Milwaukee police: Dogfighting owners hard to track

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The dogfighting matches described this week by Milwaukee County prosecutors allegedly took place in residential neighborhoods, not in far-flung rural communities.

If true, it raises the question of why neighbors never reported seeing or hearing anything out of the ordinary.

The answer hints at why dogfighting remains so persistent in Milwaukee: Perpetrators go to such lengths to hide their actions that neighbors may not even know dogs are living next door. To combat the scourge, police have begun teaming up with animal-welfare groups to spot signs of dogfighting, and community groups have set up a telephone hotline where residents can report anything that seems the slightest bit suspicious.

Authorities arrested 13 Milwaukee-area residents Thursday and recovered 22 pit bulls, the culmination of an investigation that began with a tip of dogfighting in 2011. Police acknowledge that other perpetrators may still be out there.

Dogfighting operations can be highly sophisticated. Dog owners might build elaborate fighting pits in their basements, and they’ll often breed or pay top dollar for pit bull puppies genetically predisposed to be vicious toward other dogs. Owners also put their dogs through rigorous training regimens that build up their stamina through hours on a treadmill or long walks while dragging heavy weights.

But the owners are also part of a secretive, highly insular community, Milwaukee police Officer Ivan Wick said Friday. Matches are often planned hours in advance, and participants might arrange two or three meeting points beforehand so they can ensure they’re not being followed. They might keep their animals locked in the trunk, only taking them out when their vehicle is inside a closed garage.

Many matches are also held late at night or during pre-dawn hours, and basements can be soundproof.

So even if three or four matches are being staged in one night in a residential area, neighbors might not have a clue.

Even so, Wick said neighbor vigilance is one of the best ways to combat dogfighting.

“If you see a bunch of people showing up at a house, taking dogs in and coming out with injured dogs or not as many dogs, please call us,” he said. “There are many people who’d like to have the opportunity to investigate.

Some owners fight their dogs for the pride that comes with owning a “gamer,” Wick said. But often they’re more interested in making money. Some owners make $20,000 or more in matches in wagers with other owners, through carefully managed matches that comply with a sophisticated set of rules and regulations.

“Some people are in it for the money. Then there are some people who just like to see blood,” Wick said. “The problem posed by dogfighting is larger than I think most people realize.”

It’s hard for authorities to know how widespread the issue is. Officers often have to rely on neighbors to phone in tips, and police have begun seeking investigative advice from groups such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The nonprofit ASPCA provides free training to police departments across the nation. It helps officers spot signs of dogfighting and recognize otherwise-benign objects that are actually props used in training or fights. Those might include treadmills modified for small dogs, or wooden bite sticks used to pry a dog’s jaws open during a match.

“These things by themselves aren’t definitive evidence,” said Tim Rickey, the vice president of the ASPCA’s field investigations team. “But they’re things that hopefully raise their awareness level so they can begin investigating further,”

Wick said the training has been valuable for his officers, who are now more thorough in their searches. For example, even when they’re investigating something unrelated they might examine walls for signs of spattered dog blood.

Community groups are also trying to spread the word about dogfighting. Brew City Bully Club, a group highlights the positive aspects of pit bulls, announced an anonymous tip line Friday where residents can call in their concerns. The number is 414-688-0899.