Dog fighting is a blood sport. It was once lauded by aristocrats and embraced by medieval gentry, but after slowly being outlawed, it now demonstrates the presence of underground criminal activity in cities across the world. In Argentina, organisers are often also gang members involved in drug dealing and racketeering, with proceeds from fights funding these covert activities.
It gained popularity in 19th century England when bear-baiting was banned. The dogs formerly used to exercise and rile the bears were then pitted against each other during organised gatherings. The ‘sport’ spread across Europe and into the Americas during the 1800s, where the rules altered and the fights became less structured.
In Latin America, dog fighting was illegal in most countries by the late 20th century. In Argentina it gained popularity after the ‘Córdoba fighting dog’ was created specifically for pit fighting. However, the practice was banned after several decades on 27th September 1954 under law 14.346, which states it is illegal to “publicly or privately organise animal fights where the animals can die, become hurt or come to any sort of harm”.
Some Latin American countries, however, do not have official laws prohibiting the practice of dog fighting. For example, in Mexico it is illegal for a human to kill or harm an animal. Yet, though punishable, it is not technically illegal to place an animal in the position where it will almost certainly harm another creature. This legal loophole allows sports such as dog fighting to thrive and the trends seem to indicate it is much more popular in poorer areas of the provinces.
What happens at dogfights?
Larry Anders from Seattle visited Argentina in October 2007 and witnessed a dogfight. Surprisingly, he enjoyed the experience and is campaigning for the sport’s reinstatement in the US. He describes a typical fight. “The dog-men arrive after sundown pulling custom trailers containing their prized fighting dogs. Bookmakers quickly jot odds on small chalkboards, and start collecting money as enthusiastic betters yell out […] A referee is in the pit before the fight; his job is to start the contest by placing the dogs within fighting distance of each other before the scratch line. Once the fight starts, the referee stays in the pit and enjoys the spectacle, watching for one of the dogs to turn.”
‘Turning’ is the term used when one of the competing dogs backs away from a fight to signal a temporary surrender. The fights only end when the dog cannot or will not re-enter the fight after one of these ‘turns’.
Pre-fight, however, there is a lot of effort and training involved. Dogs are exercised and conditioned using various techniques and paraphernalia:
Catmill: A central rotating poll with several horizontally protruding beams. Dogs are chained to one beam and smaller animals like cats, puppies or rabbits are harnessed to another. The dogs run in circles, chasing the bait.
Jump Pole: A rope hung from a beam. The dogs jump up, bite, then dangle from it for extended periods, strengthening jaw muscles.
Weights: Dogs have heavy chains and weights wrapped around their necks and strapped to their bodies. This builds neck and body strength by constantly having to bear the load.
Drugs: Dogs are given drugs to increase strength including testosterone, weight gain supplements and cocaine.
Dog fighting in Argentina
The first dog used for pit fighting in Argentina was the ‘Córdoba fighting dog’, which is now extinct. This fierce guard dog showed a willingness to fight to the death and high pain tolerance, even when mortally injured.
However, after several years, breeders realised this dog was unstable as it often turned on its own pack members. Therefore, in the 1920s, physicists and brothers Drs Antonio and Augustin Nores Martinez created the ‘Dogo Argentino’. Based on its cousin from Córdoba, the Dogo is a cross between mastiffs, bull terriers and bulldogs. The Argentine doctors chose these breeds because the breeds showed courage and tenacity during pit fights they had witnessed as children.
The official kennel club of Argentina describe the Dogo as a “very strong, muscular dog with powerful jaws with large teeth”. It has short white fur, occasionally with markings around the eyes and can reach up to 70cm in height.
Jose Miguel Rivero Garcia is a breeder in Argentina. He says that “despicably, Dogos Argentinos are used in fights, which occur in clandestine places that only a specific few know about and normally involve large sums of money”. He added that although he had not personally witnessed a pit-fight, he had been approached as a breeder to provide dogs for them.
In the UK, the Dogo is one of four breeds banned under the 1991 dangerous dogs act. The Department for Environmental Food and Rural Affairs explain they were considered to have been bred “specifically to be fighting dogs”. After several attacks, the law was updated in 1997 stating that anyone breeding or selling this dog would be fined £5,000 and/or imprisoned for six months.
However, the Dogo remains a popular house pet in Argentina. Some breeders maintain that they are intensely loyal to their families and make excellent guard dogs. One pet owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “If socialised from an early age, this breed can co-exist well with other animals and humans.”
There are strong anti-fighting movements amongst Dogo breeders community. Néstor Boaglio is a breeder in the province of Buenos Aires, he says “I detest dog fighters; they are the absolute lowest of the Dogo Argentino creators. I have never been involved with nor will I ever condone them.” Other breeders deny that the Dogo was even created for the pit-fight. They maintain its purpose was and is to protect rural families from predators such as wild boars and pumas.
Other Dogo enthusiasts actively promote the breed as a family pet and large pest hunter in an attempt to move away from preconceptions of a vicious breed. They claim that it is humans that are dangerous as they purposefully condition the creatures towards violence and claim that any dog can be coaxed into a fight.
The Situation Today
Grupo Novho is a charity that combats animal cruelty based in Argentina. They discovered that generally, the location of fights change every time and is not decided until the last minute, making it near impossible to arrest the people involved.
Laura Velasco is a lawyer and international campaign coordinator for this charity. She explained: “Unfortunately, underground establishments still exist where dog fights are organised. It is difficult to locate them because they act like mafias. There is a lot of money involved in the game, and therefore corruption amongst local law enforcers.
“Very few cases arrive before a judge because with this activity, information is kept close to the chest.”
In March last year, five people were prosecuted and imprisoned in Mendoza for violating law 14.346 and cruelty towards animals. They were the coordinators and dog owners for an organisation with more than 80 participants, among them five minors between the ages of 11 and 17. When police raided the establishment, they found five dogs, two dead and three injured.
There have also been suggestions that dog-fighting tourism is on the rise. Enthusiasts such as Anders travel to Argentina to witness and gamble on the sport that is more strictly policed in their home country. Police in the city of Buenos Aires claim to have no information regarding dog fighting in the capital, whereas province police say that although they are aware that the fights happen, it is near impossible to successfully prosecute anyone, as the activity is so covert. Anders also mentioned that prominent local policemen were present at the fight he witnessed.
Some breeders argue that dog fighting in Argentina is a thing of the past, and that society has moved on since law 14.346 was passed. However, an increase in the number of dogs with fight related injuries being presented at vet practices suggests otherwise. Yet, animal charities remain optimistic. Velasco hopes that “the justice that was carried out in Mendoza will make it easier to bring prosecutions against perpetrators in the future”.