The Michael Vick dogfighting case has created many victims. First, you have the alleged victims: the dogs. There are also the Atlanta Falcons, who are out a quarterback. And there's hip-hop. Yes, hip-hop.
Vick's indictment on federal charges related to a dogfighting ring allegedly run on his Virginia property — to which he agreed to plead guilty on Monday (August 20) — has brought the brutal blood sport into the public consciousness. And hip-hop is one of the only outlets in America where you'll find references to it. Dogfighting's presence in videos and lyrics led to critical newspaper editorials and columns, along with on-air berating from Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly.
All of them addressed the same explicit examples: The scene in Jay-Z's "99 Problems" video where everyone is getting ready for a big dogfight just as Jigga goes down, DMX's album Grand Champ (which is the title given to a dog that wins five matches without a loss), and DVDs of dogfights sold alongside mixtapes in some parts of the country.
There was also a lot of grumbling about the less blatant examples: Pit bulls seem to be the breed of choice among rappers, appearing on many album covers and in numerous videos — without direct references to fighting, but nearly always looking threatening. Rappers and video directors seem to love playing up the same features that make the breed so popular with dogfighters.
"That pit bull, it's a statement dog — it's that beast dog that you have to have," said Bow Wow, whose first video, "Bounce With Me," featured the then-12-year-old morphing from a running pit bull. "Those are the go-get-'em dogs that are really going to protect you and get down. When they bite you and lock their jaws, there is no escaping that."
Despite the glamorization of pits in videos and magazines, most of the imagery doesn't actually show them fighting — and it's worth noting that voices inside hip-hop have been critical of Vick. Russell Simmons was one of the first public figures to call on Nike to pull Vick sneakers. Producer Just Blaze posted a scathing criticism of the quarterback on his blog, citing his love for his own dog as justification for his suggestion of throwing Vick "in a pool and [letting him] play catch with a few hair dryers."
The sport has a long history in this country. Dogfighting has been documented in the U.S. as far back as the 1750s, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or ASPCA. It grew in popularity after the Civil War, leading to many states banning professional matches and passing anti-cruelty laws. For many years, dogfighting remained most popular in parts of the rural South, especially North Carolina and Louisiana. In recent decades, however, it's moved into urban and suburban areas all over the country.
Dogfighters, also known as "dogmen," often breed their own animals and favor traits like aggression and a strong jaw. Dogs are raised to be fighters from the time they are puppies. They are conditioned like athletes: There are dog treadmills, swimming workouts and strength-building regimens that often include hanging dogs by the neck. They are often trained to fight by sparring with "bait animals" — which can be other dogs, cats or smalls animals — to test their fighting prowess. If a dog has potential as a fighter, its ears and tail are often cut off.
"[One reason] they do that is so the dogs don't get grabbed by the other dog and cause harm and injury," said ASPCA Senior Vice President Gail Buchwald. "But really, they are doing it to mask certain forms of body signals that dogs will use to signal one another to say, 'Here is my white flag of peace — I submit, the fight is over.' "
The fights themselves are high-stakes gambling operations with purses sometimes totaling upward of $100,000. In some communities, the high-rolling fight attendees resemble crowds at a prize fight.
"One of the reasons it has been difficult to investigate and eradicate the dogfighting rings is that they are so well-attended by citizens of influence," Buchwald said. "So we do have attorneys and doctors and judges and lawyers attending dogfights."
The fights can last for hours and are often fought "to the death." Even dogs that don't die in the ring are often victims of the sport: Animals that don't live up to owners' expectations are sometimes killed by other methods, including electrocution, drowning and shooting.
While she acknowledges the glamorization factor, Buchwald said hip-hop doesn't bear much responsibility for the popularity of dogfighting.
"We don't feel as though it is actually adding fuel to the fire and proliferating the dogfighting itself," she said. The real problem, she said, is that the glamorization of pit bulls has led to there being too many of them.
"We are finding that too many people are attracted to the machismo — this image of this macho breed that is strong and dominant," she said. "People acquire these dogs, and these dogs are not easily trained or managed. They are very high-energy and typically they end up in streets and in shelters because they are acquired for the purpose of an image."
While the ASPCA estimates around 10,000 dogs are involved in dogfighting every year, many more pit bulls end up on the street and in shelters — or worse.
Pits are the number-one breed of dog euthanized — put to death — every year in the U.S.
[This story was originally published at 6:40 pm E.T. on 08.17.2007]