Dog fighting is one of the cruellest forms of animal abuse yet takes place in most countries every day. Owners of the dogs convince themselves that they love their animals and that they are good, responsible owners.
In June 2016 I was asked to conduct a covert investigation into how fighting dogs were bred, raised, trained, kept and fought, writes Mark Randell.
A dog being kept at the fighting kennels in Bulgaria / Photo Credit: Hidden-in-Sight
Exposing the Reality Behind the Brutality
Having worked undercover as a Detective Inspector of Special Branch, and more latterly having run covert animal abuse investigations this was a project that appealed – to expose the reality behind the brutality.
Good criminals know when no-one does anything. I felt with greater understanding, more potentially could be done to stop or prevent them.
Some work had already been done in this area in the UK. A Panorama documentary in 2007, some expose typewritten material and a look at the subject by Channel 4.
‘Cradle to Grave’ is a cliché used in animal investigations and in the dog fighting world it is very apt as many animals end up in a grave, killed during a fight or afterwards by the owners that ‘love’ them.
Back in 2013, I co-founded Hidden-in-Sight; an organisation that aims to expose animal cruelty in order to prevent it, and to help law enforcement agencies and animal groups understand how to work more closely together to prevent cruelty, both of animals and against human violence. The two often intertwine in animal exploitation.
There are few dog fighting experts in the world, and even fewer organisations that want to tackle it, perhaps because it is hidden underground it is easy to ignore.
Yet in the USA, for example, it is estimated that 35% of dog fighting warrants also recover drugs and guns. I have been looking at the activity since 2013 and have made good contacts with many of the experts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Initially, in 2016, I identified many of the main fighters impacting in Europe, albeit initially through their ‘code’ and ‘kennel’ names. Some individuals stood out due to their substantial impact on the industry over many years. These subjects featured as part of the BBC piece aired in February 2019.
One underground website alone where fighting dogs are ‘registered’ contained 186,000 dogs attached to 100's of kennels’ – a term used to signify a collection of dogs belonging to a certain owner, often containing animals from a particular ‘Bloodline’; a family tree that fighters believe can determine how much ‘game’ a dog will have, how good a fighter it will be.
A dog that wins three ‘official’ fights will be given a ‘Ch.’ title, meaning ‘Champion’ and five fights, a ‘Gr.Ch’ title – ‘Grand Champion’. These dogs are valuable for stud as they can become ‘POR’; Producer of Records and so on. The language is very particular and linking code names, clandestine fight records and Bloodlines can become time-consuming. Watching hours of fights between dogs being urged by their owners to rip each other apart is disturbing too.
This is Gr.Ch. Zinker. He is the 'Grandfather' of the dogs traded around the world / Photo Credit: Hidden-in-Sight
From 2017, I worked alongside the BBC and 18 months later the outcome was the expose seen on the main news and published online. Needless to say, others played a critical part in collecting material along the way, some of whom have to stay undercover for their own safety. There was also an additional expose run by Vice.com covering dog fighting in Greece and the Balkans that explained that at the time of writing there was estimated to be 2000 fighting dogs in Greece, belonging to 55 ‘kennels’.
These numbers are simply staggering. Frighteningly, these are ONLY the registered muscly breed dogs and there are many other ‘street-roll’ dogs and fights not recorded as well as fights that involve large shepherd-type dogs, mostly in Eastern Europe and in Asia.
How do we stop dog fighting?
Jessica Rock, a Former Prosecutor and the Director of Legal Advocacy and Law Enforcement Support at the Atlanta Humane Society believes as I do, that education is the way forward.
"Dog fighting is horrific animal abuse, connected to other violence and criminal activity such as gangs, guns and drug crimes. I train Law Enforcement agencies across the United States and appreciate how hard it is to investigate and infiltrate the gangs.
"I have seen the undercover work shown on the BBC News and commend Hidden-in-Sight and others who were involved in showing how this organization has been trading fighting dogs in over 20 countries. It is crucial that dog fighting is understood by Law Enforcement so that animals, vulnerable humans and communities can be protected."
This is Ivo - the mastermind behind a dog fighting operation. Here he poses with a wall chart (incredibly) of all the fighting dogs in Bulgaria - Photo Credit: Hidden-in-Sight
2. Heavy (and enforced) jail sentences to make people think twice
With Naturewatch Foundation I have been able to take animal cruelty training recently to law enforcement across several cities in Ukraine, and remarkably convictions have been happening with lengthy jail terms being awarded.
In some countries, Ukraine for example, under Article 299, dog fighters can be jailed for eight years. In the US, dog fighters are generally jailed for around three years, but sentences can run consecutively for multiple dogs, so for example, if they are found with four dogs, they’ll serve 12 years.
This puppy is about to be sold for dog fighting / Photo Credit: Hidden-in-Sight
In the UK, the RSPCA has a very knowledgeable Special Operations Unit and the League Against Cruel Sports funded some of this 2016 investigation work. They also have a dedicated confidential Animal Crimewatch line that I set up in 2012.
Here we can only jail dog fighters for six months, with a usual sentence carried out of two and a half months – this is shockingly the same for dog fighters found with, say, four dogs. They will still only serve two and a half months because sentences run concurrently, not consecutively as they do in the USA to extend jail time.
Michael Gove (the current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) said the law will change to hand down longer jail sentences, but, as yet, it hasn’t.
3. Improving communications between agencies
There are great pockets of other work going on in Greece, Italy, Spain, the Southern USA. Sadly, still, no-one really touches all the global connections though.
More police officers and border agencies should be aware of what is really happening and why investigating dog fighting is important, for all crime, for all communities, and certainly for the dogs betrayed by their owners.
After two and a half years, my work isn’t at an end but seeing what happens to the dogs, encouraged by men, takes its toll. Moving forward, my personal wish is to be able to offer training and support to a new wave of people who want to expose and investigate this crime.