A DOG-FIGHTING ring was exposed along with the wider, hidden world of dogfighting in Britain following a three-year undercover investigation which has revealed that the practice is still thriving, 170 years after it was banned.
Specialist officers from the RSPCA infiltrated criminal gangs, cultivated informants and built cases against the "obsessive" dog owners who cast bets and pit their animals against each other in fights which are sometimes to the death.
The investigation, codenamed Operation Gazpacho, culminated in December with the sentencing of John Parker, a 40-year-old dog breeder from Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, for possession of a dangerous dog. He received a community service sentence. His was the last of a series of criminal trials that have led to the conviction of nine men, who received sentences ranging from four months in prison to fines and banning orders. Two were found guilty of keeping dogfighting pits.
During their inquiry undercover officers from the RSPCA's special operations unit raided houses, outbuildings and pubs across Britain and discovered scenes that would be more suited to the streets and alleys of Victorian England.
The officers seized several items of dog fighting paraphernalia, including dog pits made of panels of wood, and carpeted to allow the animals to grip, "breaking sticks" to wrench open the jaws of animals if they locked as they tore into each other, treadmills used for training fighting dogs, and veterinary kits which included staples and drips to patch up the injured dogs.
Mike Butcher, a senior RSPCA investigator from the special operations unit, which deals with the UK's most dangerous and disturbing animal cruelty cases, said that up to 100 "hardcore" dogfighters, many of them career criminals, regularly organised bouts. "They are split into groups across the country," he said. "There are several in London, about five in Birmingham, and others in most UK cities. Dogfighting is highly organised. The people are obsessed by it."
Each group found had five to six people, who between them owned several dogs, said Mr Butcher. Ringleaders were known by pseudonyms such as King Limey and Oddbod. Another, Dr Death, had a reputation, despite his nickname, for being skilled at treating injured dogs. News of the fights was passed by word of mouth, on internet sites, and by phone.
In the early hours of December 1st 2003, more than 100 police and RSPCA officers raided 10 addresses in England after months of intelligence work. Homes and outbuildings where dogfights were suspected of being held were searched in Barnsley, Birmingham, Chesterfield, Gainsborough, Huddersfield, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Oxford and Scunthorpe. The raids led to 16 arrests and exposed how a practice that was banned in 1835 was still flourishing. About 76 dogs, many with fight injuries, were seized.
During court hearings it emerged that one bout had taken place in an outhouse behind a quiet pub in the picturesque Oxfordshire village of Minster Lovell.
At Banbury magistrates court in May 2005, Ian Draper, 41, of Asthall, Oxfordshire, admitted causing unnecessary suffering to dogs, keeping a place for dogfighting and owning an illegal breed. The RSPCA showed photographs of Charlie, an American pit bull terrier, one of 26 dogs seized from Draper. The badly scarred animal could not stand and, an expert said, had been wounded in the previous two days.
Draper was jailed for three months and banned from keeping dogs for 10 years.
Mr Butcher said there was a tight-knit world of dogfighters, who took pains to ensure the fights were highly organised. "They use rules that date back to the 1800s. [The fights] take place in a pit, roughly 12ft [3.6 metres] in diameter and 2.5ft high. There's carpet on the floor so the dogs can get some purchase. The dogs are weighed to ensure they are roughly equal ... and washed down before the fight starts. The dog owners and the referee are the only people allowed in the pit, but there's also usually a stakeholder, who looks after bets, and a few spectators."
Results of fights are published in clandestine magazines. A dog that has won three fights becomes a ‘champion’; a five-times winner is a ‘grand champion’. But above all, dogfighters aim to encourage "gameness", a dog's determination to fight on even if seriously injured.
Mr Butcher believes most dogfighters take good care of their animals outside the fighting pit. "I've known dogfighters sit up all night to stop their dog dying. When we seize a dog it's often in good condition, apart from scars and wounds."
Despite the much-publicised success of Operation Gazpacho for the RSPCA there was a sting in the tail, thanks to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. 34 of the rescued dogs were destroyed after the court ruled that they were of the illegal American pit bull ‘type’ and decided that they could not be rehomed, although the Act was amended in 1997 to allow transfer of ownership under special circumstances.