The house showed the dark, cruel life of a pit bull being groomed to fight.
It’s now likely that notorious dogfighter Michael Vick will be with the Philadelphia Eagles for another season. While Vick has renounced the cruel sport, experts say they’ve recently seen a spike in dogfighting cases. WHYY joined SPCA enforcement officers on a raid of a suspected dog-fighting operation. [audio:100413LFDOG3.mp3]
From the street there’s nothing about the brown house on the eleven-hundred block of Erie Avenue that sets it apart from any of its neighbors. There’s a set of trash cans next to a porch full of worn furniture and a couple of lounging cats.
But the evidence SPCA officers found when they executed a search warrant on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, shows a dark secret.
While the officers announced their presence, dogs behind a wooden fence sounded a frantic alarm.
In the backyard a group of pit bulls were chained next to makeshift shelters made of wood and blue plastic Barrels. The dogs barked and paced, looking curious and nervous about the visitors.
SPCA officers rescued six pit bulls that were marked significant scarring on their faces and bodies. And inside they made a chilling find: equipment used to make dogs better fighters: a treadmill, injectable drugs and scales, and a device used for forced breeding…called a rape stand.
The officers loaded the dogs, and evidence including heavy chains into a truck.
The pick-up truck belongs to PSPCA Director of Law Enforcement George Bengal.
“We found a lot of training paraphanalia,” Bengal said. “There’s records kept of the training schedule of these dogs…how long they run on the treadmill, how much injectables are given, how much vitamins are given to these animals so they’re kept on a pretty much a rigid athletic scale. There are records kept of these animals to see how they’re progressing with the training.”
Police arrested a man named Johnnie Williams at the house and charged him with a third degree felony for possession of fighting dogs.
The chains, photos of the dogs, and other evidence will be used to try to put him behind bars.
Assistant District Attorney Barbara Paul,
“In essence they’re torture chambers for these animals,” Paul said. “They put them on treadmills and make them walk until they’re exhausted. Some of them have water tanks where they make them tread water to gain strength. They put incredibly heavy chains around their necks to strengthen their necks and shoulders.”
Paul and others who fight animal abuse are all too aware that heartbreaking cases like these occur against the backdrop of Philadelphia being home to America’s most notorious dogfighter, Michael Vick.
Animal fighting cases in 2009 tripled compared to the year before Vick joined the Eagles. It may be that Vick’s signing contributed to increased reporting of the crime but the SPCA’s George Bengal believes Vick made dogfighting cool for a lot of kids.
“There’s no doubt in my mind especially the youth of today they look at Michael Vick as their idol and it sort of promotes them to follow in his footsteps,” Bengal said.
Prosecutor Barbara Paul seconds that:
“Since the Michael Vick case, having a pitbull is now a status symbol for young people in the city and animal fighting to them is not considered a bad thing. So there’s been more reporting and we have had some more cases to prosecute.”
The good news, Paul says, is that judges are now taking the crime more seriously and giving jail time to dogfighters.
Those tougher sentences came too late to prevent the cruelty visited on a quivering, terrified pitbull that SPCA officers tried to unload from their truck after the raid on Erie Avenue.
Once removed from the truck, the black dog with a white chest and pleading eyes flattened itself to the pavement in the parking lot.
Gently, Officer Ashley Mutch coaxed the dog to come inside,
In the end, Mutch scooped the frightened dog up in her arms and carried him inside where he’d get a medical exam, treatment, then a long wait with dozens of other rescued animals. The traumatized dog is evidence, and will have to be held until the criminal charges in the case are resolved.
Then, if he’s lucky, he’ll find a new owner and something he’s never known: a home.