In the Memphis Animal Services observation hallway, a tick-infested white pit bull is curled into a tight ball at the back of its cage. As a shelter worker approaches, it lifts its bony head, wags its tail, and runs to the front of the cage, as if hoping for salvation. Its ribs protrude from its skinny body, and mottled scars, likely the result of illegal dogfighting, mark its hindquarters.
Thirty-six pit bulls sit in metal cages along the hallway, the area where vicious dogs are held. The public is not allowed in this part of the shelter. In fact, because the dogs are considered dangerous, shelter volunteers aren't allowed to walk them. Instead, the dogs eat, sleep, urinate, and defecate in their metal cages, which are sprayed down two or three times a day. Many will spend their last days here, eventually put down by a shelter staffer.
On Monday, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick entered a guilty plea on federal dogfighting charges after police uncovered evidence of the activity on his rural Virginia property. The case has drawn national attention to the issue of dogfighting. Memphis police spokesperson Monique Martin says the illegal sport is a growing problem in Memphis.
"We're having more people call in and notify police that they have reason to believe dogfighting is occurring at a particular address," Martin says.
Though not all were involved in dogfighting, the number of pit bulls picked up by animal control officers rose by 22 percent from 2005 to 2006.
Last month, four people were charged after Memphis police busted a dogfight in a South Memphis backyard. Animal control officers took six dogs. Several of the dogs were already injured, and a couple of dog owners were preparing pit bulls to fight in a bloodstained area of the yard.
"The setups here in the city are generally in backyards. They're not professional-type rings," Martin says. "Anyplace they choose to fight is well hidden, maybe behind a tall fence. That makes it hard for us to find."
Confiscated dogs are taken to Memphis Animal Services where they are held in the observation hallway while their owner's case goes through the court system. If the owner is convicted, the dogs are euthanized.
"We don't adopt out a pit bull unless it's a puppy," says Tony Butler, operations manager for Memphis Animal Services. "A lot of these dogs can't be rehabilitated. ... They're underweight and covered in scars that breed various infections."
Donna Velez runs Hearts of Gold Pit Bull Rescue. Though she believes many of the dogs could be rehabilitated, she agrees that there is little chance of finding someone willing to adopt them.
"I don't see that the shelter has any choice. There aren't enough good homes that will take in a dog like this," says Velez. "Even if [the shelter] had a professional temperament tester come in and pick out the very best ones that are wagging their tails, what would we do with them? Where would they go?"
Last week, the City Council passed a "vicious dog ordinance" that sends animal abusers to face stiffer penalties in Judge Larry Potter's Environmental Court.
The ordinance also requires owners of vicious dogs to spay or neuter their animals. Though dogfighters are often charged under a state ordinance that specifically deals with dogfighting and cockfighting, the city ordinance gives authorities more teeth to convict people who do not properly care for vicious dogs.
"A lot of these dogs that are dangerous and vicious are used for breeding purposes in dogfighting. Now the ordinance says, if your dog is declared dangerous, it has to be spayed or neutered," says Butler. "You can no longer reproduce these dogs for monetary profit."