This zinc enclosure, hidden between two shacks in a South African township, is a hot little corner of hell. The dog inside, a powerful pit bull, cowers as the door is broken open and the torches of the raid team shine on him. He’s one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dogs kept in hiding, chained and neglected, to serve an explosion of dog fighting across the country.
It’s a crime which occurs far from middle-class homes and businesses – yet it serves as both an indicator and predictor of crime that looms over them. Where dog fighting flourishes, drugs, gambling, organized crime, thievery, assault and murder march in lockstep.
“Dog fighters are violent criminals that engage in a whole host of peripheral criminal activities. Many are heavily involved in organized crime, racketeering, drug distribution, or gangs, and they arrange and attend the fights as a forum for gambling and drug trafficking,” wrote Hannah Gibson, in a study published by the College of Law of Michigan State University in 2005.
But why has this crime taken off in South Africa?
Twenty years ago, in a Gauteng study of complaints registered at major branches of the SPCA (the local arm of the animal welfare organization NSPCA), dog fighting didn’t even feature, says Wendy Willson, Manager of NSPCA’s Special Investigations Unit – there was just one report where two dogs jumped their walls and mixed it up. But “in the 2014-2015 statistics, there were over 1,290 reports of dog fighting to the NSPCA.”
These ballooning stats are just the tip of the iceberg; dog fighting has almost no recognition among the public and police in South Africa. Most people have no idea that it is a crime and police have been known to laugh in disbelief when animal welfare organizations report incidents.
The same applies to the rest of Africa. Dog fighting as a crime is almost unheard of, although it has leaked out into surrounding Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, such as Namibia, to a limited extent. But the SPCA in Kenya, for example, says there is no dog fighting there, while Uganda’s SPCA “suspected but could not confirm” some isolated incidents.
However, Amina Abaza, Chair of the Society for the Protection of Animal Rights in Egypt (SPARE), says dog fighting is an issue in Egypt.
“It is becoming more and more popular, especially in the lower class of the society,” she says.
In Egypt, it’s not yet against the law and videos of fights are often posted online. People import dogs from Eastern Europe.
“Each litter will bring them money,” says Abaza.
“It’s a symptom of an economic time and of a defiant and desperate youth,” says Willson.
Dog fighting occurs worldwide, especially where young men have little prospects and feel emasculated, as shown in a 2008 study of dog fighting among low-income youth in London. But, in South Africa, it has an added layer of ferocity and is largely driven by bloodlust, says Willson.
It’s a perfect vicious circle: exposure to dog fighting at a young age reduces empathy. Older boys and young men maintain the circle by inducting a new generation of children into this secretive world.
In Duduza, a township east of Johannesburg, the NSPCA were approached by a school concerned at the behavior of about 20 pupils, who were mimicking dog fights in the playground – biting, growling and attacking each other, and even playing out the mating of dogs. These boys, aged between nine and 13, had been introduced to dog fighting by an older boy or man whom they looked up to. School records show behavior changes over six months: “Elevated aggression levels, bullying and violent outbursts,” says Willson, noting that one child attacked his teacher with a six-inch nail.
In the hyper-stimulating and ‘fraternal’ atmosphere of a dog fight, these boys are exposed to unbelievable brutality. It is an introduction to a network of criminality that drives an inability to understand another’s pain and fear. Often violence becomes part of the thrill.
Fortunately, the criminal justice system and communities are beginning to take this issue seriously. In 1995, an early dog fighting bust netted several people who were fined (the wider group all chipped in to pay the fines). Today, dog fighters go to jail.
The NSPCA Special Investigations Unit gathers evidence patiently, over many months, and keeps the identities of informants safe, to construct a strong case in court. They’ve developed an ability to forensically examine dog carcasses and bones and determine what kind of fighting the dog has been forced into from the lesions on the bones.
“It’s important that communities, especially parents, understand [that] when their children get involved in dog fighting, they risk criminal records – which means they’ll probably never work,” says Cora Bailey of Community Led Animal Welfare (CLAW), an organization that is trying to educate people on the dangers of dog fighting in townships west of Johannesburg.
“Communities know how dangerous dog fighting is, to them and their children,” says Bailey. “They don’t want this going on next door. They know it ups the violence quotient considerably.”
The violence of dog fighting is not only felt by the dogs, the community is also being hurt, despite being unaware that a cruel blood sport is becoming rampant near their homes.