Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Freeman Dyson's Pit Bulls

Every couple of months, it seems, the NY Times likes to run a front page profile of extreme Texas redneck culture (see "Attack of the Feral Hogs" from this past summer). Whether the latte drinkers of the Upper West Side will continue to require such diversions after there is no longer a linguistically challenged Midlander at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue remains to be seen. In the meantime, it's local English teachers in the refinery towns outside Houston running clandestine dogfighting rings. About all you need to turn this into a perfect recreation of Nacogdochian Joe Lansdale's "The Pit" is to throw the owners in the ring with their dogs. Which is probably what these guys deserve.

Dogfighting Subculture, Illegal and Secretive, Is Taking Hold in Texas
December 6, 2008

...Over 17 months, the agents from the Texas state police penetrated a murky and dangerous subculture in East Texas, a world where petty criminals, drug dealers and a few people with ordinary jobs shared a passion for watching pit bulls tear each other apart in a 12-foot-square pit.

Investigators found that dogfighting was on the rise in Texas and was much more widespread than they had expected. The ring broken up here had links to dogfighting organizations in other states and in Mexico, suggesting an extensive underground network of people devoted to the activity, investigators said.

...In the Texas case, law enforcement officials described a secretive society of men who set up prize fights between their pit bulls and bet large sums on the outcome. Many of those indicted had long criminal records, but they also include a high school English teacher, a land purchaser for an oil company and a manager at a Jack in the Box restaurant.

The participants generally arranged the fight over the phone, matching dogs by weight and sex, and agreeing to a training period of six or eight weeks.

The training techniques were brutal. One man who was indicted trained a dog by forcing it to run for up to an hour at a time through a cemetery with a chain around its neck that weighed as much as it did. Then he forced dogs to swim for long periods before running on a treadmill. Every day the dogs would be given dog protein powders, vitamins and high-grade food to build muscle.

Then, as the fight date approached, the trainers would starve the dog, give it very little water and pump it full of an anti-inflammatory drug.

The fights were held in out-of-the-way places — an abandoned motel in the refinery town of Texas City, a horse corral in a slum on the Houston outskirts, behind a barn on a farm near Jasper and at a farmhouse in Matagorda County, south of Houston.

The two undercover agents, Sergeant Manning and his partner, S. A. Davis, posed as members of a motorcycle gang who stole automated teller machines for a living. They infiltrated the ring, allied themselves with a group of people who owned fighting dogs and rented a warehouse in Houston, where fights were eventually held.

People came to the contests from as far away as Tennessee, Michigan and the Czech Republic. Every weekend, fights were held throughout the area for purses that usually ran about $10,000. The agents documented at least 50 fights.

“The undercover cops were sometimes invited to three different dogfights in a night,” said Belinda Smith, the Harris County assistant district attorney prosecuting the cases, along with Stephen St. Martin.

The ring members called the fights “dog shows.” The two dogs would be suspended from a scale with a thin cord tied around their neck and torso. If one of the dogs did not make weight, the owner would forfeit his half of the prize money, or the odds would be adjusted. After the weigh-in, the owners washed each others’ dogs in water, baking soda, warm milk and vinegar to make sure their coats were not poisoned.

Then dogs were forced to face off in a portable plywood box two feet tall, usually with a beige carpet on the floor, to show the blood, officials said. At the command of “face your dogs,” the animals were turned toward each other. When the handlers released them, the dogs would collide with a thud in the center of the ring, tearing at each other’s mouths, jaws, necks, withers and genitals, officials said. A referee usually would let the dogs fight until one backed off, then the handlers would take them back to their corners and wash them for 30 seconds.

During the fight, the exhausted animals would sometimes overheat, lock onto each other and lie in the ring. The handlers would blow on them to cool them off and force them to fight.

The fight usually ended when a dog refused to cross a line in the center of the ring to confront the opponent, known as “standing the line.” Such dogs were usually drowned or bludgeoned to death the next day, officials said.

“These guys take it very personally,” Sergeant Manning said. “It’s a reflection on them.”

Most of the dogs seized were kept outside in muddy yards, chained to axles sunk in the ground, with only six feet of tether and no shelter, beyond, in some cases, a toppled plastic 40-gallon barrel. All suffered from multiple parasites, veterinarians said.

“These dogs were kept in more than cruel conditions — they were subjected to torturous conditions,” said Dr. Timothy Harkness, of the Houston Humane Society. “Death was more pleasant than what they had to exist for.”

Many of the surviving animals had battle wounds on their necks and mouths, Dr. Harkness said. Although some were not aggressive toward people, they were all bred to attack other dogs, and officials made the decision to euthanize them last week.

Dr. Dawn Blackmar, director of veterinary public health for Harris County, said that putting down more than 80 dogs in her care was heart-wrenching. “It was absolutely awful,” Dr. Blackmar said. “It’s not the dogs’ fault. It’s that people have taken and exploited this breed.”

The members of the dogfighting ring were careful about who attended a fight, often limiting each side to 10 guests and quizzing people about who they were, who they knew.

The principals would keep the location of the fight secret until the last minute and then go in a caravan of cars to the rendezvous point, making it difficult to collect evidence, law enforcement officials said. They were also secretive about where they kept their dogs, for fear of robbery.

“People would go to the fights and talk about their yards,” said Ms. Smith, the assistant district attorney. “But they were very secretive about where their yards are.”

Ms. Smith said dozens of people who attended fights had yet to be identified, despite photos, because they piled into cars that did not belong to them to go to the events and never used their real names.

“There are a lot of people doing this,” she said. “We could have gone on and on and on with this investigation.”

I had the opportunity earlier this year to get a brief tutorial on East Texas dog show culture from a fishing guide in Matagorda Bay, an ex Halliburton/KBR contractor whose high school job was clearing wild hogs off people's ranches. He told about the dogs one of his local buddies raised for boar hunts, though now reading about the dogfighters I have to wonder.

The way my guide told it, pit bulls are really too small to be ideal boar hunting dogs, and the bigger breeds like Rottweilers are too heavy — they get worn out running through the woods chasing the hogs for hours. So people like to breed their own custom mixes, to produce dogs that are really big and really athletic and really tough. In addition to pit bull, frequent ingredients to the mix include Presa Canario (the fighting dog of the Canary Islands), Rhodesian Ridgeback, Arkansas Giant Bulldog (a cross between the English Bulldog and the American Staffordshire Terrier, aka pit bull), Mastiff, Rottweiler, and the like. Basically, imagine a pit bull the size of a Great Dane. The product were dogs like:

"Big Jake," a 250 lb beast who once showed up in a bar after chewing through the airplane cable his owner had used to tie him in the bed of his pickup.

"Little Jake," around 225 lbs, who was un-killable, sustained through several mortal accidents and shootings by his own randy desire to sire pups.

"Watermelon Head," under 200 lbs, who liked to puncture the tires on the UPS truck. Yes, with his teeth.

All of this makes me think about Freeman Dyson's amazing essay, "Our Biotech Future," published in the New York Review of Books in July 2007. Dyson postulates that the coming democratic distribution of the tools of genetic manipulation will bring about a revolutionary obliteration of the interspecies barrier that maintains the family tree structure of life on Earth:

I see a bright future for the biotechnology industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee, becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralized. The first step in this direction was already taken recently, when genetically modified tropical fish with new and brilliant colors appeared in pet stores. For biotechnology to become domesticated, the next step is to become user-friendly. I recently spent a happy day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the biggest indoor flower show in the world, where flower breeders from all over the world show off the results of their efforts. I have also visited the Reptile Show in San Diego, an equally impressive show displaying the work of another set of breeders. Philadelphia excels in orchids and roses, San Diego excels in lizards and snakes. The main problem for a grandparent visiting the reptile show with a grandchild is to get the grandchild out of the building without actually buying a snake.

Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business. Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too.

Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.

Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora. The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur. These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious.

If domestication of biotechnology is the wave of the future, five important questions need to be answered. First, can it be stopped? Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally? I do not attempt to answer these questions here. I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers.

Prof. Dyson probably wasn't thinking about the crazy-ass redneck variations. Take the kind of dudes who grow themselves pit bulls that could eat a Volkswagen, the kind of dudes who like to hang out at exotic pet stores where you can buy scary venomous reptiles and arachnids, and the kind of Home Depot genomitech described above, and let your imagination run with it. So now my son talks not about what other breeds of dog he'd like to mix his Jack Russell Terrier with, but what other species.

If Dyson is right about the distribution of the tech (which seems on the money to me), good luck trying to regulate popular uses of it.


Anonymous said...

Interesting article, but it is more likely mexicans and african amaericans who are running these rings. Rednecks like guns and hunting dogs.

Christopher Brown said...

You may be right about the dogfighting rings, but I think the interest in breeding new creatures (as was the case with my boar-hunting acquaintance) transcends race and ethnicity (though associated cultural factors may influence the Dysonian chimera strategies).

bellamy said...

Yeah, Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker (both apart and together) have written stories on this stuff for years. Again, the somewhat ancient mantra: for those who don't read SF, everything is new after the fact.

Eileen Gunn said...

Chris, I'm more concerned about what your son might cross with his Jack Russell....

Christopher Brown said...

Eileen! Yes, I am afraid I am a bad influence on the boy (for Christmas, he had bumper stickers made with his invented slogan, "Jesus was adopted"). As for speculative cross-breeding, so far we haven't gotten much further than ferret...

rakatko said...

Super breed for hunting feral pigs?

Run for days, give a beating, take a beating, never back down.

A relatively new breed: a "creole" of Spanish Mastiff (an extinct breed), Greyhound, and half-domesticated Red Wolf. Mix a lil Shepard in there, and about 200 years of farmers "culling" the line, and you've got a high intelligence, robust genetics, physically superior breed that can hunt, herd, track, swim, and defend.