Dogfighting rings hard to spot in Aiken County

AIKEN - This dog has no name that animal control officers know of.

He growls. He barks. He lunges at the cage door. He bites at the chains separating him from the people standing outside. Sometime soon, he'll probably be euthanized.

He is part of a national problem and a disturbing nuisance in Aiken County: dogfighting.

Animals seized from dogfighting rings are almost always ordered by judges to be euthanized, said Ronnie Broome, Aiken County's new chief animal control officer.

The dogs have been trained to kill and even though most of the ones seized - typically pit bulls - are friendly to humans, they can't be around other animals.

During their stay at the county's animal shelter, "each one has to be in a separate kennel," Mr. Broome said.

"I wouldn't want to put them back in a home, especially with a child," said Capt. Wallace Owens, who heads the investigation unit at the Aiken County Sheriff's Office. "You never know when it'll turn on you."

Over the past three years, Capt. Owens said, his agency has shut down five to six dogfighting rings, mostly in isolated, rural areas.

"A lot of these things are in locations where it's hard to find them," he said. "Neighbors don't report them, and a lot of times, we'll stumble on them."

What would help, he said, is for residents to report dogfighting to authorities. Unfortunately, he said, people often don't know whether a neighbor is running an underground dogfighting ring or just has a lot of dogs.

Things to look for are many dogs of one breed, a lot of nighttime activity, commotion from the dogs and even treadmills used to condition the canines.

In Aiken, Capt. Owens said, dogfighting rings are often "crude" events run by people "just into fighting dogs."

They, and the people who watch them, are typically male who are young to middle age. Capt. Owens said he can't recall any women being at the raids.

Illegal in all 50 states, dogfighting is not always a felony.

In some places, laws about the crime are getting tougher.

In Georgia, a state lawmaker has proposed a bill that would toughen the law against dogfighting, raising the punishment for people convicted of the crime more than once to a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

In South Carolina, the law addresses animal fighting, and owning an animal with the intent of fighting or baiting is a felony punishable by as much as five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Those who watch can be arrested on misdemeanor charges.

That difference in punishment can stifle prosecution, Assistant Solicitor Beth Ann Young said. She's prosecuting two recent cases of dogfighting in Aiken County court.

Having spectators charged with misdemeanors at first - it goes up to a felony after more arrests - presents authorities with "a little bit of a challenge," she said.

They have to prove "who's fighting the dogs and who's just watching."

It's deplorable either way, she said.

Ms. Young said the organizers of these events often steal dogs to use in training, or as bait.

"Then you're getting two innocent victims: the dog and the owner," she said.

Dogfighting is so widespread and connected to so many other crimes that Attorney General Henry McMaster once formed a task force and embarked on a campaign to stamp out the illegal sport after years of irregular enforcement.

Capt. Owens said rural areas lend themselves more easily to dogfighting rings, but local investigators have found them in the middle of heavily populated areas.

"People just don't pay attention," he said.

Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or sandi.martin@augustachronicle.com.