Who let the dogs fight?

Evan Hessel

In alleys and abandoned garages, dogs maul each other for a crowd of gamblers and the children that care for them.

Evanston residents like to think that such a terrible thing could never happen in their town, said Peggy Froh Asseo, vice president for external relations for the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago. But dogfighting, the practice of forcing two dogs to fight each other for the purpose of gambling, is a reality in Evanston, Chicago and other urban areas, Asseo said.

The Anti-Cruelty Society’s state-approved humane investigators have identified three neighborhoods in the Chicago area where dogfights are particularly popular: the West Side’s Austin neighborhood, the Englewood area on the South Side and the northern part of Rogers Park bordering Evanston.

“There is no reason to believe that there is a wall keeping dogfights out of Evanston,” Asseo said.

Chief Animal Control Warden Bill Andrews says he knows dogfights are taking place by the number of wounded dogs left at the Evanston Animal Shelter.

“We get dogs that are all chewed up with infected wounds all over their bodies,” Andrews said. “We find them out on the street or tied up behind the shelter.”

Andrews said no statistics about the scope of dogfighting were available. Dogfighting is generally only observed by participants, and outsiders are afraid to report the crime, said Ald. Joseph Kent (5th). When it is reported, police often record the crime as a disturbance rather than an animal cruelty violation.

Kent said his residents frequently report starving dogs locked in garages and backyards. Kent also said he regularly sees elementary school children walking full-grown pit bulls on the streets in his ward. He said he suspects the children are being paid to care for the animals until their owners enter them in a fight.

Pit bulls have three to four times the jaw strength of other large dogs and could severely injure someone if they broke loose from the children walking them, Andrews said.

Many of Kent’s constituents, particularly elderly residents, said they are afraid to walk in certain parts of the Fifth Ward because of the dogs, Kent said.

But the presence of pit bulls on the streets of Evanston is only one of the many aspects of dogfighting that worry residents and police.

While forcing dogs to fight is a violent crime in itself, it is important for people to understand that dogfights are usually accompanied by other crimes, such as gang activity and illegal drug use, Asseo said.

“Dogfighting has a devastating overall effect on the social fabric of communities,” she said.

The psychological effects of dogfighting on local children is one of Kent’s biggest concerns, he says.

“Kids who raise dogs and go to these dogfights are gradually desensitized and eventually have no respect for life,” Kent said.

Kent attended a dogfight when he was in third grade in Mason Park at the corner of Church Street and Florence Avenue. He said he knows children have been going to dogfights for decades and is writing a survey to be administered at local schools to statistically determine how popular dogfights are among Evanston elementary and middle school students.

The survey is the first step in developing a program to educate local children on the humane treatment of animals. But educational efforts must be extended to local adults and police officers for any progress to be made in eliminating dogfighting, said Officer Susan Trigourea, Evanston Police Department’s only state-approved humane investigator.

Trigourea completed a humane investigator training program in November 2000 and has since delivered brief presentations on animal cruelty violations to EPD’s investigative and patrol divisions.

Dogfighting was only added to the list of crimes investigated and prosecuted by Illinois police officers in June 2001, and many officers simply do not know that facilitating or witnessing a dogfight is a felony, Trigourea said. EPD must prove to residents that they will respond to animal cruelty reports with investigations and arrests when necessary, Trigourea said.

EPD arrested a man in February 2001 for forcing his dog to participate in a fight, Trigourea said. His case, which is still pending, is one of the first dogfighting cases to be processed by the Cook County 2nd District Court. The man’s dog has been held at Evanston Animal Shelter, 2310 Oakton St., for more than a year while courts have deliberated about the charges facing its owner.

Education and increased enforcement of animal cruelty penalties are the two most important tools for eliminating dogfighting, Trigourea said.