CHARLOTTE -- From street-level fights in backyards and garages, to organized rings where crowds bet thousands of dollars, dogfighting is more widespread in the Charlotte area than most people realize, law enforcement officials say.
Some are loosely organized competitions thrown together by young people who want bragging rights. But like the ring that NFL star Michael Vick is accused of sponsoring in Virginia, big-time dog fighters also operate in counties surrounding Mecklenburg.
"No matter what level, it's all just as cruel," said Chad Bingham, a Gastonia, N.C., police detective.
In his 17 years as an officer, Bingham said he's investigated more than 75 incidents of dogfighting. He said he's been to homes where up to 20 pit bulls were chained up in a yard. He and others say the signs are obvious: dead dogs dumped in creeks and fields or badly mauled dogs rounded up by shelters.
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In Union County, N.C., an Indian Trail man who owned 36 pit bulls was arrested in January on dogfighting charges. Authorities seized the dogs, along with a treadmill, laxatives and scales --tools that dog fighters often use to help ensure the dogs fit a certain weight.
In Mecklenburg County, animal control officers receive weekly calls about suspected dog fights. And in Catawba County, N.C., a man who deputies suspect used his 30 pit bulls for fighting was found shot to death at his home in April.
Shrouded in secrecy
Dogfighting, a felony in the Carolinas, is mostly done in secret.
A Rock Hill man convicted last year after authorities caught him at a dogfight told the Observer he knows of fights held in the Charlotte region about every other week.
The man, who didn't want his name used for fear of retribution, said the fights are held in backyards, garages, vacant lots, abandoned houses and barns. The dogs typically don't growl or bark, he said, so the fights are quiet unless those watching get loud.
"It's like boxing and other sports," he said. "You have spectators who enjoy watching it."
He said the crowds are mostly men, but he's seen women and children at fights, too. The man quit the underground sport after he was put on probation, he said. But he still breeds pit bulls and sells the puppies to people who raise them to fight.
In Mecklenburg County, authorities believe most dogfighting is of the less-organized type, said Melissa Knicely-Berry, a spokeswoman for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Control.
In Gastonia, Bingham said amateur dogfighting is often reported by neighbors but it's more difficult for police to uncover organized fighting because it takes place in basements or hidden sheds.
Amateur fights often result in one dog dying, Bingham said, because the organizers don't have a plan to separate the dogs.
But more organized fights typically don't end that way, the former Rock Hill dog fighter said. In some cases, fights end when the dogs are separated and one of them no longer attacks. In other cases, a "handler" can pick up his dog and concede the fight, he said. Usually, a referee is present.
Money a factor
In this higher-end dogfighting, Bingham said, owners have invested a lot of money in their dogs and stand to win thousands of dollars in bets. They are more likely to take better care of their dog, he said. Sometimes the dogs are injected with steroids, and often, they train with treadmills and weights.
The former Rock Hill dog fighter told the Observer some people will give away their dog once it can't fight anymore, typically to someone who will keep it as a pet.
He said his pit bulls liked to fight because they were bred for it. He compared it to a Border Collie catching Frisbees or a hound dog hunting.
"If they do what they were bred to do, they enjoy it," he said. "These dogs were bred for aggression."
A spokeswoman for Pity 4 Us Rescue, a Charlotte-based pit bull rescue organization, said dogfighting is just plain wrong.
"I despise it and the people who do it," she said.