Finding Hope in a Dog Fighter

November 5th, 2014 – This morning a man confessed to me that until recently, he fought his dogs for money. I have so many emotions swirling around the interaction, but I want to share the story because it is important that people know this is still an issue in Chicago and in many other cities. Dog fighting is still happening and is much more common than people think. Perform a Google news search on “dog fighting” and see how many stories result just from the last few weeks. Beyond awareness, people should realize that ending dog fighting and cruelty will come through compassion and understanding for people, not just the animals. At times when we find ourselves most appalled and disgusted by the actions of people, we must muster our inner strength and resist the urge to judge and condemn for it only creates resistance. Change and education comes through compassionate understanding.

Why should people care about dog fighting? Dog fighting is used by gangs as a tool to desensitize communities (including children) to violence. In 2009 I was at a Chicago Park District summer camp for six and seven-year-old girls to present a fun animal game to teach the kids about pet care. It was like getting punched in the stomach when every little girl in the room started telling stories of dog fights they had attended. Yes, six and seven-year-old little girls. One was brought to a dog fight by her older cousin, a teenager and expectant mother. The little girl, whose eyes were wide with agitated excitement as she recounted the experience, said that one of the dogs had its ear and a lot of skin pulled off and was bleeding very badly. She went on to say that the dog tried to escape and get away from the fight and in doing so, had brushed past her cousin’s belly. The little girl stopped in her story, stared blankly at the floor and repeated, “Blood on the baby belly. Blood on the baby belly.”

For anyone that wonders why people should care about dog fighting, I ask them what hope that child has for seeing something wrong with violence in her community. Children that witness this barbaric event of two living beings forced to literally tear each other limb from limb are not only learning that violence and bloodshed is okay; they are learning that it is entertainment.

The felony classification level rises if minors are present at fights, so when older siblings, cousins, or someone a kid looks up to brings the child to a fight; it inducts the child into a gang’s culture of secrets. Don’t tell anyone where you were or who was there. Then the children witness horror and feel they can only turn to the others that were at the fight, who simply reinforce it as entertainment. Where is hope for those children to feel safe and retain innocence? It doesn’t seem like such a big deal to the kids if they are later asked to carry items for the gang.

The man today explained his past participation in dog fighting with the same excuse I’ve heard before, “I did it for money to feed my family.” The first time I heard that excuse was from a young man in 2010. I was presenting at a “Peace Day” event for a high school in Englewood when a young man interrupted with an outburst, “I fight dogs and sell drugs to feed myself. You think an animal’s life is worth more than mine!” I calmly explained to the young man that as an educator, I always put people first. I assured him that I did not value animals over people, but then I also pointed out the “help wanted” sign that was on the restaurant a block from the school and told him that there were ways he could feed himself without hurting others. I addressed the whole class again by stating that the decisions in life that keep you on a “good” and “right” path are usually not the easy ones; they won’t involve fast money, but making the right decisions are what make you a better person and a “real man.”

Although a part of me was sickened today to hear first-hand from yet another dog fighter in Chicago, I also saw hope. This is a man who now sees it better to help youth in our community through work at nonprofits instead of “bumping dogs” for quick money. He is someone that kids can look up to for his actions today and he can encourage teens that are on the brink of bad choices because he knows first-hand where those choices lead (charges were filed against him when one of his dogs killed a neighborhood dog). His experiences give him a power to connect with youth that many teachers don’t have.

I know I have a lot of devout animal lovers that follow my column. If any of you are disgusted, I understand. People with compassion can’t help but feel that knee-numbing punch in the gut when we hear about suffering. I just encourage all of the animal lovers to try and remember that to truly enact change for the animals; we must reach the people that are committing these acts. Locking everyone up is not an answer. Animal advocates understand that negative reinforcement is not an effective teaching tool for animals and it is not for people either.

The point of this article is not to shame or judge the man I spoke to this morning. What is important is that people continue to raise awareness about the violence epidemic that is in our midst. What matters is that people work to connect with one another to spread hope and empathy while encouraging positive work to spread like wildfire.

“It is not the violence of the few that scares me. It is the silence of the many.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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