Sergeant David Hunt of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department in Columbus, Ohio, is one of the country’s foremost experts on dogfighting. A former narcotics detective, Hunt has spent the past 15 years investigating and breaking up hundreds of illegal dogfighting rings both in his jurisdiction in the Columbus area and around the country; he also works as a consultant and expert witness at trials. In 2007, Hunt helped Virginia authorities in their investigation and arrest of former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. In conjunction with the Humane Society of the United States, he has traveled to more than 30 states to conduct – for local police personnel, prosecutors, judges and local animal cruelty groups – seminars in how to sniff and snuff out dogfighting. Thanks in large part to Hunt’s efforts, dogfighting now is treated as a felony in all 50 states and is officially recognized as a link to a much larger web of criminal activity.
What does the word responsibility mean to you?
It means continuing what I’m doing and getting more and more officers involved in this sort of work. When I hear about the increasing numbers of raids against dogfighting, I don’t think it’s as indicative of a rise in the number of dogfighters as it is in law enforcement’s knowledge of what’s going on. Not a week goes by now that I don’t hear about someone pursuing these types of case. And it’s not just about the animals; you get so many other crimes as well. It’s a win-win situation. Yes, you get the animals out of a terrible situation. And you get the criminals where they belong. And it all generates great publicity for your force, because the public loves these types of cases.
How did you go from working narcotics cases to making dogfighting busts?
I never had any training on this topic. I didn’t know the first thing about it. But one day I was called in on a homicide case because there were narcotics involved; in the course of investigating the crime scene, I saw a lot of things that piqued my curiosity. The guy had several pit bulls. He had a treadmill. He had some underground magazines and veterinary supplies. As a trained investigator I knew these were clues to something, but I didn’t know what I was looking at. I started calling everyone I could find, but there were so few law enforcement officers in the country that were up on this. Finally, I called the Humane Society in Washington D.C., and said, “Hey I got this and this.” They said, “You’ve got yourself a dogfighter.” And from there the floodgates just opened. Never in a million year did I envision being where I am today.
Hasn’t dogfighting typically been considered to be outside the jurisdiction of law enforcement?
The attitude of traditional law enforcement has been that we have so many other things on our plate, let’s let the animal control and humane society folks worry about Fluffy and Muffy. But I’m seeing a shift in that mentality now, because they realize it’s not just about the dogs. At my seminars I’m very careful to make it clear that dogfighting is a criminal issue. It’s part of a larger criminal enterprise, a nexus of crimes from drug trafficking to illegal firearms possession to domestic violence. So I try to stress that it’s not just about the dogs; this is an efficient use of resources. It’s one-stop shopping.
What’s the connection between an activity like dogfighting and those other crimes?
Well, it plays into the whole gangster mentality: you know, if you’re selling dope, and carrying guns, and into violence, then dogfighting can provide this social outlet with others that are involved in the same stuff you are. But there’s a deeper psychological side to it. There have been lots of studies, for example, about the correlation between animal abuse and domestic violence. A high percentage of people who abuse animals also abuse family members and are prone to committing violent crimes. Studies of people imprisoned for these crimes have shown that a high percentage of them had either been abused or witnessed abuse as children. It’s a cycle of violence.
Isn’t part of the problem with dogfighting also that kids are introduced to it early on and so think it’s normal?
I’ve seen a number of cases where young children are brought to dogfights by their parents. I went undercover a few years ago to a weekend dogfighting convention deep in the woods of West Virginia, out in the middle of nowhere. It was like going to the country fair; they had barbecue stands, hot dog stands, funnel cakes and beer trucks with taps on the side. And in the middle of it all are five pits with dogfighting going on and wives and young kids looking on. Who takes their kids to a dogfight? It’s hard for me to grasp.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
It’s the part that I absolutely love the most: getting into the weird psyches of dogfighters. They’re incredibly passionate about what they do, and they think it’s perfectly normal. I’ll look at a dogfighter and say, “Look, you keep this animal chained up 24 hours a day and don’t really take care of it until you’re getting it ready for a fight, and then put it in a ring and let it get torn up for two to three hours. How can you sit there and tell me you love your dog?” And they look at me like I’ve got a third eye and say, “I love my dog.” One dogfighter I busted was also a drug dealer. The court seized his house, his car, his motorcycle, about $1,200 in cash, and had his children sent to child services. He didn’t say a word. But when the judge said that the court would also be taking the guy’s two break sticks, these pieces of chewed hardwood that a dog fighters use to pry open their dogs’ jaws in fights, the guy went ballistic. I mean, you tell me you’re taking my kids, you might as well rip my heart out. But he didn’t care.
Have you ever been afraid working undercover around dogfighters?
I’m pretty confident in my skills and I’ve learned the dogfighting lingo pretty well; I can pretty much talk my way out of anything. I suppose the most scared I got was at that West Virginia dogfighting convention because I was out in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t have any backup.
What about being afraid of the dogs?
People figure I must hate pit bulls, but it’s just the opposite. We’ve seized more than 250 fighting dogs since I started these cases. Guess how many I had to shoot? None. Fighting dogs are the first one to run under the bed when one of our SWAT teams come through the door. Then they wag their tails and want their tummies rubbed and their ears scratched. That’s what I stress to law enforcement: It’s not the dogs you have to be worried about, it’s the guy who owns the dogs. That can be the real downside to doing these cases. Often the dogs get put down because we don’t have the dollars or time to do the rehab. One time, one of the dogs we’d taken in a raid had a litter of puppies, and at the court hearing it was decided they had to be put down to because of their pedigree, their fighting blood lines. Which is nonsense. I felt real small walking out of court that day. I felt like my own dog had been shot.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
Well, the system doesn’t always work, but when it works right it really is satisfying. That guy whose break sticks I have, I had a sneaking suspicion he’d been beating up on his wife as well. I interviewed her separately and I got the standard denial: “No. No. I love my man.” He ended up getting sentenced to 10 years in prison, and about a week after the sentencing I get a phone call from his wife. I’m figuring I’m going to get screamed at for taking her man, her kids, and her house and car. And it was just the opposite. She said, “I just want to let you know what I couldn’t that day you interviewed me. He used to beat me. He used to beat the kids. Now he’s going to prison and I can finally move on with my life.” That was a redeeming thing for me as a police officer. A lot of times you don’t get the happy ending. I still keep those two break sticks on my desk as trophies.Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and is the author most recently “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.”