Dogfighting is a big, global business – legal, if you can believe it, in more than 120 countries. It’s an example of the old, inhumane economy at work, still staked in the ground in these nations. The toll of this enterprise is inflicted foremost on innocent animals, but there are many indirect costs as well, including the heavy costs to charitable animal organizations and to agencies of government that must respond and care for the animals.
Dogfighting is, of course, severely criminalized in the United States. In fact, it’s a felony in every state and a federal felony, too. Yet, each year, the HSUS Animal Rescue Team works with law enforcement to save countless animals caught up in this bloody and vicious enterprise, reminding us that the enactment of legal prohibitions against cruelty does not mark the end of the story.
In the following excerpt from my book, The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals, I offer a firsthand account of a memorable case in 2013, where we rescued nearly 400 dogs from a multistate dogfighting ring. I am glad to report that one of the defendants in this case received seven years and nine months in prison, the maximum sentence he could receive under federal guidelines.
Breaking the Chain on Dogfighting
When the lead member of the SWAT team made his first few attempts to break down the front door, he quickly realized something more than a firm kick was in order. Robin Stinson, a convicted felon and a suspected dogfighter, had reinforced the doors with steel in his refurbished double-wide, green-paneled white trailer, and then dropped wooden planks across the doors to impede forced entry. Apparently, he suspected he might draw some uninvited guests, whether angry dogfighters, rival drug dealers or perhaps even a SWAT team like the one massed outside his home that morning. The man had good reason to be concerned about the last group, since the county sheriff’s office, acting on a tip, had obtained a search warrant two years earlier and turned his trailer inside out. Deputies didn’t uncover enough evidence to bring charges then, but they had a feeling there would be another visit.
Unbowed, or maybe just unaware of law enforcement’s interest in him, Stinson persisted in fighting dogs at pits throughout the South and continued to keep dogs on his property. On the morning we showed up alongside the sheriff’s deputies, 18 pit bulls strained on 6-foot-long metal chains staked into the dirt. Most of the dogs had a small rudimentary wooden enclosure, providing just the barest relief from southern Alabama’s late August sun.
I had set my alarm for 3 a.m., as had about fifty other HSUS personnel and volunteers assigned to this site and six others for possible raids in Alabama and southern Georgia. Our team met downstairs at 3:30 a.m. at a Hampton Inn in Dothan, all of us in our blue Animal Rescue Team jackets. We drove about 20 minutes to the outskirts of town to an old peanut warehouse that now serves as a staging area for the Houston County Sheriff’s Office. We waited for clearance to proceed to the site an hour away, heading through the early morning fog as we passed over the Pea River and into Elba until we found Stinson’s home.
The fortified door proved only a temporary problem. A battering ram would do. While some members of the SWAT team were knocking down the door, others broke through a large-frame window, throwing flash grenades into the bedroom to disorient the suspect as the teams rushed in behind. Stinson was thought to be armed and dangerous.
He started to run, but with a dozen officers drawing weapons he quickly figured out the situation and surrendered. By 6:30 a.m., he was in the custody of U.S. Marshals and on his way to Montgomery for booking.
After police secured the premises, our HSUS team moved in to handle and seize the dogs. I mapped the property. At the center was the house trailer, with its large wraparound patio. A cedar fence extended almost to the outer reaches of the property. In the yard were an aboveground swimming pool, a satellite dish and scattered mounds of junk—rusting chairs, stacks of wooden pylons and metal pipes. According to the sheriff’s deputies who had been on the site two years earlier, Stinson had recently upgraded his home. The trailer had doubled in size, with six freshly painted bedrooms. All of the fencing was new. It wasn’t opulent, but it wasn’t too bad for a guy without a regular job.
The chained dogs were at the rear of the property, where the fence made them invisible from the road. The chains were not long enough for any of the dogs to interact, and that was by design—after all, they had been bred and trained to fight. The fencing wasn’t quite finished, so you could see some of the tethered dogs from the road if you were in just the right spot. Two little dogs were kept in rabbit hutches with feces piled up beneath them.
Despite years of neglect and suffering in such disgraceful conditions, the dogs greeted us with ears down and wiggling rear ends and tails. A few of them were hyper, starved for attention after having been denied affection for so long. Seeing the men and women who had come to rescue them, they seemed to instantly know that here was a different breed of person, clearly unlike what they were used to. Every one of them welcomed clean water, since the metal bowls within reach of their chains contained two inches of stagnant, fetid, discolored slurry. The dogs couldn’t dispense enough kisses or get close enough to the volunteers. The ones I bent down to pat wagged their tails; even their tongues seemed to be wagging too. My colleagues all got into the act, taking a little time to comfort the animals before we started documenting the scene, taking pictures of the dogs and then delivering each one to our vet teams stationed out front.
We didn’t need a diagnosis from the vets to conclude that many of the dogs were undernourished. The older dogs had scars on their faces and forelimbs. Fleas covered other body parts. One sickly looking, emaciated older dog had been eating his own vomit. Another had to be rushed directly to a veterinary hospital.
My colleagues joined law enforcement agents at six other locations that morning for arrests and dog seizures. All told, at the thirteen sites raided by police, The HSUS, the ASPCA and other animal welfare groups rescued 367 dogs. It is thought to be the second-largest dogfighting bust ever in the United States. (The biggest one was an eight-state operation centered in Missouri in July 2009, where we joined law enforcement teams and other animal groups in seizing more than 500 dogs.) By the time every lead had been chased down, using evidence gathered in the initial raids, we’d helped to rescue more than 400 dogs.
Ten suspects, including Stinson, were arrested and indicted on felony dogfighting charges. Federal and local officials also seized firearms and drugs, as well as more than $500,000 in gambling proceeds. And they discovered the remains of dead animals on some properties where dogs were housed and allegedly fought. “The lowest places in hell would be reserved for those who would commit cruelty to animals,” said George L. Beck, Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, when he announced the indictments.
Throughout that morning, my mind raced with thoughts. If the dogs weren’t too damaged, we could turn their lives around with veterinary attention and behavioral work, and get them rehabilitated and then adopted. I also reflected on how quickly fortunes could change, even in the lonely life of an abused dog. They had all been destined for life at the end of a heavy chain, untethered only when they entered a dogfighting pit. But thanks to the SWAT teams and our Animal Rescue Team, they’d experienced, perhaps for the first time, sustained human kindness. At the very least, they’d never see the inside of a dogfighting pit again.
In a different way, this operation would also turn around the lives of the dogfighting suspects. These men had believed they were beyond the reach of the law and that they would suffer no consequences for profiting from animal cruelty. After they had chained and penned up the animals, now the state had a pen of its own for them. Even when their families or friends visited, there would be a wall between them. Was the dogfighting business so lucrative and exhilarating that Stinson and other suspects would risk their freedom for it? Would a taste of confinement make them think about the far worse punishments they had inflicted on those dogs?