04:07 - Source: CNN
Inside the underground world of dog fighting
Columbia, South Carolina CNN  — 

On a dark, drizzly morning this fall in rural South Carolina, a team of federal agents wearing tactical gear quietly assembled for a mission that was part raid, part rescue operation.

The stakes were high: Agents feared the victims would be emaciated, dehydrated and likely chained up. Many were probably injured; some might already be dead.

As it turned out, the victims—nearly 40 pit bulls—were saved, though signs of abuse were evident.

It was the sort of scene veteran agents had come to expect in the shadowy world of dog fighting. The underground blood sport once garnered international headlines in 2007 when NFL star Michael Vick pleaded guilty to a federal charge related to dog fighting. A decade and a half later, that spotlight has faded, but the problem persists.

A CNN investigation found that federal authorities seized more dogs last year—through civil forfeitures—than any other year since Vick was indicted. Court records and interviews further reveal how dog fighting has evolved in the internet age with dog owners turning to encrypted messaging apps to exchange training tips and arrange fights. Hundreds of thousands of dollars may change hands in a single match and breeders can make thousands on vials of semen or sales of pups.

While the brutal matches have been held in cities and towns across the country, records show, federal authorities are seizing large quantities of the animals in the southeastern US—largely because the US Attorney’s office in South Carolina has two prosecutors who focus on such cases.

Elle Klein, one of those attorneys, recalled the first time she arrived in the aftermath of a dog fighting bust. She spotted a wounded black dog tied to a tree. He was bleeding and had flesh dangling from his ears. As she approached, his tail began to wag.

“It really did light a fire under me,” said Klein, who has helped rescue hundreds of animals from suspected fighting rings across her state. “It made me mad that all these people were here doing this, gambling on it, watching it, feeding into this disgusting culture.”

Austin Steele/CNN
Assistant United States Attorney for the District of South Carolina Elle Klein poses for a portrait in Orangeburg, South Carolina, on September 21, 2023.

The Michael Vick case

Dog fighting has been around for millennia. However, most Americans likely knew little about the sport when it catapulted into public view in 2007. That April, state agents swarmed a home in rural Virginia, armed with a search warrant and suspicions that Vick, one of the highest-paid players in the NFL at the time, was using the property to run a dog fighting ring.

Dozens of injured, scarred dogs who were bred to fight were recovered from the property. Court records outlined how the quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons poured money into the blood sport, purchasing the property where he held the animals shortly after he signed his first NFL contract in 2001. Vick and his co-defendants, who used the Virginia ranch as a main staging area to train, house and fight their animals, each pleaded guilty to a felony charge in connection with dog fighting.

George W. Bush signed a law in May 2007 that made dog fighting a felony at the federal level.

Vick served nearly two years in federal prison, returned to the NFL and later signed a $100 million contract. He now serves as an analyst for Fox Sports.

“I take full responsibility for my actions,” Vick told reporters after he pleaded guilty in 2007. “Not for one second will I sit right here and point the finger and try to blame anybody else for my actions or what I’ve done.”

Vick declined CNN’s request for an interview on the subject of dog fighting.

At first, the public outcry and federal interest that followed Vick’s case had a chilling effect on the blood sport. Authorities used Bush’s new law to target large-scale dog-fighting rings, conducting a record-breaking raid in the Midwest that led to the rescue of hundreds of dogs in 2009. But as those cases faded from view, dog fighters returned to business and sought to make their operations even more clandestine.

A brand-new dog fighting world

Years ago, dog fighters—and the authorities that tracked the estimated 40,000 people involved in organized dog fighting in the US—relied on word-of-mouth or underground magazines to learn about recent matches, training techniques and medical care for fighting animals.

Austin Steele/CNN
SLED officers enter a home following a law enforcement raid related to dog fighting in Orangeburg, South Carolina, on September 21, 2023.

But the internet has completely transformed how fighters learn: A few Google searches can tell an enterprising dog owner how to use a slat mill—a treadmill made for dogs—to condition their animal. YouTube can tell a dogfighter how to use a flirt pole—a stick with a bungee cord attached to it—to improve their endurance. Those interested in breeding pit bulls can learn about bloodlines from Reddit users.

It has also altered how dog fighters communicate: Dog fighters often share their dog’s weight and gender in private social media groups or through encrypted messaging apps to arrange a fight.

A Virginia-based dog fighter used Facebook to set up matches for his dog named Durantula, according to a 2022 indictment. He described his champion’s recent fight as “another DOA,” posting that it was a “15 mins chest & gut kill.”

A Michigan-based dog fighter, indicted in 2018, used WhatsApp to share videos of animals fighting, including one that featured “Barracuda,” who he describes as a “straight finisher throat and kidneys!!!”

Social media has also revamped how spectators view a match.

“Back in the day, when you arranged your dog fight, people had to come in person to see it,” said Virginia Maxwell, a professor at the forensic science department at the University of New Haven with an expertise in investigating animal crimes. “Now, of course, they livestream them.”

Fights often take place in backyards or basements. A dog’s handler typically stands on the edge of the ring, within eyesight of their prizefighter at all times. The animals often battle until one or both of the dogs can no longer fight or one dies. At times, handlers throw in the towel to save a dog likely to lose the match. Some dogs win one or two consecutive fights. Dogs who win three are known as “Champions.” A dog with five wins—and experts say there aren’t many—are dubbed “Grand Champions.”

A 2017 match attended by a Virginia dog fighter featured a pit bull named “Eulogy” that lasted one hour and 59 minutes, court records show. That dog fighter posted a “play-by-play” of the brutal encounter on Facebook. Prosecutors have detailed how fighters used private groups on Telegram to arrange fights and discuss winnings. One dog, a fighter described to others in a private group, had won $50,000 in a single match.

‘Dog fighting for me is something totally different’

It’s been a constant game of cat and mouse between law enforcement and dog fighters over the years. And recently, federal interest in the blood sport has spiked.

Last year, federal officials seized roughly 400 dogs from suspected dog-fighting rings, more than in any other year since at least 2007, according to a CNN review of federal civil forfeitures. This number does not include dogs that were surrendered or dogs seized by state or local authorities. The uptick comes after years in which such seizures were uncommon.

Few offices have contributed to the increase as much as the South Carolina US Attorney’s office, which has two prosecutors—Elle Klein and Jane Taylor—who have single-handedly rescued hundreds of dogs.

Taylor, the office’s criminal chief, had been working to take down South Carolina drug dealers since the mid-1990s. While pursuing a drug case, she found herself listening to a conversation via wiretap about dog fighting.

Austin Steele/CNN
An officer checks his radio following a law enforcement raid related to dog fighting in Orangeburg, South Carolina, on September 21, 2023.
Austin Steele/CNN
Criminal Division Chief of the US Attorney's Office District of South Carolina Jane Taylor poses for a portrait in Prosperity, South Carolina, on September 21, 2023.

“I prosecute a lot of drug dealers. And I’m not saying that they’re all good people, but a lot of them are good people that just do bad things,” Taylor said. “Dog fighting for me is something totally different.”

Court records provide grisly details on how grotesque the sport can be.

When a Pentagon official was indicted in October, authorities searched his residence and discovered blood stains in his home’s basement on the walls, furniture and wood panels, where prosecutors allege he fought dogs. Prosecutors allege that Frederick Douglass Moorefield, Jr., owned a “rape rack,” which constrains a female dog for breeding purposes, and a device made up of jumper cables that appears to have been used to electrocute dogs after a losing fight. The docket for the case shows Moorefield pleaded not guilty. His attorney didn’t respond to requests for comment.

A prosecutor who tried a New York City building superintendent in 2012 also suspected that he electrocuted losing dogs and that he then took the bodies out with the morning trash. The superintendent kept nearly 50 dogs in wooden crates in the building where he worked.

Dog fighters in a Virginia case shared methods of killing dogs that lost fights. One defendant in that case claimed he “loved” killing dogs.

Roughly 50 dogs were found in a basement of a New York building supervisor in 2012. Many of the animals were discovered living in unsanitary conditions in crates and showed signs they'd been used for dog fighting.

Taylor said she began to chip away at the problem while she continued to prosecute narcotics crimes. Her big break came last year when she and Klein spearheaded the raid of a dog fighting competition known as the Carolina Classic.

Men from across the East Coast flocked to a remote location in rural South Carolina for the event. With them, they brought more than a dozen dogs. Many of the animals were tied up or kenneled across the property, howling and barking before they entered the backyard pit: A roughly 8-foot by 8-foot square with wood panels that kept the dogs contained.

Dog owners attending the event brought an abundance of tools of the trade: guns, ammunition, a club with spikes, a break stick—which forces a dog to open its jaws once a fight is finished—and a trophy.

What they didn’t know was that one of their compatriots was a government informant.

That allowed federal and state authorities to get inside information on the operation. Once the fight was underway, agents swooped in. Men fled on foot as the agents descended on the scene, leaving two dogs in the ring fighting one another.

That weekend, authorities seized more than 300 dogs and arrested more than 20 people—the largest bust in state history.

Taylor and Klein didn’t stop there. In February, they were involved in a case in which 23 dogs, chained up in the cold without food or water, were rescued. Police also seized a bag containing two dead dogs, who the owner said had recently frozen to death.

This past September, Klein and Taylor conducted one of their biggest raids. In a single day, law enforcement executed 10 search warrants and seized some 120 dogs from suspected fighting rings across the state, Klein said.

“It’s horrible,” Taylor said that morning, shaking her head. She stood on the edge of a property in rural South Carolina where a suspected dog fighter lived and described what she had just seen—nearly 40 dogs living in squalid conditions. They had food and water, but were filthy, chained up and exposed to the elements. Some had scars cutting across their heads, necks and legs.

Taylor and Klein say they are motivated by their love for animals. They focus on organized dog fighters—ones who use sophisticated training techniques and maintain a stable of dogs—because they’re often participating in interstate operations that violate animal abuse and gambling laws.

Dog fighting generates money in several ways. Handlers have been known to shell out $200,000 to enter a dog in a fight. Spectators wager thousands on a match, court records show. A dog that wins can bring its owner additional riches in semen, stud fees and puppies.

“It is huge business,” said Maxwell, the professor who specializes in animal crime investigations. “It’s very, very lucrative for them.”

United States District Court of South Carolina
A dog with severe scarring was one of 22 pit bulls seized from a South Carolina property in 2022.
United States District Court of South Carolina
Animal remains were discovered on a suspected dog fighter's property in 2022.

The money flows beyond the dog owners: There are breeders who sell to dog fighters, transporters who drive the animals out of state for a fight or who pick up dogs when they are sold, and promoters who charge entry fees.

“It’s much broader than the individual who’s fighting the dog,” Klein said. “My opinion, even a dollar is too much to be making money off of this.”

Many fighters are also engaged in other kinds of crime. Federal authorities stumbled upon Eric Dean Smith’s dog fighting operation in the mid-2010s because they were investigating him as a cocaine dealer and member of the Bloods street gang. Wiretaps revealed that Smith was selling thousands of dollars’ worth of cocaine each week. In his conversations, Smith also revealed he was planning to sell a dog for $2,000. When federal agents raided Smith’s property, they discovered drugs, guns, cash and roughly 90 dogs.

Experts said the practice transcends race and class. Veterinary technicians, teachers and high school coaches have also been charged with these crimes.

“It’s everybody,” said Robert Misseri, who runs the animal nonprofit Guardians of Rescue. “It’s way wider than people think it really is.”

The devastating toll of the blood sport

On a sunny afternoon in New Jersey in November, a black and white pit bull rolled around in the grass, snarling and snapping at a sato named Ally. Their tails wagged, their teeth chomped at the air instead of one another’s flesh, and there was no referee to declare a winner.

For the pit bull named Wish, it was a long journey to play fighting from the real thing. Wish was one of nearly 90 dogs rescued in 2021 as part of a dogfighting ring bust on Long Island. The dog received care at two recovery centers run by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)—one the organization says it uses for “cruelty recovery” and another for behavioral rehabilitation.

Wish, who was adopted by a New Jersey couple who already owned two other dogs, now leads a cozy existence. His journey stands in stark contrast with what many fighting dogs endure.

Isabelle Chapman/CNN
Wish plays with his owner outside his home in New Jersey.

Some spend their entire lives outdoors, tethered with a heavy chain to a car axle bolted to the ground or in a cage, separated from other dogs. Dog fighters fear that if dogs are able to reach their yard mates, they’ll fight one another.

One civil complaint described how a Florida dog fighter had to euthanize a dog after another dog broke her back and paralyzed her back legs in a “yard accident.”

When federal agents seize the dogs, their faces can be swollen, their ears are often mangled, and they are frequently malnourished or dehydrated.

“It’s animal cruelty, plain and simple,” said Jessica Aber, a US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, which has prosecuted animal crimes. “The way in which the dogs are bred and trained and living in inhumane conditions for the duration of their lives, only to be brought to a fight, wherein one of them has to die. It’s brutal, it’s barbaric, and it’s not something that we, as a society, should permit.”

Some of these dogs, experts say, are too aggressive to rehabilitate. But others, like Wish, can be adopted.

The devastating toll of the blood sport is often laid bare on Dr. Martha Smith-Blackmore’s table.

Three days before the forensic veterinarian performs a post-mortem exam on a maimed dog, the frozen animal is delivered by law enforcement to her Boston-area animal hospital in a black cadaver bag. She stows the dog, bag and all, in the only place that she can keep the evidence under lock and key: a blue kiddie pool atop an IKEA table in the corner of her office.

Once thawed, she rolls the dog, strapped to a gurney, to her lab several floors down. While she probes, she talks to the dog.

“I’ll tell them ‘You’re okay. This is your chance, you’re going to talk to me. You’re going to tell me what happened,’” Smith-Blackmore said.

Smith-Blackmore takes hundreds of photographs of her subject – its skin, its brain, its thorax – and pays close attention to toxicology results. Testosterone, cocaine or methamphetamine are often evidence of dog fighting. As are deep puncture wounds on the underbelly and armpits. Lacerations often cover a fighting dog’s front legs from where an opponent sunk its teeth into the flesh, sometimes all the way to bone.

Once she’s done, she writes a report and hopes that it’s enough to tell the dog’s story in court.

“I really want people to be able to understand what the animal endured,” Smith-Blackmore said. “Not just there was this wound, that wound and the other wound—but this is how much it hurt. This is how long it hurt.”

CNN’s Isabel Rosales, Casey Tolan, Scott Bronstein, Jade Gordon, Yahya Abou-Ghazala and Scott Glover contributed to this report.