ASPCA Experts Give an In-Depth Look into Dogfighting Rescues
Dogfighting is a felony in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, yet this barbaric and violent form of animal cruelty persists. We work year-round to help law enforcement throughout the country rescue victims of dogfighting, hold abusers accountable and hopefully end dogfighting for good. But this critical work takes expertise from multiple teams at the ASPCA and can be a lengthy process.
That’s why we asked ASPCA experts from the Legal Advocacy and Investigations (LAI), Behavioral Sciences and Forensic Investigations teams to answer a few questions, to give everyone an in-depth look into a dogfighting rescue and the importance of ending this heinous form of animal abuse.
These rescues often begin with the ASPCA Investigations team and Terry Mills, Director of Blood Sports Investigations.
Q: “So, how does the ASPCA get involved in a dogfighting rescue?”
A: “The first way we get involved is when we get a complaint about what is believed to be a situation where there is dogfighting activity,” explains Mills. “The investigator will review the information provided to us, then if warranted, contact local law enforcement. The second way is if law enforcement receives a complaint, and because they may not have the knowledge or experience in dogfighting investigations, they contact our team.”
“Third, law enforcement may respond to a call or serve a search warrant on an unrelated matter and discover evidence or dogs suspected to be involved in a dogfighting operation, so they call us for assistance,” says Mills. “Fourth, a law enforcement agency has obtained a search warrant as part of their investigation into dogfighting and request an ASPCA subject matter expert (SME). Lastly, a suspect has been arrested and charged for dogfighting violations and the prosecuting attorney requests the ASPCA provide expert witness testimony.”
Q: “Once our Investigation team is called in, they begin working on and researching the case. What does that usually entail?”
A: “We work closely with law enforcement at every step of their investigation with the goal of helping them to build and strengthen their case. This includes gathering and providing information about any suspects from online sources, such as social media or other internet sites, as well as sharing intelligence that may already be known to the ASPCA from other sources,” explains Mills. “Depending on how far along the investigation is, we also review evidence already obtained in order to help establish probable cause that can be used to obtain a search warrant.”
“Additionally, we have attorneys who work closely with both law enforcement and prosecutors from start to finish of a case. This includes legal assistance on investigative matters, charging and prosecution, as well as obtaining legal disposition of seized animals.”
Once the case is approved, Mills’ team initiates the calls to the various ASPCA departments and teams to provide assistance with operations, logistics, forensic medicine and behavior, evidence collection, transportation and sheltering of the dogs.
When the ASPCA is called to provide on scene assistance, this is when Amanda Fitch, ASPCA Forensic Analyst, and her team begin their work on a case.
Q: “Tell us how Forensics gets involved in a dogfighting rescue.”
A: “The Forensics team has its own specialized equipment that must be transported to the scene location(s) and the ASPCA Cruelty Recovery Center (CRC), or ASPCA-operated emergency shelter,” explains Fitch. “We also have to develop a working plan that includes how many team members we will need on scene and afterward at the shelter, what their assigned duties will be and how we will accomplish these duties.”
“When on the scene, the Forensic team performs three distinct functions and thus subdivides into three separate teams: the Evidence team, Veterinary Forensics team and the Live Animal Documentation (LAD) team,” she continues.
Q: “What are these teams responsible for?”
A: “The Evidence team is first to enter and, working in connection with law enforcement, is responsible for documenting the scene property, documenting and handling non-animal and deceased animal evidence, and for the forensic processing of evidence,” Fitch explains. “The scene documentation process begins as soon as law enforcement secures the scene and gives us authorization to enter its perimeter. The purpose of this initial documentation is to show how the property looked when we arrived so that there is a record of where items of evidence (including animals) were located prior to being moved or removed. A scene sketch or diagram is also created to allow for important measurements and to help clarify often ‘busy’ photographs.”
Fitch continues: “To allow the Forensic Veterinarians (FVs) access to the animals as quickly as possible, the Evidence team ‘clears’ areas of the property so the FVs can begin their triaging process. Because the Evidence team is allowed on scene before the veterinarians, they are always equipped with radios to contact the vets should they encounter an animal in urgent need of treatment. The lead FV works closely with both the LAD team and the Evidence team to document, via notes and photographs, the condition in which the animals were found as well as any medically relevant evidence, such as medications, supplements and medical supplies.”
“The LAD team consists of a photographer and two scribes. It is their responsibility to document all the live animals on scene, each of which is considered a unique item of evidence,” Fitch says. “Photos and notes are taken of each dog, including where the dog was found, as well as photos for identification purposes and for identifying visible markings or injuries.”
Q: “What else is happening while these teams work?”
A: “The Evidence team also assists the Investigations team in collecting evidence. If an item of interest is located, photos are taken, followed by additional close-up photos to show the details of the item,” Fitch explains.
“Unfortunately, blood and burials are commonly found on dogfighting scenes. The blood, most often located on training equipment or the walls of a fighting pit, is photographed thoroughly and then tested to see if it’s human or non-human blood. The excavation of deceased animals is also an unfortunate task that sometimes must be undertaken in these cases,” says Fitch. “Excavation must be performed with care and precision so that no evidence, like a bullet, is lost during the process. Deceased remains, as well as other types of evidence, are then examined off-scene in a laboratory. At the ASPCA Veterinary Forensic Science Center we can perform necropsies and skeletal analysis on deceased remains to aid in prosecution efforts. We can also examine items for fingerprints, trace and other types of evidence.”
Q: “What happens once you are able to start removing the animals?”
A: “After an animal is fully documented and has been given clearance for removal, they are removed from the chain or enclosure they were found in and placed into a kennel that will be transported off the property. The second scribe on the LAD team, known as the Load Master, will track the dog’s movement and placement on a transport vehicle. Before departing from a scene, the Load Master’s form is signed by law enforcement, indicating the release of evidence (the dogs) from law enforcement’s custody,” explains Fitch. “This process of tracking evidence is called a ‘Chain of Custody’ and is commonly utilized by law enforcement agencies for tracking evidence.”
“Following the scene response, the entire Forensics team travels to either the temporary shelter set up during the rescue, or to the CRC to conduct forensic examinations and handle evidence recovered during them.”
The next team to step in to help dogs during one of these rescues is the ASPCA Behavioral Sciences team (BST), led by Pamela Reid, Vice President.
Q: “Tell us about how BST becomes involved in a rescue.”
A: “We work side-by-side with the Investigators, the ASPCA National Field Response (NFR) team and the FVs to first observe the animals in their environment,” explains Reid. “Seeing how the dogs are housed can help us plan for the transition to the temporary shelter with the least amount of disruption as possible. We also examine their circumstances for evidence of psychological stressors, such as moms with puppies chained right next to aggressive dogs terrorizing the puppies. Once they’re ready to be removed from their chains, BST provides low-stress handling to get the dogs documented and safely loaded into the transport vehicles.”
“BST then conducts a standardized forensic behavior evaluation of each dog. The evaluation is designed to profile the dogs’ behavior before the dogs change as a result of experiencing compassion and enrichment,” says Reid. “The goal of these evaluations is to document the typical behavior of the dogs and compare it to the behavior of other dogs from confirmed organized dogfighting cases.”
Reid continues: “Much of the evidence presented in dogfighting cases is circumstantial and behavior during the evaluation is simply another piece of evidence that helps to support the argument that the dogs were bred and used for dogfighting. Of course, the information we collect is then used to help plan how to best care for the dogs.”
Q: “What’s the most common behavior concern exhibited by these dogfighting victims?”
A: “It’s not surprising that aggression toward other dogs is the most commonly seen behavior concern, but is absolutely not the case with every dog,” says Reid. “Everything the dogfighter does is designed to engineer these dogs to exhibit pathologically aggressive behavior. They separate the puppies early so they have no opportunity to develop normal social behavior toward other dogs. Then, they do everything in their power to encourage the young dogs to fight with each other. These reprehensible practices can result in some incredibly damaged dogs.”
“Another common behavior concern is a tendency to arouse easily. This means that the dogs can become highly excited by very mild stimulation like being petted or seeing a person sweep with a broom,” explains Reid. “They become physiologically and behaviorally aroused—their eyes dilate, they pant heavily, their skin becomes flushed and they engage in behaviors that function to dissipate the arousal, such as jumping, lunging, mouthing people, grabbing objects and refusing to let go, and playing with toys to the point of exhaustion and injury. In their kennels, they often exhibit repetitive behavior, including barking, pacing, circling, jumping and leaping off the walls.”
“A smaller percentage of these dogs can suffer from moderate to severe fear of anything new, including people, other animals, places, things and experiences. Because these dogs are often kept in hidden locations, they never get to experience the normal world and therefore, can be frightened by things most dogs would consider routine, like going for a walk on a leash. These dogs are typically transferred to our Behavioral Rehabilitation Center (BRC) where they specialize in treating fearful, under-socialized dogs. Our Behavior team at the CRC also works diligently to help these dogs recover from their pasts.”
Q: “How does recovery look for a dog that is sent to the BRC or CRC?”
A: “They focus on intensive enrichment, socialization and training for the dogs,” explains Reid. “While these dogs aren’t aggressive, they often have no idea how to interact appropriately with other dogs. So the focus is on pairing them up with resilient “helper dogs” who can show them how to behave and have fun in playgroups. The high arousal dogs are taught manners and other techniques for controlling their impulsive behavior. Fearful dogs are housed in the CRC’s Mini Rehab Center where they receive behavior treatment to resolve their fears or, until a space opens at the BRC, where they can get the intensive behavior modification offered to fearful dogs there.”
Expert Witnesses During the Prosecution
Because our teams are experts in their field and work hands-on during the investigation process, they are often called to testify as expert witnesses during the prosecution of these dogfighting cases. All three teams work with law enforcement and the prosecutors to provide information (both written and verbal) to aid in the case.
Why Is the Work These Teams do So Important?
“Simply put, animal fighting is a crime,” says Fitch. “Just like there are law enforcement officers and forensic scientists who are experts in other criminal areas, our area of expertise is in animal fighting and animal cruelty. Aside from helping to place animals in a healthy and safe environment, our work also helps in the prevention and prosecution of these and other crimes, which may be direct threats to a community.”
“These dogs have been so victimized—from their upbringing to their horrific experiences just surviving in a dogfighter’s yard—they are highly deserving of a second chance,” says Reid. “If we weren’t doing everything we can to save them, they would endure unspeakable suffering and often a barbaric death at the hands of ruthless dogfighters. For those dogs that haven’t been irreparably damaged by their experiences, we owe it to them to give them a happy life as a pet with a loving family.”
You can help make a difference in the lives of dogfighting victims by adding your name in support of the HEART Act!
If you suspect dogfighting or other animal abuse is happening in your community, please speak up. Find out how to report animal cruelty.