continued Bodger, a school district cook with four kids of her own, says it was the police who told her what was going on.
"I thought those neighbors were just mean people with vicious animals, but the police said [they had] all the signs of people fighting pit bulls for money, for gambling."
Dogfighting is a felony in 46 states, including California. It draws up to three years behind bars and up to a $50,000 fine. For Greg Dietrich, a graphic designer who's on the City Heights Town Council, a similar neighbor problem almost cost him his life.
"Two years ago I had a neighbor who used to lift weights," says Dietrich. "He had two pit bulls. The first thing that got my attention was seeing him get the round 50-pound weights and tie them with chains around [each] dog's neck, and then throw the dog and the weight down into the canyon. He'd stand at the top of the canyon and go, 'Come on, boy! Come on, boy!' and the dog would struggle up the hill with the weight dragging and choking his tongue. The dog would get to the top of the canyon and be all happy to be back with his master, and he would take the dog by the throat and punch him in the face, and knock him back down into the canyon again. He did this repeatedly until the dog almost couldn't move anymore. And then he'd do it with the other dog."
It was all training to make the dogs fighting dogs, police told Dietrich. Between canyon climbs, the owner made the dogs walk treadmills and hang from trees. "He duct-taped around the muzzle of the dog's mouth and had a rope attached to the tape, threw the rope over the tree, and hung the dog six, seven feet in the air, and let the dog dangle there for about 45 minutes. You could hear that dog screaming, shaking, kicking. That was to strengthen his neck."
One day Dietrich was in the canyon looking for his cat. "I was concerned because this guy let his pit bulls have the run of the canyon all the time. And children also went down there. The dogs came down after me. I kept my hands down. I avoided eye contact. The dogs would go like you flush prey from a bush: one on one side, one on the other. I kept facing them and screaming, 'Jane!' That was my wife. 'Get your gun. Get the police!' I was there almost for 17 minutes. And I tell you, it's terrifying. Finally the dogs gave it up and they went back."
Dietrich says Animal Control gave up working with the neighbor because the neighbor threatened their officers and a police officer.
"Fortunately the officer said, 'Greg, don't worry about it. It's now a police problem. He threatened the wrong person.'" The officer, Jerry Hara, has since become a specialist in dog disturbances. And he wants to make changes.
"The old way of doing things," he says, "was [police] handled the criminal problems, and whenever we had dog problems, we'd just call Animal Control. The problem with that is sometimes they only have one or two people for the entire county of San Diego. When you call them, they might [take] an hour to get there. And you can't sit there and baby-sit a dog for that long."
"Animal Control is overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem and are not able to respond to vicious-dog calls or investigations," says Burhans in her memo. She says the San Diego County Department of Animal Control employs a total of 34 officers split between shelters in Bonita, Carlsbad, and Gaines Street. "Their operation covers over two million people."
Hara and his colleagues are now training cops to take some of the burden off Animal Control. They've joined with the City Heights community to address the dog problem. One goal is to change county laws so that owners with animals considered dangerous must carry $100,000 liability insurance, must muzzle the animals when in public, must have their dogs branded with easy permanent identification, and register them as a dangerous dog, in addition to a regular license.
One thing they won't be asking for is a law similar to those in France, Switzerland, and Puerto Rico, which ban certain "dangerous" breeds like pit bulls altogether.
"Our feeling," says Christina Burhans, "is it's the owners are the problem, not the dog. They teach them to love or hate. Pit bulls can be loving and kind dogs."