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Dog fighting is one reason activists want the city's animal control division put under the police department. But it's not for the animals' sakes only.

Into the Fray


One of the dogs is just lying there, its back against the basement floor, limbs hanging weakly in the air, but the blood still squirts heavy and thick from its neck every time the other's splattered head moves to reassert the grip of its terrible vise, to snap and clamp the sharp ridges shut again, and blindly squeeze the remaining quarts of life from the prostrate throat of its opponent. It is a naked spectacle, revolting and true, but the people here are even more sickening. Their hot, eager voices, charged with furious underworld glee, exhort the victor to give them a kill. Some even maneuver themselves close around the dogs to get a better look, as though they were but so many minor demons vying to devour the freshly departing soul of this awful sacrifice. Their frenzied shadows play more feverishly than the dogs' ever did, and instantly it is clear: They did this. Without them it would not be possible. Nature, red in tooth and claw, could not have contrived so perverse a ceremony; this is the work of man. Delores McQuinn and Jeanne Bridgforth regard the video with blank inscrutable horror. They have seen it before. They know that tonight this scene will play itself out someplace in Richmond, perhaps in several places. They want to stop dog fighting and the systematic cruelty that prepares dogs for fighting, as harshly groomed gladiators, for the fun and profit of some Richmonders. They want to stop those who create such vileness, and those who are created by it. That is because crime begets crime: "God forbid there are children at these things, but there are," McQuinn says. "Animal cruelty is a precursor to human cruelty." She is referring not only to the cliche pet-torturing childhoods of most serial killers, but the desensitizing effect of witnessing and participating in dog fights. She is talking about cause and effect: "You only graduate to something bigger." McQuinn, who represents the 7th District on City Council, will introduce an ordinance Jan. 24 that starts the process of making Richmond's animal control division a function of the police department. That will help prevent and prosecute this and other forms of animal cruelty, she says. Moving the division from its latest berth, in the health department, will increase enforcement and send a message. Animal control: those are indeed the right words to describe restraining and discouraging people from this variety of evil. But why McQuinn? Dog fighting is particularly acute and brazen in her East End district and contributes to the sense of disorder in which other crime thrives. Over Christmas a resident pointed out to her the dead fighting dog visible through the window of a vacant building; two others were found dead inside. "I've been so naive. I see these animals walking around every day," McQuinn says. Now she knows the pit bulls and Rottweilers lumbering under the weights their owners place on them to make them even stronger are more than just a "tough-guy thing" or drug-dealer fashion accessory. The dogs are, in fact, career criminals whose lives may be the only ones routinely more nasty, brutish and short than their owners': "I've been living here 21 years and I never would have thought that," McQuinn says. Most people would not have; then again, most people would not steal a young fighting dog or buy it from a specialized breeder. Most people would not beat, starve and isolate it into insanity; inflict burns and other injuries to increase its aggressiveness; feed it only other dogs to heighten its taste for mortal combat. Most people would not pay to see such dogs kill one another, or bet on them. But such people also do other unpleasant things most people do not do. Those are other reasons for going after them, and they often are present at dog fighting: drugs, illegal weapons, gang activity, gambling, money laundering. "It's a deeper culture of ... something we cannot see. This is just the surface of something that is so deep," McQuinn says. "You open up a can of worms." That is one part of the reluctance of the police department to taking on animal control again. Other parts are the difficulty of infiltrating dog-fighting rings, the inability to chart progress, the sense that it is somehow less significant than "the real people problems" some of McQuinn's own constituents have told her they think take precedence. To which Bridgforth, president of animal-welfare group Save Our Shelter, says: "Crime is all related and you can't turn a blind eye to any of it." Things may be changing already. Several dog-fighting arrests last week and off-the-record buzz give the sense that something is in the works, something multi-jurisdictional, involving state and federal prosecutors, police and city management (few of whom returned calls for comment). Could this be a canine counterpart to Project Exile? "I think it would be fair to say that you could find a jurisdictional basis on which to investigate and prosecute offenses that would arise out of this type of behavior," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicholas Altimari. He would not confirm or deny that such an operation is planned or under way, or comment on dog fighting other than to say, "We're against dog fighting, in general terms. We're against any crime." For activist Bridgforth, the crime of dog fighting, a felony in Virginia and 42 other states, is a big enough reason alone to move animal control under the police, "a system that works very well in other jurisdictions," she says. "It's a no-brainer." About 90 percent of Virginia's local police departments and sheriff's offices handle animal control; Henrico and Chesterfield counties, for example, use sworn officers with firearms: "Richmond is truly an anomaly," she says. Bridgforth adds that in its current state the animal control division lacks the ability and perhaps the willingness to be an effective law enforcer. Of 151 animal control citations in 1998, none was for cruelty violations: "That's proof that nothing is happening here," she says. So is the increased number of fighting dogs, and the increased severity of their injuries, ending up at the city shelter: "Blatant evidence ... of animal cruelty not pursued." A KPMG Peat Marwick study in 1997 suggested animal control be a police function, and McQuinn says it is better than what other cities are now considering: banning fighting breeds altogether. McQuinn and Bridgforth hope their efforts, which also will include an advertising campaign, state lobbying and proposing related ordinances, will at least deny dog-fighters the leisure of immunity; will put them on notice: "We want you to know that we know what you're doing," McQuinn says. "And we're not going to tolerate

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