Police fear resurgence in the evil and bloody world of dog fighting

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The Independent Online

The inspectors did not take long to find the evidence. Prowling in a garden on a Cornish housing estate was a large fawn dog with a jagged wound – red, raw and crudely stitched with fishing line.

The animal was a Staffordshire bull terrier and, judging from the foul-mouthed protests of its owner, it had been involved in a rapidly growing spectator sport – dog fighting.

Officers from the RSPCA's undercover special operations unit seized the dog two weeks ago, with two others at a home in Redruth in a joint raid with the Devon and Cornwall police.

The operation – the fifth in a week that saw the RSPCA seize 12 dogs and four men – covered addresses in London, Birmingham, Scunthorpe and Surrey.

The unit believes recent arrests point to a resurgence in a blood sport that had its heyday in the 1970s. Although there have been 145 convictions for dog fighting since 1990, it had died down in the mid-1990s, when many owners took their dogs abroad. But, in addition to this month's arrests and seizures, there have been 16 people questioned and four people convicted of dog-fighting offences this year. The figure is already twice as high as the total for last year.

There are many reasons for the rise – ranging from the enduring fascination some feel for the sight of snarling beasts ripping each other apart, to the difficulties with enforcing the notorious Dangerous Dogs Act.

Whereas 30 years ago, fights were held locally and attended by up to 20 or 30 people at a time, the 21st-century version seems to be a nationally co- ordinated activity shared by a secretive band of enthusiasts.

Chief Inspector Mike Butcher, who helped to co-ordinate this month's raids as part of the RSPCA's Operation Flute, said: "There has been an upsurge in dog-fighting activity, of that we are pretty certain. Each of those arrested this month was interlinked.

"We think there are fairly few set-piece fights, but the organisers are linked together over a wide geographical area. It is a sophisticated operation."

When the unit's team knocked on the door of their suspect in Redruth, they were following a trail that started in May this year when a dog fight in Cambridge was raided by the RSPCA and police.

That intervention had led to valuable intelligence on others involved in a pastime that all too often attracts men whose criminal interests extend beyond blood lust to drugs, robbery and even gun dealing.

Dog fight organisers, according to the RSPCA, are not only sadists but can also be violent and organised criminals.

In January last year, a 34-year-old man whose home in rural Lincolnshire was found to contain 13 heavily scarred pit bull terriers was sentenced to six months in jail for organising fights. The man, who had an obscene phrase shaved into the back of his head, was also jailed for a year for breaking the nose of an RSPCA inspector and for three years for possession of drugs worth £100,000.

Chief Insp Butcher said: "We are talking about a very secretive world that is by definition difficult to infiltrate. They are surveillance-conscious, violent, into martial arts, boxing and, above all, macho."

Fights are often staged in private homes or rural locations, away from prying eyes. Removals lorries and even trawlers are also rumoured to be used, although no evidence has been found to prove it.

Trained fighting dogs with a track record of successful bouts sell for up to £5,000 a time. Most dogs tend to be of Staffordshire bull or pit pull lineage.

But apart from the difficulties of detaining sophisticated criminals, the RSPCA and police are being frustrated by something that should be on their side – the law. The Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced in 1991 to ban fighting dogs such as pit bull terriers and the Japanese tosa from being brought into Britain. Dogs that were already here had to be neutered and muzzled.

But the legislation, criticised as a knee-jerk reaction to dog attacks on people, is also unwittingly providing dog fighters with the means to keep their "pets", the RSPCA said.

Chief Insp Butcher said: "We know police are finding it difficult to prosecute under the DDA. It has to be proven that the dog in question belongs to one of the four breeds it specifically bans. The result is a bonus for lawyers and experts who can argue for ever about the minutiae of the dog's breed and identity. When it cannot be proven, the dog is released back to the owner."

The concerns are shared by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), which says it has had reports of police seizing suspected pit bull fighting dogs only to have to return them to the owner.

Acpo said: "We are not talking about a widespread problem, but there is a problem with enforcement because of the very specific requirements for identification. There are occasions where a police officer has recognised a dangerous dog but because of a subtle distinction the dog has had to be returned. There is a definite need for clarification."

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is responsible for the DDA, said it believed the legislation was adequate. A spokes- man said: "The burden of proof lies with the owner of the dog – they must prove it is not one of the banned breeds. Other legislation, such as animal welfare laws and a criminal offence of attending a fight, is also available to stop dog fighting."

Meanwhile, the RSPCA's battle continues. In February this year, four men in a ring in the Midlands were jailed for between three and four months each for cruelty offences, including organising dog fights.

The 32-year-old man arrested in Redruth earlier this month was released on police bail on suspicion of cruelty and possessing dangerous dogs.

He, like the three others arrested this month, is due to face further questioning by police in September, and probable charges – thus starting a process likely to end in a trial and possible imprisonment.

For his scarred dog the outcome is likely to be even worse. The RSPCA said that an animal trained to thrive on aggression could not be rehoused in the same way as an ordinary stray, and often had to be destroyed.