Dog fighting once garnered international headlines in 2007 when NFL star Michael Vick pleaded guilty to a federal charge related to the underground blood sport. 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, CNN reports. 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, that federal authorities are seizing large quantities of the animals. 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.
Dog fights often take place in backyards or basements. A dog’s handler typically stands on the edge of the ring, within the 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.” 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 can reach their yard mates, they’ll fight one another. 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.”