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Fighting for the dogs

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What happens to the dogs rescued from dog fighting rings?

This is the story of some of the 85 dogs the FBI rescued from a dog fighting network that spanned five states and the District of Columbia, after Robert Arellano, 65, of Albuquerque was sentenced in federal court April 4, for 30 years of participation.

U.S. Attorney John C. Anderson for the District of New Mexico said, “Today’s [April 4] sentencing brings to an end Mr. Arellano’s 30 years in this unconscionable business, and hopefully will deter others who seek to profit from forcing animals [to] fight to the death.  In New Mexico, we will continue to seek out and punish those who exploit and abuse animals. Dog fighting for entertainment and profit is the organized and heinous business of breeding and conditioning dogs to fight each other until one dog kills the other,”

Arellano was convicted in a Trenton, N. J. court as part of a case that was consolidated with a related federal case in New Mexico. He received four years in prison and three years’ supervised release. Three other defendants were convicted as part of the same trial.

Arellano and his associates regularly had dogs fight to the death, and repeatedly trafficked in dogs with other dog fighters across several states. They maintained significant numbers of fighting dogs and equipment such as dog treadmills, intravenous drug bags and lines, “breeding stands” used to immobilize female dogs, and chains that weighted up to several pounds per linear foot.  One defendant convicted at the trial, attempted to set up a class for dog fighters to practice administering IV fluids to injured dogs, using live dogs as their practice subjects.

What happened next was all about recovering the dogs and providing help that included screening, treating, rehabilitating them where possible, and, whenever appropriate, adopting them out to new families, as quickly as possible.

This process was refined over a period of years.  It involves people in a long list of agencies from the U. S. Marshals Service, and federal agents, Department of Justice prosecutors, federal forfeiture attorneys and animal rescue organizations.

It’s a process that requires immediacy. Mary Hollingsworth, an attorney with the Wildlife and Marine Resources Section at the DOJ’s Environment and National Resources Division explains, “Typically, when you’re dealing with cash or jewelry or some other inanimate object, it doesn’t matter if you wait until the end of the criminal case to deal with it. Dogs may start to decline physically and psychologically after about six months, even in the best shelter setting. They are not meant to be in cages with limited human interaction and exercise for long periods of time.”

Most dogs in fighting operations used to be euthanized, in part, because they could not be adopted until the criminal case ran its course.  But in recent years, the recovery and placement process has been streamlined using a legal technique called “civil forfeiture,” in which property involved in a crime can be seized before an indictment or conviction.  The forfeiture has been used in the past with drug dealers, fraudsters, and terrorist financiers.

Shellie Roth, a forfeiture paralegal at the FBI in Columbia, S. C., said, “This is all just for the better welfare of the animals. Because the more efficiently we can get through this process, the quicker these dogs can get adopted out to better homes.”

Six puppies have been adopted out, after they were born to a rescued pit bull who didn’t survive after she received veterinary care.  She was one of 64 dogs seized from ten homes in Illinois as part of a coordinated operation against dog fighting in 2016. The littermates were taken in by Laura Donaldson, who fostered them beginning at the age of three weeks. She spent a few months socializing the puppies with her four other dogs and a neighbor’s large family. She found permanent homes for all six.

Donaldson kept one of the puppies herself. She named him “Porkchop.” “They’re just happy little guys,” she said. Porkchop is now three years old and weighs 60 pounds.  She says three years after the other five puppies were adopted, she still gets pictures and notes from their adopting families.

Seven men were sentenced to prison in Sept. 2017—more than a year after their arrests in the Illinois dog fighting case.

Animal welfare experts and law enforcement officials say dog fighting is more common than most people think.  A 2015 poll by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals indicated that half of law enforcement officers nationwide encountered dog fighting in their line of work.  Dog fighting is a felony in all 50 states.  FBI investigations show there is often a nexus between dog fighting and criminal activities such as drug dealing and gambling.

Samantha Maxwell at the FBI’s Springfield, Ill. office said, “It’s very organized and very underground.”

Maxwell is a special agent.  She coordinated the FBI gang task force during the 2016 investigation. The dogs’ seizure and rescue was managed by the U. S. Marshals and the ASPCA.

The Arellano case is part of Operation Grand Champion, a coordinated effort across numerous federal judicial districts to combat organized dog fighting.  The phrase “Grand Champion” is used by dog fighters to refer to a dog with more than five dog fighting “victories.” To date, eleven defendants from five states have been convicted and sentenced to a total of 164 months in prison as part of Operation Grand Champion.

Additionally, 113 dogs have been rescued, and either surrendered or forfeited to the government. The government is represented by trial attorney Ethan Eddy of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section, and Asst. U.S. Attorney Kathleen O’Leary. The case is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Federal enforcement of dog fighting falls under the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act of 2007, which targets individuals directly involved in animal blood sports and prohibits interstate trafficking of animals for fighting.

The most recent FBI National Incident-Based Reporting System report for 2017 shows more than 3,200 animal cruelty incidents were reported during its first year of data collection.

The Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, which refined the civil forfeiture process for animals, has assisted in about 1,000 dog seizures in the past three years.