe will be adopted out.

Conrad said her pit bull rescue operation has taken dogs from all kinds of situations, including those that have been trained to fight, abused, dragged behind a car and even set on fire.

"It's a myth that if a dog has been fought that it can't be rehabilitated," Conrad said. "With the right training and socialization, they can become perfectly safe dogs."