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Best Friends Animal Society Online Forum

March 21, 2005


Merritt Clifton, Editor Animal People

Question from Linda: I’ve been reading all the info I can on the dog fighting underground in our
country – including a stack of articles I got from HSUS’ west coast office – & am developing a
plan of attack for our region. Though I have the assistance of HSUS’ regional office, this issue
has not really been dealt with in our neck of the woods, and the more I read, the the sadder &
more repulsed I become.

Merritt Clifton response: The HSUS literature will not really help you a fraction as much in
combating dogfighting as it should. Neither will the literature or strategy of any other major
mainstream humane society or animal control agency in the U.S., because all of it tends to tap-
dance around the crux of the problem.
One of the major reasons why the major organizations in animal protection tend to tap-
dance around the problem is a deep and indeed deliberately cultivated misunderstanding of the
ethnic and racial issues involved.
Most animal advocates who deal with dogfighting today tend to recognize it as a deadly
problem in inner cities, associated with Afro-American and Hispanic drug gangs, as well as with
white methadrine addicts in rural areas--but most of the people trying to stop dogfighting today
don't know how it came to be where it is.
Most are not clearly aware that as recently as 25 years ago dogfighting was virtually
unknown in inner cities. Most U.S. animal control officers had rarely if ever seen pit bull terriers,
or American Staffordshires or any of the many other terms used to describe what are essentially
just color variants of the same breed of fighting dog.
Dogfighting in most of the U.S. was an artifact of history. Historically, dogfighting had once
been practiced in waterfront neighborhoods around the country, brought from England along with
the dogs. Dogfighting thrived as a gambling pastime of sailors for more than 100 years, but
before it spread far from the coasts and the Great Lakes, it was discouraged by the strict anti-
gambling perspective of frontier Protestant religion, by the association of dogfighting with idlers,
by the impracticality of transporting fighting dogs by wagon or train, and eventually by the
aggressive opposition of the author Jack London.
Allied with Massachusetts SPCA founder George Angell, his voice amplified by the
hundreds of Jack London Clubs that Angell sponsored via the American Humane Education
Society, Jack London between 1905 and his death in 1916 drove dogfighting out of the
respectable sporting press. Dogfighting was soon banned by legislation in almost every state
whose legislature the Ku Klux Klan did not control.
From then until the early 1980s, dogfighting was almost exclusively a fundraising activity of
the Klan and Klan splinter groups, along with cockfighting and pigeon shoots. As recently as the
early 1930s, Klan chapters would openly advertise dogfights, cockfights, and pigeon shoots. As
overt racism became less and less respectable, along with cruelty to animals, the ads became
more discreet.
By the 1970s, as the Klan itself faded, the Klan connection was barely visible--unless you
knew what to look for. By then, the Klan itself had largely morphed into motorcycle gangs and
skinheads, and the younger generations of racists had fled to the west and Pacific Northwest,
pursuing twisted dreams of building a white supremacist empire that would stretch from Utah to
Alaska. Instead of moonshining, they cooked meth. Instead of bedsheets, they wore tattoos.
But they took dogfighting with them. In Oakland, where the national headquarters of the
Hell's Angels and the Black Panthers were only blocks apart in the early 1970s, where I first
encountered dogfighting, and in prisons all over the country, the white bad guys and the black
bad guys met, exchanged cultural influences, and produced mirror images of each other: white
pimps. Black dogfighters.
If the Imperial Grand Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan had devised a plot about then to do the
maximum possible damage to Afro-Americans, he could not have concocted a more diabolical
scheme than to introduce dogfighting to black inner cities.
With the proceeds from dogfighting in decline for generations, there was no longer any
reason to keep it as an exclusive franchise, while unleashing pit bull terriers amid crowded
housing projects and multi-family small framehouses full of little kids was a surefire way to kill and
maim many more children, faster, than the Birmingham Bomber ever dreamed of.
Here was a weapon deadlier than razor blades for inner city youth to fight with, with more
backfire potential than a zip gun. Here was an animal whom crime-plagued people would chain to
porches for protection, who would as often harm them instead.
But the Imperial Grand Wizards Ku Klux Klan are not really wizards at all. There was no big
plot to what they did. Certainly they did not anticipate that the bleeding-heart liberal humane
community would unwittingly become their strongest allies--and would continue to be for the next
30 years, at least.
During the same years that dogfighting was spreading around the world from port to port
with the British Navy and merchant fleet, a few generations before Charles Darwin spent his
shore leave deducing the theory of evolution instead of attending dogfights, the principles of
selective breeding to produce fiercer fighting dogs and faster racehorses became generally
While gamblers produced the pit bull terrier and kindred fighting breeds, upper class dog
fanciers developed the concept of the purebred show dog.
They also applied the theory of selective breeding to explain their own good fortune.
Inherited wealth was theirs not simply because their ancestors were on the winning side of a war,
or kissed the king's butt, or both, but because they were of "good breeding," which perhaps even
entitled them to own slaves.
"Well-bred" people of course had to have "well-bred" dogs. From out of the attitude of class
superiority came the further notion of the superiority of dogs whose gene pool was deliberately
narrowed to the point that a similar narrowing among humans would most assuredly produce
idiots. Breeds were defined as "pure" only when it was no longer possible to discern the work of
natural evolution among them.
The theory of evolution arrived as a great challenge to this mistaken view of natural
hierarchical order. Evolution recognizes adaptability, not specialization, as the ultimate
requirement for species survival. Purebreds, human or canine, are maladaptive and foredoomed
to extinction. "Breed" and "race" represent the beginnings of slow adaptation into more
specialized creatures whose opportunities to thrive despite habitat change over the centuries are
relatively limited. The infinite variability of mutts--hybrid vigor--is the trait that best ensures
passing one's genes farthest into the future.
Adherents of a belief in racial purity tend to resist accepting the implications of evolution.
Remember what I said about the production of idiots.
People who worry about preserving particular dog breeds are mostly unwittingly upholding
similarly misguided pre-Darwinian ideas. Dogs themselves did quite well at selecting the traits
that would best ensure their survival, including in proximity to humans, for millions of years before
humans mucked about in the process, creating breeds--like the pit bull terrier and many dozens
of others--who have no natural analogs and could not survive on their own, in their natural
ecological niche, without undergoing considerable backward evolution to resemble their much
less specialized ancestors.
However, dog breed fanciers are a considerable subset of the dog-keeping population.
From the beginning of the humane movement, dog breed fanciers have been among the highest
donors to human organizations. When most of the U.S. banned dogfighting in the early 20th
century, the humane community abruptly found itself called upon to dispose of countless dogs
who had been bred for fights that would now never occur.
Even though those humane societies that held animal control contracts were already
struggling to find ways of quickly killing ever larger numbers of harmless humble mutts, the
humane community responded to the discomfort of breed fanciers over mass destruction of pit
bull terriers by initiating the first large-scale attempt to alter the dangerous image of the breed.
Books such as Pep: The Story of A Brave Dog were commissioned and distributed to public
school libraries, for example, to attempt to persuade the public to adopt pit bulls over humble
The current claims of pit bull defenders that pit bulls were once America's favorite dog, were
not dangerous toward human handlers, etc., can mostly be traced back to that epoch. (In fact, the
most popular dog breeds when pit bulls are said to have been most popular were the American
collie and the Border collie, reflecting the then-longtime importance of the since almost vanished
U.S. wool industry.)
Between the early 20th century and the early 1980s, breed fanciers similarly called upon
the humane community to help defend and rehabilitate the image of Dobermans and German
shepherds, who never actually rated high in actuarial risk, i.e. amount of payout in death and
injury cases relative to the numbers of dogs insured.
Except for trained guard dogs, whose behavior was specifically modified to increase their
threat potential, Dobermans and German shepherds were never demonstrably more dangerous
than other large breeds.
Then came the invasion of dogfighting into inner city black neighborhoods. Remember
where it came from. Be aware that a black child is now three times more likely to be killed or
maimed by a dog before age 10 than a white child. Be aware of the role of fighting dogs in
guarding the crack houses that menace entire neighborhoods with the sort of traffic they attract.
Know the extent to which bad guys with their bad dogs have amplified the fear that inner city
people already had of street crime.
Remember the origin of the whole idea of "breed" as a virtue, among people dedicated to
maintaining their own privileged status by equating it with their own "racial purity," distinguished
by "good breeding."
Now consider the irony that in the mistaken equation of "breed discrimination" with human
racism, the Humane Society of the U.S. and American SPCA, among others, have since 1984
joined the American Kennel Club in leading the opposition to breed-specific legislation that would
fight the proliferation of dogfighting in exactly the same manner that we fight drug abuse: by
prohibiting the production and sale of the dangerous item and associated paraphernalia.
Prohibiting the production and sale of crack, speed, and heroin in no way interferes with the
legitimate production and use of drugs of authentic medicinal value.
Prohibiting the production and sale of dog breeds who have been artificially manipulated to
become weapons will in no way interfere with the right to existence, such as it is, of any well-
behaved living dog. It will merely ensure the rapid reduction in numbers of the only dogs who in
the U.S. are bred and disposed of like meat, with an average lifespan of only about 18 months,
whether killed in the ring or euthanized by an animal shelter, and a euthanasia rate of 93% when
admitted to animal shelters.
Pit bull terriers and their close mixes, constituting under 5% of the U.S. dog population,
have accounted for half the total actuarial risk in each individual year since 1982. Rottweilers
have accounted for about 25%, and all other breeds combined have accounted for the
While there are human victims among all classes and ethnic groups, Afro-Americans,
especially Afro-American children, have suffered most.
Failing to fully integrate the Afro-American community into humane work during the 20th
century, after a promising start in the 19th century, was the first great dereliction of duty toward
Afro-Americans of the U.S. humane movement.
The second was failure to keep dogfighting from spreading into the Afro-American inner
city, from the most racist niches within white America.
Both failures now need to be rectified--as does a significant dereliction of duty toward dogs.
No dog chooses to be a pit bull.
As Randy Grim has observed among the feral dogs of the abandoned industrial areas
surrounding St. Louis, dogs themselves genetically select away from pit bull traits as rapidly as
they can, so that within two generations any defining pit bull characteristics disappear.


Question from Linda: So, what do you suggest be done? HSUS, as little credit as you give
them, has at least encouraged the courts to prohibit felons on probation for drug offenses from
owning or possessing pit bulls or any other dogs. You cited the problem of fighting dogs being
used to protect crack houses; they are also used in many other aspects by persons involved in
illegal activities and persons on probation/parole. Anyone involved with or knowledgeable about
dog fighting is aware of the connection between dog fighting, drug sales, illegal gun sales, and
prostitution. This is a much broader problem than what the Ku Klux Klan has done to Afro-

Merritt Clifton response: Read 100 Years of Lynching, by Ralph Ginzburg, and then let
me know if you care to repeat such a fundamentally ignorant remark.
The Ku Klux Klan and splinter groups lynched Afro-Americans in 46 of the 48 continental
states between 1865 and 1965, tens of thousands of them, and raped, beat, tortured, robbed, and
vandalized hundreds of thousands more, most of them innocent of any crime.
There is scarcely an Afro-American my age who didn't have a close relative who
experienced KKK terrorism first hand.
You are never going to be able to deal effectively with dogfighting until you recognize that
among many young Afro-American men owning a fighting dog is symbolic of taking away and
personally controlling and using a former instrument of repression.
Ironically, dogfighting and the proliferation of pit bull terriers in particular, Rottweilers to a
slightly lesser extent, are still among the instruments of those who most oppress the Afro-
American community--and now the terrorism comes mostly from within.
The white dogfighters, meanwhile, are the same trash they always were, but now they cook
methadrine in the rural West and Northwest more than they cook moonshine in the South.
Stopping the proliferation of dogfighting requires recognizing that the linkage to crime is not
just an association with crime; it is an association with crimes of repression and dominance,
committed by low-status males not just for money or kicks, but as part and parcel of trying to raise
themselves up by forcing someone else down.
These days the human victims are usually the women and children who are unfortunate
enough to be in proximity to the dogfighters: their own wives and girlfriends. Their own children.
The most numerous victims are the dogs, several of whom have recently been founded
hanged, like lynching victims, in St. Louis.
Why do you suppose that was?
What do you suppose inspired it?
What message was it supposed to send?
It is a question of how we are going to address the violence that is so prevalent in our
culture, race aside. And how are we going to deal with a network of violence (the dog fighting
network) that has resources well beyond any government or animal advocacy agency?
Personal participation in violence in American culture is actually much lower, overall, than it
has ever been. Our schools are far less tolerant of fighting than when I was lad, duking it out daily
with gangs of bullies in order to eat the vegetarian lunch I made myself in peace. Our courts are
far less tolerant of drunken brawling, wife-beating, and sexual assault. Violent men are held in far
less community esteem.
The odds that a man will go to war are still just a fraction of what they were during the
Vietnam War years, let alone the World War II years, so flush that rhetoric about "the violence
that is so prevalent in our culture."
Show me any society, anywhere, that has reduced violence faster. We still have a lot more
personal violence going on than our Canadian neighbors, but much less than our Mexican
neighbors, whose levels of violence are actually quite comparable to what ours used to be, a
mere two or three generations back.
What all of this tells me is that we know what to do about violence and how to do it, once we
form a societal consensus that we want less of it. It involves applying a whole range of strategies,
from early childhood education to how we manage criminal justice.
One of the most important elements is reducing access to weapons. Restricting where men
could take sidearms markedly reduced saloon shootouts, for example.
Another important element is reducing public tolerance of contributory behavior. Not only
drunken brawling but public drunkenness itself is now socially unacceptable, even for sailors on
shore leave. That wasn't true half a century ago in many and perhaps most working class
Both of these elements point toward the necessity and utility of accepting and promoting
breed-specific legislation to prohibit the breeding and sale of pit bull terriers, their close mixes,
and other dogs bred specifically for fighting characteristics.
Rottweilers and their close mixes belong on the list as well, as the only other breed type
associated with comparable actuarial risk. Descended from the medieval cart-pulling dogs who
were crossed with terriers to produce the ancestral pit bull, Rottweilers are actually among the
closest pit bull relatives.
[Other descendants of cart-pulling dogs apparently didn't share much with the fighting dog
gene pool, and enjoy generally good reputations.]
I already hear the rumbling from pit bull defenders that if pit bulls are banned, other breeds
will be produced to fight.
Stow it.
Dogfighters have been experimenting for centuries to try to develop other fighting breeds.
What they have come up with are the likes of the Dogo Argentino, Presa Canario, and Fila
Brasiero, all of which are predominantly pit bulls, crossed with other large dogs.
Of all the major fighting breeds worldwide, only one, the Japanese tosa, is not primarily a pit
None of them have close analogs in natural dog evolution, all of them are the products of
highly contrived human intervention in their gene pool, and there is no rational reason why
anyone of good sense and compassion should want to breed more of them.
Incidentally, overbreeding most kinds of dogs, e.g. Dalmatians and Chihuahuas, is
eventually self-corrected by market factors. When all the homes are filled, the price drops, so the
breeders stop turning them out -- albeit after animal shelters are flooded with the homeless
Overbreeding pit bulls and close mixes is not corrected by market factors, because the
dogfighting market exists to profitably dispose of any who flunk out of homes or never find homes,
but do not find their way to shelters.
The secondary market in fighting dogs and bait dogs for training fighting dogs has kept
overbreeding pit bulls lucrative. The existence of the secondary market makes breeding pit bulls
much more like breeding pigs and chickens (or racing greyhounds) than like breeding animals
who are not considered short-cycle disposable commodities.