RILEY has had trouble sleeping ever since he was left in this pen, its gate locked, its concrete floor hosed off every morning. He hates the constant barking either side of him, that deep ruff-ruff bark, deep as a dungeon. He's enticed by dozens of familiar and strange smells emanating from the drain. He's confused by passers-by who peek in, murmur an apology, and don't yell at him. For them, Riley curls his backside into view: nice tight skin, nice silky coat. Then he turns, brings his pant front-and-center for an even better display: cropped ears, massive chest, wide mouth, viselike jaw, sledgehammer head, lodgepole neck. And his disposition (let's not get too carried away).
Riley's handler (I'll call him Reggie) used to praise his three-year-old, praise Riley can still hear -- You're just the best or You got game, boy, you got it, you little monster. The gashes on Riley's face and neck are still not healed. They'll be scars. And because of them, most visitors who peer in and lock eyes with Riley will turn away in fear, not get to know the real pit bull. One thing Riley can smell is fear, and fear means something worse is coming. But if you look close you can also see wonder in his green eyes: How long am I in here for? Where's Reggie?
(I'll tell you, Riley: he's moved on to bewitch another best friend.)
Riley was dumped by Reggie in a creek bed near a construction site in North County. Neighbors reported Riley and another dog running loose at the site; one construction crew tried to approach them, but the dogs were frightened and growled. Starving, Riley and his pal would creep toward the lunch wagon, unable to resist the smell of burgers on the grill. But the dogs balked at food offered from a human hand. Eventually the workers called the animal shelter, who set up a Have-a-Heart cage. Riley went in for the bait, and a door clanged shut behind him. He was wearing a brown, studded collar. No name was on it, so the shelter gave him one.
If the histories of other abandoned pit bulls (which the North County shelter sees all the time) are a guide, then Riley was probably trained by Reggie for a year to become a fighter. Such training commonly consists of both discipline and torture. It's safe to assume that Riley was short-chained to an engine block, run for hours on a treadmill at tongue-flapping speeds, and forced to sniff gunpowder, which drove him berserk as he tried to get rid of the fire. One day, after several early battles against weaker foes, Riley was put against a big pit bull (I'll call him Hurricane), 65 pounds and a lot meaner than Riley. During the prefight, refereed ritual, both dogs were washed and dried to remove the possibility of poison. They drank from a water bottle but not before the ref had each man drink the water himself.
The ref called the dogs and handlers to the wooden pit. "Face your dogs," the ref said, and Hurricane and Riley were set at their scratch lines, 14 feet apart, each dog's head and shoulders held between his handler's legs. At "Scratch!" the dogs were let go. They charged; each went for his opponent's neck, each used his front paws and chest to climb the other's maw into the snarling air. Riley fought on and bled; Hurricane fought on and bled. Neither quit. Reggie kept yelling, C'mon, Riley, get him, tear that son of a bitch to pieces. Hurricane's handler did the same. The match roared on, 15, 20, 30 minutes. Periodically, the fight was stopped and a new scratch called. Each time, the dogs raced at each other with locomotive speed. Gashed about the face and neck, Riley was weakening fast, needing sutures to staunch the blood. But he'd never quit, because that never quit is in him -- in the push of his paws, the bite of his maw, the pop of his head against the other dog's head. At 45 minutes, Reggie picked Riley up. Game over. Winner: Hurricane.
For Riley, it had all been about pleasing his master, returning to Reggie the loyalty that Reggie had bestowed on him. After all, Reggie often cuddled him and fed him raw meat for supper. And during the fight, Reggie pulled him from the pit just when he started gagging on his own blood. Now, in the pen, Riley is sniffing near his scrotum and he finds a trace of unlicked blood. Ah, the scent reminds him of how he got into this predicament -- doing what Reggie wanted him to do. But Riley also got into this because he didn't do what Reggie wanted him to do -- lay waste to every foe.
How did Riley end up afraid, angry, and allied with Reggie? Is it something in Riley or something in Reggie that's responsible for the pit bull's nature? Natured or nurtured, this dog's exploits are the stuff of legend. When bad dogs -- those who fight and maul and, on rare occasion, kill -- get into the papers, the coverage suggests that all pit bulls are a menace; of those who attack, they may kill without mercy.
In Westchester County, New York, a two-year-old pit bull named Mr. B, who had recently been abandoned, placed in an animal shelter, and adopted by a woman, "jumped off her lap, ran into the kitchen and attacked Mrs. Page [a tenant and friend of the woman's], biting her in the face.... She bled to death as she was being rushed" to a hospital. The dog had "no history of behavior problems. There was no growling, no barking. The dog jumped up and suddenly began attacking her for no reason. The dog just went nuts."
In Dallas, "American Airlines banned aggressive dogs from its planes after a pit bull escaped from its cage in the cargo hold of a Boeing 757 and...gnawed a hole in the bulkhead, damaged the cargo hold door and chewed through garden-size electrical cables." (The meal of wires did not bring the plane down.) In King City, California, "Three pit bulls were shot and killed by police after they went on a rampage, attacking and trapping a frightened woman inside her truck for nearly half an hour. No one was hurt, but the animals caused about $400 in damages to the truck and a police car, puncturing tires on both vehicles and damaging the body of the truck."
Locally, on Durward Street in Chula Vista, a pit bull attacked a man and his shepherd. "A neighbor who witnessed the attack grabbed a .32-caliber handgun and shot the pit bull at close range twice. When the dog kept biting the shepherd's neck, the neighbor placed the gun to the pit bull's head and fired again, killing it." In Ramona, "Two pit bulls mauling a penned steer were shot to death...by a sheriff's deputy trying to stop the attack.... The steer's bellowing awakened the owner.... When the deputy arrived, the two dogs were biting the steer's head and would not let go."
In Imperial Beach, "A neighbor's pit bull got into Rich Evans' yard and mauled the family's 10-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, Coco.... Coco was submissive during the attack.... Neighbors tried spraying water and hitting the dog with a hoe during the attack, but it would not stop." When sheriff's deputies "arrived, they sprayed the dog with Mace and shot 30 pepper balls near the dogs. According to a sheriff's report, a deputy fired seven times at the dog after it charged at two officers, but the dogs were so bloody, they couldn't tell if they were hit.... The owner got rid of the dog right away, and no one knows where it is, including city officials. The neighbors later moved."
It's true: pit bulls can attack and kill. But does such notoriety tell us anything reliable about the dog, or does it tell us -- more accurately, I think -- the degree to which we misrepresent bad dogs themselves? For example, it's not true that pit bulls are the lone killer dogs. One study found that between 1979 and 1998, one-third of the 238 fatal attacks on humans in the United States were committed by pit bulls. Though two-thirds of the fatalities came from other breeds, somehow the pits still receive the killer-dog badge.
Another exaggeration: you're more likely to be bitten by a pit bull than another dog. In fact, of the 4.7 million annual dog bites (800,000 require medical attention, of which 77 percent are facial), far more of the bites are from German shepherds, huskies, and Doberman pinschers than from pit bulls. (Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number, although not the severity, of bites by dachshunds, schnauzers, and chows is higher.) However, again, people infer from press stories which feature tales of pit bulls locking their jaws and never letting go that pits are the most threatening of all dogs. That threatening aspect -- pit bulls seem to be the al-Qaeda of the animal kingdom -- has been fostered by gangs and other militarized sects in our culture, reinforcing the idea that within the breed there's a kind of latent inflexibility. This tenaciousness many people admire, and from the admiration come a host of human associations. The pit bull's mettle is characteristic of Marines and wrestlers, of stock traders and hostile takeover artists, of criminal defense attorneys (tagged as pit-bull personalities), and of war leaders: Winston Churchill's bulldoggedness against the Luftwaffe becomes George W. Bush's pit-bullishness against Saddam Hussein.
It's hard to say, reliably, what a given pit bull will do. As for temperament, few breeds differ more within the breed than the pit bull. From Chihuahua to Saint Bernard, breed similarity is the norm. But for pit bulls, the question remains open: how much is this pit bull dangerous or tractable? There seem to be three general types, each one based on the degree to which the dog has been socialized with other dogs and with people. One pit bull, typically with mixed blood or an unknown lineage, has barely been socialized; it's been raised (say, by a drug dealer) to follow orders: attack and maul anyone who is not its owner. Another (like Riley) has been bred to be dog-aggressive and has fought in a pit to please its owner. This dog is also trained to never attack a person, since the handler is always in the pit while his dog is trying to tear the other dog apart. Still another is a dog that's never been fought and has a pedigree or an owner's promise of one. This pit bull has been brought up in a loving home but may still have a trace of Mike Tyson in his system.
Or it may be that that bit of killer instinct is attributable not so much to the dog as to us. Our fear that the dog is going to behave savagely, especially around small children, may be exactly what the dog is responding to when it strikes out with tooth and claw. That doesn't mean the dog is more likely to attack people who are afraid of it. But it does mean that our current unease around the pit bull, fraught mostly with fearful expectation and the odd drop of veneration, goes a long way in determining how the dog will be conditioned -- or not -- to human society.
The paragon of pit-bull love is Bubba the Bruiser. That's his registered name; Bubba is his call name. He's harmless, says his owner, Corbin Dailey, a stocky Navy enlistee who last year lived in Tierrasanta with wife Cherlyn and their two young sons, Levi and Logan. Bubba's seven and Halloween's his birthday. He's been bred from championship bloodlines -- mating selections of pit bull champion show dogs (pits compete in conformation, weight pulls, herding, obedience, and sanctioned "bite sports" such as those used to train police dogs). To buy Bubba, Dailey dealt with a reputable man who raised purebred American pit bull terriers in Indiana. "I dealt with him," Dailey says, "because I didn't want a dog who was going to be mean to my children." Bubba rolls on the floor with the kids. He's a hulk of a dog, like those old floor-model Hoover vacuum cleaners.
Bubba is papered by the American Dog Breeders Association, which, according to its website, is the world's "largest registration office [for] the American Pit Bull Terrier." (The American Kennel Club recognizes only two breeds descended from pit bulls: the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier; it does not recognize the American pit bull.) The American Dog Breeders registers only the "purebred pit bull terrier." The group neither denounces nor promotes pit-bull fighting, although another dog group, bulldogbreeds.com, contends that the American Dog Breeders Association's goal is "to register, promote and preserve the original American Pit Bull Terrier fighting-type dog." The association has recorded pedigrees of American pit bull terriers since 1909.
Bubba's ancestors are verifiable by his pedigree, an official certificate from the American Dog Breeders with fancy borders and a parchment-like feel. The certificate charts from left to right parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, three generations' worth, the minimum heritage the association allows. Dailey says that he can trace Bubba's bloodline to the mid-1800s, when it was one of the first lines registered by the association. In script, the certificate says that Bubba was sired by Van Pelt's "Igor" and birthed by Farley's "Miss Vicious." On it, Dailey shows me where one of Bubba's purebred ancestors was bred with a dog of a different breed. The American Pit Bull Terrier Gazette, the association's magazine, alerts members when a bloodline has been inbred; that is, an owner has crossed dogs who are too closely related to get, as Dailey says, "only chocolate noses" or "only blue dogs. You don't do that with people, so you don't do that with dogs."
Suddenly Bubba, who's been hanging around my knees and nudging my hand, which stopped caressing his ear a minute ago, sounds a growl. "What was that?" I say. Cherlyn has heard it too. "Oh, that's his love grunt," she says. "Stand up, honey," she tells her husband. "He has this jealousy thing." As Corbin and Cherlyn start hugging amorously, Bubba's tail beats against a chair leg, and his body shakes. He lets loose a vocalic whine, full of frustrated envy: he grunts for affection when he's not getting it.
To further illustrate, Daily baby talks, "Give me a big hug, Bubba." In a gray T-shirt that covers his own muscled chest, Dailey squats down so Bubba can put his paws up on his master's shoulders and press his ample underside against him. Nine-year-old Logan says into my tape recorder, "Bubba's spoiled rotten."
Bubba has sired 21 litters. "Twenty-one that we know about," Cherlyn says. Most of his siring has been done with registered bitches. One such is on the back porch in a cage: one-year-old Dee Dee (registered, Double D) along with her two pups. In early May 2003, Dee Dee had a litter of eight. The Daileys' ad in the Union-Tribune read, "Pit Bull Puppies, ADBA registered, champship blood lines, parents onsite, born 5/5/03, $500" -- and the phone rang 154 times during the next six weeks. But Dailey screens the callers so he can know the person's hand. "I choose who can have one," he says. How? "I'll pretend I'm into fighting. I know all the slang. One guy called up and said, 'I want your rowdiest, meanest one. Which one's kicking the shit out of the other ones?' " -- and here Dailey began playing along -- " 'Oh, that's Shithead. He's mean as shit, man.' 'Aw, cool, man. How big is he?' 'Oh, man, he's going to be, like, 150.' 'Cool, man.' " The callousness revealed, Dailey slams him hard: " 'Sorry, man, but you're an idiot, and you don't deserve a dog. And you sure as hell don't deserve one of mine.' "
Dailey says maybe 30 callers figured out his ruse. "But I picked up on them trying to go around the questions I was asking." I ask him for an example of how someone did get chosen. Dailey begs off: "You know, if I say that and you print that, then people would know what to say." Half the people who call, he says, aren't sure what they want. Of the other half, about 35 percent were calls from L.A. or Tijuana, wanting a fighting dog. Many want to fight in Mexico, where it's legal, but he won't sell to Mexican nationals. Dailey says he could get $1250 per puppy. "But sometimes, when you sell a dog for too much money, the right kind of people can't afford it. By lowering the price it gave me a better opportunity to screen people."
New owners of pit bull puppies sired by Bubba undergo not only the equivalent of lie detector tests on Meet the Parents but also Dailey's follow-ups, sometimes for years. Out of "hundreds" of puppies he's registered with the association and sold, he's lost track of only 12 owners. Even if it's just a Christmas card, he says, "I keep track of them because I want to know, what have you bred this dog with?" Daily's hope is that by producing enough dogs like Bubba, Dee Dee, and their offspring, with natures dominated by gentleness and affection, the aggressive gene pool of the pit bull will be softened.
Dailey finally lets Dee Dee and the two puppies out of their crate. They have waited without barking for 35 minutes. The puppies trot over to us, fall and stand. Dailey picks one up, holds it so its body droops, and shows me a sad, innocent face with a beautiful swath of dark brown running from its nose to its eyes, in which I detect nothing pugnacious. "This is the American pit bull terrier," he says. "This is what they are. They are not the hideous monsters portrayed on TV. Look at her! Can you imagine somebody throwing this little puppy in the ring to be maimed or killed? My God, what kind of person does that?"
Lots of people do, says Lieutenant James Treece, a 30-year veteran of San Diego County's Department of Animal Services. It's been a few years since Treece was "in the field" busting bad dog owners. When I talk to him, he's office-bound at the new Kroc-Copley Animal Shelter on Gaines Street, where he conducts administrative hearings. (Treece retired earlier this year.) Evidence from dogfighting cases resides in a side room to his office. On Treece's desk sits a ceramic head of a bloodhound wearing a Sherlock Holmes detective hat. Inside I find cellophane-wrapped candy.
One day when Treece was on patrol, he came upon a small dog, barking and loose in a yard and bothering its neighbors. The yard also contained a very large pit bull, halfway in his doghouse. The dog was secure, it appeared, on a heavy chain. Treece spoke informally with the owner, a "biker type," as he recalled, "a nice enough guy." The little dog was making a racket, so the owner picked him up and took him inside. Hearing the chain clank, Treece was aware at once that the pit bull was creeping toward him. Treece didn't look; a turn might provoke the dog. Instead he wagered the chain would hold the dog when the end of its tether was reached. Sure enough, the pit galloped, but the chain stopped his thrust, snapping him back violently. Then the dog, says Treece, just gave up ("seemed to shrug, 'What the hell' ") and ambled back to his doghouse. Treece was terrified.
When the owner returned, Treece told him what had happened and said, "That's the most frightening dog I have ever seen."
The man's eyes widened. "You think so?" he said, with unrestrained joy. "That's fantastic!"
Did Treece think he would have had a chance to mace the dog or use his club on him had the chain broken? "No," he says. "That dog would have taken me down and torn me to pieces."
Most members of Canis familiaris, Treece says, react similarly when confronting a foe. Canines who squabble over females in estrus, for example, go through the same elaborate posturing. Indeed, having lived in the wild once as wolves has taught dogs two things: one, to choreograph the impending battle by raising the hackles, showing teeth, wrinkling the mouth, lowering and swaying the head, snarling and growling -- all abundant attack warnings; and two, to avoid injury, which means, if necessary, an early submission: the dog knows that an injury will make it prey for other animals, as well as weaken its ability to hunt food. "Remember," Treece says, "there are no vets in the wild. The confrontation is usually over after one bite."
Animal combat with biting and holding on and ripping flesh and veins to increase blood loss seldom, if ever, occurs. But we think that when pit bulls fight they're behaving like wild animals. Not so, Treece says. They've been trained to do something "abnormal." Such fight-training will make some dogs winners and other dogs losers; the winners, obviously more aggressive, are then mated with other winners, while the losers (like Riley) are cast aside. Breeding for this "win at all costs" trait has made it dominant in the pit bull. After centuries of such selection, handlers like to term the pit bull's aggression "natural." Treece believes it's just the opposite: it's natural to the handlers, not the dogs.
Pit bulls, he says, don't "telegraph" the way other dogs do. They don't give a clear message to another dog or to a human. One temperament tester for the county told me that pit bulls possess an on-switch. "You can't read them. They start higher up on the aggression scale. They jump right into a fight." In her examination, the tester will play with pit bulls, then give a stop-signal to say she's finished. The dogs don't stop; they keep jumping up and doing "body blocks." They lack a clear boundary that returns them from rough play. They're loaded with game.
Bred for combat or not, pit bulls are full of game, perhaps the single most valuable trait in the dog. Gameness is tenacity, that never quit in Riley. "Sporting dog" breeders call gameness the dog's "fight-to-the-death personality." Some breeders try to raise a "head dog," as one pit-bull fanatic describes it, a pit bull who "gives you his leg to get your muzzle." Those who love the bulldoggedness of the breed but don't fight them regard gameness as high tolerance for pain and devotion to a master. Gameness can also be heroic: one writer has described the pit bull's valor as "the burned dog who returns to a burning building to rescue its master or the dog who drowns saving someone from drowning."
The ancestors of the pit bull were "dogs of war," serving alongside Roman soldiers. After Napoleon invaded Italy, his soldiers carried these dogs back to France. Taken to England and Ireland, the dogs were bred with the bullmastiff, a dog with large bones, great height and weight, and a large head. The new mastiff was used for bullbaiting, once the blood sport of the gentry. These dogs attacked a chained bull and attempted to bring it down by its nose: the loss of blood from constant biting of the bull's neck would further weaken it. When bullbaiting was outlawed by parliament in 1835, breeders decided to fight the bullbaiting dogs with each other; they crossed the bullbaiting dog with the now-extinct white English terrier and trained the offspring to be dog-aggressive. This new medium-sized Bull and Terrier was, pound for pound, the strongest dog ever produced. Short-haired and athletic, it was packed with the terrier's busyness and the bulldog's pertinacity. Once the Bull and Terrier was fought in a small arena, the "pit" was added to distinguish its gladiatorial prowess. It was this dog -- some forced to fight, some never fought -- that was brought to America in the middle 1800s. Around the turn of the century, some ranchers and farmers wanted a heavier and more tenacious dog for protection and to work animals. A new dog was bred, with a wider head and a more massive chest. It was called the American pit bull terrier. A small percentage of these dogs have been trained to fight other dogs in a ring.
Though Teddy Roosevelt once cavorted with a pit bull terrier in the White House, the dog has, until recently, had an undistinguished career. Street gangs have taken to breeding pit bulls with large mastiff dogs, creating a canine Frankenstein who is paraded in spiked leather collars and might be sicced on a human enemy. Some of the new bad dogs, outcrossed with mastiffs, can weigh over 100 pounds, far more than the registered pit bull breed, which weighs between 55 and 70 pounds. In fact, these animals have been outcrossed so many times, no one knows what they are. The result has been a misbegotten dog for the equally misbegotten behavior of its owners.
Riley is still in his cage, waiting out fate. His picture has been posted on the department's website. Reggie, the guy who dumped him, has not shown up to claim him. There's more bad news. Like all dogs who become property of the county, Riley was given a temperament test. The test measures a dog's hot points, how much stress the animal can take before reacting negatively. Riley failed his test. According to his file, which Lieutenant Mary Kay Gagliardo of the North County animal shelter shares with me one morning, the tester "became uncomfortable handling him." When she began taking Riley around people and other dogs, the tester got a "weird feeling," something "he did or a particular way he looked at her," Gagliardo says. "She became fearful about continuing to work with him. She put him back." Now Riley has sat in the pound past the five-day limit: a stray can be held for four days and on the fifth day, put to sleep, if no one claims him. Space in the kennel is always tight. Still, the staff hopes somebody will rescue him.
Even so, pit bulls like Riley, says Gagliardo, "are the hardest to adopt out." As we speak, the howls of kenneled dogs out her office window run like ocean waves, cresting then calming quickly. Adopting out dogs is a liability issue, a moral issue, a "protect the public" issue. The shelter can't do much of anything with a muscular, out-of-control, unsocialized, bad-behaving back yard dog. Because houses in San Diego County are so close, people are going nuts from barking dogs, escaped dogs, dogs attacking dogs. Gagliardo has given the animal-owning syndrome a name: "I-buy-the-house, I've-got-the-yard, I-need-a-dog." And, she says, the most difficult thing to get through to a potential owner is "Just because you want a dog doesn't mean you should have it."
The North County shelter accumulates lots of pit bulls. (I saw eight the morning I visited.) The large pit bull population here makes Riley's chances for adoption slim. So he waits. A prospect shows up, and Riley gets excited. But, Gagliardo warns, it's the "unscrupulous looking" sort that cottons to Riley. They are "the younger unmarried males, white, Hispanic, black," who strut around the shelter, checking out the dogs. This one male likes Riley a lot, and Riley shows his appreciation, turning his nice silky backside to the cage door for the guy to admire. The man is asked to describe his yard. He doesn't have a yard, but his brother does, so he'll put Riley there. Does the brother have a back yard with a six-foot solid fence? Are you kidding? He doesn't have that kind of money. Then we're sorry, you can't have the dog. But that dog likes me. On the contrary, Gagliardo tells him or anyone wanting a pit bull. "The more changes pit bulls have gone through," leaving one home for another, lolling away without companionship in the kennel, "the less they are going to bond to people." The guy's request is denied.
So Riley sits. And howls. And jumps at the slightest noise. He's going bonkers with the incessant barking. He's growling at people who look in. He's also scratching his scars. One starts to bleed. The blood spreads over his maw. He wipes the blood on the floor, then rolls in it. He looks strange, as though having mauled himself he were reveling in his own nature.
The world of bad pit-bull owners is so clandestine that it's rare for dogfighters to be arrested or charged. (Once every three or four years, local prosecutors will convict someone of fighting dogs; plea bargains, light sentences, and restitution are common.) In April 2003, officers from the North County shelter began investigating a code-enforcement complaint about too many dogs at a home on Rainbow Glen Road, which is west of I-15 and near the Riverside County line. There, they found the Murty brothers, Dennis and Brian, and many pit bulls, chained to tire axles, with scars and fresh face and neck wounds. There were 18 dogs, far beyond the limit of 6 per household. One of the patrol officers, Karen McCracken, also spotted a folded-up plywood pit. She and two other officers, suspecting that the men fought the dogs, decided to get a search warrant. Before leaving, they wrote a pre-impound notice that the animals had to have veterinary care and told the Murtys to reduce the number of dogs to 6. A week later, McCracken and her team returned to find 24 dogs. This time, with a warrant, they arrested Raymond Baumgartner and Dennis Murty on the premises and Brian Murty later in San Marcos. (While the dogs were being confiscated, one attacked Dennis Murty; he was bitten in the face and required hospital care.) The 24 pit bulls, puppies and full-grown dogs, were put into individual cages, loaded onto a truck, and taken to a secret site for care and kenneling. The three men were charged with seven felonies, including possessing and training dogs to fight, witnessing a dogfight, dogfighting, and cultivating marijuana.
The paraphernalia in the Baumgartner-Murty brothers case is typical of illegal pit-bull kennels. The evidence included "breaking sticks," which are used to pry open a dog's mouth and break its grip on the other dog; homemade treadmills used to condition the dogs (pit bulls might spend two hours harnessed to and running on a treadmill, building stamina much like a boxer in training); pit-bull registries from the American Dog Breeders Association and signed by Brian Murty; several spiral notebooks in which Brian listed his dogs' bloodlines and recorded the "keep," a prefight training and feeding regimen (with steroids) that the dogs follow; a wooden sign with burned-on lettering that advertised the Murtys' "business" (Wood Pile Kennels: Live to Fight; Fight to Live); pit bull magazines; as well as drugs, suture kits, anesthetics, antiseptics, steroids, and intravenous fluids for treating dogs who go into shock after fighting. Wounded dogs after a half-hour battle, obviously, wouldn't be taken to a vet; they must be doctored by their handlers. Also seized was a 16-square-foot plywood arena where the pit bulls did combat. Its walls were splotched with mashed-together dog hair and blood, which the crime lab identified as canine blood.
The most glaring proof was a video of several men fighting the confiscated pit bulls. The video features a number of in-house, informal matches; these are not the "fair" contests in a ring, where a judge presides and large bets are placed. In the video, shot and narrated by Dennis Murty, Brian is "rolling," or sparring, his dog against another handler's dog. Each wants to test his dog's game. The fights take place in the room of a house, blank walls and gray carpet. From prior rolls, the walls are already stained with blood. Both dogs are incredibly well conditioned. Rib lines are prominent; none has an ounce of fat. The dogs begin a "scratch," so-called because when their handlers let go, the dogs rush at each other so fast they leave scratch marks on the ground. The dogs attack. Each grabs at and holds some chunk of his opponent -- loose skin around the neck, a front paw, an ear, a foreleg. They flop and twist and turn, gaining position or advantage, at times throwing the other dog to the ground. During one long and bloody duel between Buddy and Titan, Brian pats his dog Buddy with affection, encourages him in a cloying falsetto, good dog, good dog, good dog. The camera shows Brian's face and his leg with its distinguishing tattoo, as well as tattoos on the legs of the other men present. The walls are beginning to shine with blood; the carpet is darkening.
After 8 minutes, one of Buddy's legs looks like a skinned slice of shank. After 11 minutes, Titan snaps Buddy's right front leg. It dangles like a withered limb. The handlers use the breaking sticks to pry the dogs apart; their snouts and necks are chewed up bad. Each goes to his respective corner, while Dennis Murty counts to 20 before the dogs are released. These interruptions free up the pit bulls when both have unyielding holds and when the handlers want to see whether the dogs will cower or quit. If a dog quits often enough, it's called a cur, and a cur is either gotten rid of or used as a weaker foe against other dogs. He is certainly not allowed to sire or birth new pit bulls. At the count of 20, Titan pauses and refuses to attack; he quits. Buddy, despite his flopping leg, charges. Buddy's got game. Titan is taken out and, incredibly, a fresh dog is put in to continue attacking Buddy. But a minute later, Brian becomes angry that Buddy's been so badly injured. He picks him up and leaves. Just before he does, Dennis summarizes Buddy's prowess: "He's at the 15-minute mark against a match dog. He's on three wheels; his front right leg is snapped completely in half. He's made several game scratches. Jesus H. Christ!" The walls now look like an abstract painting, and the carpet is glistening with blood.
McCracken said that even as the Murtys were being arrested and their dog gear was being impounded, they denied fighting their pit bulls. When the Murtys' attorney saw this video, he told the brothers that they had no defense if the images were presented at trial. Not only were they on the video fighting their dogs, but so, too, were their tattoos, as well as the tattoos of others who were under investigation. In August 2003, Dennis Murty, 33, and Brian Murty, 26, pled guilty to raising dogs with the intent to fight them against other dogs. Judge Tim Casserly sentenced them to one year in jail and five years' probation. Raymond Baumgartner, 18, pled guilty to a felony charge of cultivating marijuana and a misdemeanor for being a witness at a dogfight. He received three years' probation and 20 days of community service.
All three men must together pay nearly $20,000 in restitution for the care of the dogs after they were kenneled. Of the $20,000, Brian Murty must pay $16,159, which includes the cost of putting 24 pit bulls -- sires, dams, and pups -- to sleep. (The currish Titan as well as the gimpy Buddy.) On December 10, 2003, the Murty brothers were released, having served since their arrest in April 2003 about 9 months of their 12-month sentence. John Carlson, regional director of the North County animal shelter, told me that on July 14 of this year his office received initial payments from the Murty brothers: Dennis paid $150 of the $823 he owes and his brother Brian, $290 of the $16,159 he owes (Brian bears the big cost because the 24 pit bulls were his). "It doesn't surprise me at all," Carlson said with frustration and bemusement, for the shelter to get token payments on such large sums as Brian's. "It'll take years for us to get the money."
About 13 years ago, Peter Hawes went to a kennel in Los Angeles several times to admire a litter of pit bulls and, in particular, one beautiful brindle. That dog had a coat of tawny brown streaked with black, a white chest, and a wishbone of white between his eyes and over either side of his snout. The morning the dogs were put up for sale, Hawes was late and stood at the end of a long line. Ahead of him were tough-looking hombres, guys wearing Oakland Raiders jackets and sporting American flag bandannas on their heads. Hawes figured that anyone ahead of him was willing to pay $300 for this dog, so he had no chance. Besides, these guys with chains attached to their wallets made him feel out of place. He gave up and left. What Hawes didn't know was that his brother, Andy, got in line after Hawes was gone. Andy knew how much his brother yearned for the brindle, so he decided to try for the puppy himself. Lucky day: Andy scored. When he brought the dog to Hawes's apartment and asked if he wanted him, Hawes said, "Hell, yes."
The brindle heard "Lou" from Hawes's mouth and licked his owner's face; he got off on the right paw. Lou had a great life, Hawes says over coffee on the Mission Beach boardwalk. "He slept with me every night. I'm a 34-year-old man. I don't view myself as one of these strange pet people. Like the ladies with the 15 cats. I swear I'm not that kind of person. But Lou was fantastically loyal and very smart. He was my buddy."
As a teenager, Hawes had liked pit bulls ever since he'd gotten to know another pit, Maxine. She was always aware of where people were in a room relative to her owner. When a new person sat down, Maxine would put her head between the owner and the person. She wouldn't growl. "It was protocol," Hawes says. "There was no animosity, no aggressiveness; she didn't show her teeth. This dog was obviously thinking, 'Why are you sitting next to my owner?' and that fascinated me."
Lou always wanted to be close to Hawes, he says. The dog had his own way of checking out strangers who might engage his master's attention. Lou would evaluate that person by "taking his muzzle and putting it right here" -- Hawes presses his thumb on my knee hard -- "then sniffing the person aggressively. When he sniffed, it would be a snort, because his nostrils would press against the skin so hard that he'd have to sniff" just as hard "to draw air. He'd get his idea of the person, then walk back to me." Hawes isn't sure, but he thinks Lou could get "the history of the person" in one inhalation. "Some dogs will approach you, lower their heads, be almost apologetic about sniffing. But Lou would have to check you out. That's when I think people get scared of the pit bull."
Lou got upset if Hawes got upset. "One time I was on the phone with a bill collector, and I was frustrated, started yelling." If Lou couldn't get on top of Hawes and lick him -- his way of telling him that things were okay -- Lou would "go to the door and hit it with his muzzle and start scratching. All my doors were torn up because of it. He would start head-butting the doorjamb and leave blood. He didn't like it" that Hawes was upset. "When I consoled him, I got down on the floor in front of him, and he would climb up and literally knock me over. I would let him dominate me because it was his way of communicating." Lou would wag his tail but not like the long, swishy wagging of the ecstatic dog. "It was short, between his legs."
As Lou got older, he got "pissy" on a leash. "If someone came up to me and didn't say anything, Lou didn't like that. He'd start growling." But only on the leash. Off a leash, he couldn't care less. He'd sniff and explore. Hawes says this sudden growling "scared the crap" out of him. "I was scared for Lou too. Here's the situation. Dogs get in fights. Lou, however, is a pit bull. My thought is, if he gets in a fight with another dog, they're going to put him down." So, to socialize Lou, Hawes took him to places where dogs ran without leashes. That worked for a while, until Lou got in a few scuffles with other dogs. The places where Lou could function in the world "got fewer and fewer as he got older and older."
One day in Nashville, where Hawes played in a band, he was walking Lou, who ran to the end of his leash to meet an off-the-leash poodle, itself an aggressive dog. Suddenly Lou cocked his head 90 degrees and attacked the poodle's neck from underneath. With the poodle's neck in his mouth, the 60-pound Lou lifted the dog and shook it ferociously, "a very quick, violent, back-and-forth motion," Hawes recalls. "What struck me was that there was no warning, no growl. The whole time his tail was wagging. It looked like he snapped the poodle's neck; it went limp very quickly. Dead on the spot."
Lou wasn't fighting another dog to protect his master or to defend himself, Hawes thinks. "Lou was picking up something from that dog that I couldn't comprehend." When it was over, Lou "didn't get that I was mad at him. He was looking at me like, 'What? I didn't do anything wrong.' Lou looked like he was having fun" while he killed the poodle. "I don't even think his hackles were up. There was no barking, no growling." Lou may not have realized that he had killed the other dog. Was there remorse? "Nothing like that." He may have thought the poodle just needed roughing up.
Now Hawes was really worried about liability. "I was afraid of him with other dogs." In fact, Lou later killed another dog and two cats. When Lou was nearing eight, Hawes "was afraid of him being that dog that everyone is fascinated by. Kids say, 'Is that a pit bull? Do you fight him? Do you breed him?' To be honest, I was shaken up" by his violent behavior. "I had always treated him very well, and yet he was becoming the dog that he didn't have any business becoming."
The bad thing Lou had no business becoming was in him, Hawes admits. But Hawes wanted to manage that bad thing and not have Lou euthanized after his violent forays. "I like to think that if you nurture the dog, it can be a great dog, with the caveat that when it gets older, be aware of what's going on." As a result, Hawes insulated Lou in his later years. One veterinarian told Hawes that when pit bulls get old, "They feel that they're not as physically adept as they used to be. Therefore, they become more aggressive as a fear-based" behavior. They are "proactive" fighters. "They become an aggressor because they are afraid of their own lack of physical prowess."
In early 2003, Lou became very sick. Hawes had a sonogram taken, and the results showed a mass in Lou's intestines. The vet recommended surgery. But Lou was no longer crawling onto Hawes's stomach to lick him. Some days it was a trouble just to stand. So Hawes opted to cradle Lou in his arms while the vet put him to sleep. Twelve years old, 64 in human years. "I hate to say this," Hawes says when I talk to him six months later, "but I'm still affected by that dog. I dream about him every night."
Eighteen days after Riley came in, angry and bewildered in a Have-a-Heart cage, officers of the North County shelter determined that since he failed his temperament test, since a dog who's been fought is a danger to the community, and since the shelter had run out of cage space, Riley had to be euthanized. All dogs go to heaven, of course, but pit bulls who've been fought are whooshed to and through the pearly gates faster than you can say Alpo.
Riley's off the leash for good; he sleeps not far from his food bowl. He comes and goes when he wants to, and the dogs with whom he exchanges a smell have none of that rancor his nose remembers. On occasion he and some of the 24 dogs that the Murty brothers fought and that were also put to sleep enjoy ringside seats at a match that pits two ex-handlers (Reggie is one) who are themselves still in afterlife transit. Justice starts the combat, and as the men pummel each other, there's no one to shout encouragement at Reggie, no one to unfang him when his lip gets snagged on a tooth, no one to splash water in his face, and certainly no referee to whistle a time-out. But then, the battle doesn't last very long: in heaven the police arrive about five minutes after the fight's begun, bellowing in Irish brogue, "All right, laddies, break it up!" Then the ex-handlers slink off to lie under their leafless trees while the pit bulls head for the swimming pool, a game of Frisbee, or a pile of damp towels for a nap in the sun.