Survival Of the fittest

The once violent lives of a fighting pit bull and a former gangbanger intertwine on the mean streets of LA

By Amy Tenowich 11/09/2006

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Amy is not beautiful by LA standards.

She's been blinded in her left eye and it's a cloudy taupe color. She has scars on her face and neck, and her ears are tattered on the edges. Her lips curl inward since most of her teeth have been kicked out.

But Amy doesn't hold grudges, greeting new folks with a wildly wagging tail. She hasn't a clue that many people want nothing to do with pit bulls -- even ones wearing a sea foam-colored bandana that matches the color of her good eye. Her breed is known for random brute force, and a jaw as potentially destructive as any weapon in a street thug's stash.

Meanwhile, in the downtown Modernica Furniture factory, about 30 miles southeast of Amy's suburban digs, is Diego.

Amid the haze of sawdust and the screeching of table saws, the 23-year-old reaches for a big plank of wood and hoists it onto his workspace. It's tough work, but Diego's a tough guy. He's been to prison, but before that he had to survive growing up in the Aliso Village projects of East LA, home of some of the worst gang activity in the city before their demolition in the late '90s.

Diego's days of heavy cocaine dealing and drive-by shootings have been replaced by crafting retro-chic furniture in a place where those in charge want to give those who have faced charges a second, third or more chances. Diego wears goggles to protect himself while he works. As a teenager on the streets he carried guns for the same reason.

In many ways, Diego and Amy are very much alike.

Both have started over after having lived in places where violence is reflexive and where the toughest don't stop to lick their wounds. Though these two have never met, they've each spent their earlier days with versions of one another; pit bulls have become the dog of choice for many gang kids because of their strength and potential for quick and deadly damage.

Sometimes a tough-looking pit is just a status symbol. But police say gangbangers also use them to guard drug stashes and for fighting -- a blood sport sometimes done for cash, sometimes just for entertainment.

Diego, whose name has been changed for this piece, remembers weekends as a teen in his neighborhood with as many as four planned dog fights a day. A group of 20 to 30 friends, who sometimes traveled from as far away as San Diego and Bakersfield, would gather in an abandoned warehouse or junkyard to watch pit bulls or Rottweilers tear each other to shreds.

The meets were carefully orchestrated, invitation-only events held in secret spots so cops wouldn't get wind of anything. Each match could yield $500 or more for the winner, depending on a dog's reputation. Kids in their early teens would go for fun, joining the older ones in yelling for their favorite competitor to eviscerate the other.

"At times I'd see dogs who didn't want to fight," Diego says. He knew that feeling of not wanting to always have to be alert to danger and ready to prove himself to enemies and friends alike.

Though tough on the outside, it made Diego sad to see an owner dump chili powder in a dog's mouth or kick it to stir aggression and get it back in the fight. The pits could be collapsed on the ground, covered with blood that squirted from their limp bodies. Sometimes, when owners would see their dogs dying, they wanted to stop the fight. "But it was too late. The dogs would lock until you don't see the dogs move no more." That's how you knew the fight was over, and who the winner was. The losers were tossed into dumpsters behind the projects.

"There were dead dogs every weekend," Diego says, with a serene smile -- an expression that doesn't read as sadistic so much as a sort of surrender to how little control he seems to have had over much of his own life.

Amy's situation was also bleak.

"No one wanted her, and people sometimes say she's ugly," Bob Ferber says about his beloved pit, seated next to him on the den floor. Ferber, head prosecutor for the Animal Protection Unit in the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office, has seen the worst in people through how they have mistreated their animals.

He shares his home with a menagerie of rescues, including a blind Lhasa apso, a three-legged shepherd, a Rottweiler with a cropped tail and a clowder of cats. Ferber was playing Santa at a pet adoption event years ago when Amy charged up to him, tail wagging. He couldn't resist her.

A rescue group had pulled Amy out of the South Los Angeles Animal Shelter almost a year before, but had been keeping her kenneled ever since because nobody would adopt her. A pit bull alone is a tough sell, but one with visible scars is almost doomed to an orphan's life, if lucky enough to even make it out of a shelter.

"She definitely symbolizes being a victim to me because she's a victim of screwed-up breeding, a victim of neglect," Ferber says, as a red tabby swishes her fluffy tail across Amy's face. "The overwhelming majority of animals that are victims of abuse or neglect are pit bulls or pit bull mixes," he says.

Amy's appearance tells the story of how females are often treated in the inner city, where fighting among people and dogs is routine.

"She's just used to have puppies, and in between, there's no harm or there's nothing considered wrong with kicking, beating -- just for sport -- just abusing this kind of dog," Ferber says.

Violence weeds out weakling kids in the inner city, too.

"If something's not being done the way you want it, the only way to get it is to fight," says Sergio Paz, whose last name means "peace" in Spanish. It's fitting -- Paz voluntarily runs an afternoon drop-in center for at-risk kids in Lennox Park, a stone's throw from LAX.

While countless jets above power off to glorious places, most Lennox kids won't venture more than a few blocks from their neighborhoods. Only about 40 percent of them will graduate from high school. Paz says about three or four kids out of 10 are either in big trouble with the law or just really struggling to keep it together.

Paz was part of a gang as a teenager years ago and can recite the typical life cycle of an LA gangster -- a roadmap that may be drawn before that child is even born: mom may accept that dad is a banger, and she may be hanging out with that crowd, using drugs and drinking during her pregnancy. Paz thinks that's why he sees so many local kids with mental and learning disabilities, who see more chances for success on the streets than in school.

When the new infant comes, gang members think it's cute to dress him in gang-style clothes, teach him the lingo as he learns to speak and give him a special nickname. His family history lets him bypass a normal initiation, allowing him to be "walked into" the gang, while mom and dad may still be getting high and partying with other gang members.

Even as a little kid he already stands out in school and by junior high he's tagging the 'hood and using drugs. Experimenting with sex and getting girls is a big priority, but hitting them isn't uncommon. They learned it at home.

Rough guys also like rough dogs, and Paz sees them making impromptu bets in the park that their dog can beat up another dog -- one whose owner may not even know that his pet is about to be attacked. It happens several times a week, in the same area where children play. They learn quickly that toughness bumps you up the ranks more than making nice.

Paz stays away from the dogs in the park but does break up fights between kids. They're often spillover matches from earlier that day at school, and can draw about 150 young spectators who cheer on the pummeling.

It can be a round of "going body," a game in which high schoolers prove their toughness by hitting each other as hard as they can, sometimes to the point of one passing out from a blow to the chest. "And these are friends!" Paz says. Just like the pits that are constantly pushed to fight, they will one day not only hurt another dog, but they will kill it because of all the anger that has been pent up. If you treat a dog with TLC and show it that you care by correcting it when it makes a mistake, it will in turn be very loyal and protect you," Paz says. "Kids growing up are the same exact way."

Diego's youth in Aliso Village started with dad being abusive to mom, but at least the kids had whatever material things they needed. But mom got sick of it, and when Diego was 8 she kicked her husband out and got a restraining order against him. Pretty soon she would be gone from Friday afternoons until Monday mornings, club-hopping with friends and leaving her three kids behind.

"I would cry to my mother to stay home for the weekend," Diego says. But she wanted to get out and enjoy life. She announced that she would put a roof over her kids' heads, but they were on their own for food and clothes. Diego learned what it was like to be hungry.

He also learned to go to a neighbor's place on Christmas to see if they had anything for him under the tree, "even if it was just a pair of socks"; to ask local ladies for medicine when he was sick; to forfeit school out of embarrassment for not having decent clothes or shoes to wear.

In the projects it's easy to become prey, so you learn to be a predator. "Back then it was a do-or-die situation," Diego says.

As he neared an age worthy of official initiation, things for him would get a lot worse.

The LAPD doesn't really set out to bust dogfighting, although holding a fight on your property or possessing dogs for the purpose of fighting is a felony in California, and attending a fight is a misdemeanor.

Rather, it's more likely that police stumble upon kennels, trophies and other clues when going after gang activities like drug dealing, weapons possession, gambling and prostitution.

Fight plans are made among those in the know via pagers and cell phones, and sometimes through coded Web pages that disappear once events are over. Getting invited into an organized, underground loop can take months, requiring the trust of someone already involved.

Chris Sanford, a retired Sacramento-area police officer of 26 years, now works full time for the Humane Society of the United States as a special investigator and is well-versed in dogfighting activities across the country. Though he's seen pit bulls at their most vicious while undercover at fights, he still feels it's man who has created the beast.

"If you take the time to socialize the dogs you won't have any problem," Sanford says.

A study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association agrees that how dogs are treated and quality of ownership contributes to a dog's propensity to bite. It says from the late '70s through the late '90s, purebred pits and Rottweilers accounted for about 44 percent of dog bite-related fatalities. It also stresses that the annual number of these deaths has remained fairly constant over the past two decades, but that the kinds of dogs responsible have fluctuated as certain breeds have become more popular.

Sanford learned about fighting in the late '90s as a narcotics officer, when an informant tipped him off about a marijuana farm in Northern California. Along with the plants, police found about 60 fighter pits. The farmer was also a registered veterinary technician who had sutured and "de-barked" many of the dogs with surgical materials stolen from the animal hospital where he worked.

Most professional fighters learn from each other or from underground pit magazines how to give vaccinations and anabolic steroids to their dogs, as well as how to stitch them up and administer antibiotics and intravenous fluids after a fight.

Sanford grew more interested in battling dog abuse than narcotics, and now he travels the country speaking -- particularly to law enforcement departments dealing with narcotics and gangs -- about dogfighting

There's no scientific survey about the prevalence of fighting in America, but the HSUS is in the early stages of compiling a database of all kinds of animal cruelty, including fighting, which Sanford believes is on the rise.

"How we've been gauging it is in the increase in Web sites where they're advertising dogfighting activity," he says, explaining that he follows keywords like "game dogs" and "champion dogs," as well as the names of known fighting bloodlines.

Web sites aren't always blatant and may even have a disclaimer on the homepage saying that they do not endorse anything that's illegal. But surf a bit deeper and you can find blogs that boast about the brutality of a dog, or even see a video of a bleeding pit locked in the jaw of another as handlers and cheering spectators look on.

Sanford says the largest purse he has seen for a dogfighting event was $500,000 in the South, where it's highly organized. Professionals there and in the Midwest, another hot area for fighting, strap weights to the pits and train them on treadmills. That kind of effort pays off. A dog that wins three professional, contracted fights achieves champion status and can fetch $5,000 in breeding fees. These experts take care in training their pit puppies, baiting them over time with slower dogs to see who's got the best killer instinct.

When the dogs are ready, they, their handlers and a referee will step into the typical 14-by-20-by-3-foot ring. It's a place where one dog is killed and a new hero is born.

Diego was 12 when he officially joined a gang. Five guys in their mid-20s thought he had what it took and told him there would be money, drugs, girls -- whatever he wanted.

He'd have to know how to defend himself and the initiation would prepare him for that. They then beat him for "13 long seconds," a number whose significance comes from the fact that "M," for "Mexican," is the 13th letter in the alphabet.

His eyes were swollen shut. He was throwing up blood. Didn't matter. It was time to get in the car. "They wanna have some smut on you so you won't go and turn on them," Diego says. There was a guy the gang had been watching for a couple of weeks. They knew where he'd be. The older guys drove while Diego pulled the trigger. Bang -- he was in.

Life became about buying coke powder, cooking it into rock with baking soda and then selling it for double what Diego had paid.

But something felt weird. Once Diego was in, his old friends from elementary and middle school couldn't be his friends anymore. They lived in a different territory, even though it was only in another part of the same projects where Diego lived.

"They make it look sweet at first. You party," he says about his elder gang members. "But little by little the parties stop." Friends split up, start "brainwashing" new young kids, go to jail, or get killed. "That's all I knew in life," he says.

Los Angeles generally tends to have more pickup dogfights and smaller rings tied to gangs, rather than big, professional events. Still, last summer the newly formed Los Angeles City Animal Task Force, which consists of two LAPD detectives and six animal services officers who investigate all kinds of animal cruelty, broke up an organized ring after several sweeps in South LA housing projects.

They found about 20 pits in vacant apartments, units that were covered in feces. There was drug paraphernalia left out and a dead cat strung up by the neck with a phone cord -- typical bait, sometimes pets stolen from people's yards, or animals claimed from "found" ads. "The ones in the projects were just so sweet and loving," says task force Detective Linda Ortega of how the rescued pits behaved around people. But when they get around each other, they're awful."

Other search warrant raids have revealed vet books, suture kits, bottles of vitamins B for stamina and K for clotting, syringes and antiseptic spray. They may also find a spring pole, a tetherball-type loop with a dangling object for dogs to clench with their teeth. As the contraption rotates and carries them through the air, they hang on with their mouths, building up their jaws for fighting.

Catching a fight in action is tough, and even though the task force has received a significant number of calls about people turning their dogs on each other, the culprits are gone by the time police arrive.

Fear of retaliation also stops people from reporting fights. A man who was housing fighters attacked someone who questioned him. Another neighbor videotaped the exchange and called police. "I know it was you, fucking bitch!" the perpetrator yelled to her when the cops arrived. "I'm gonna get you!"

Ortega's partner, Detective Susan Brumagin, says it would be ideal if the vice squad, which used to handle dogfighting, was still involved, but it's understaffed and so busy that "it's not even on their radar." And the time it takes to infiltrate a dogfighting ring may exceed that of a vice officer's tour of duty.

Ferber, Amy's owner, believes law enforcement needs to vigorously pursue dogfighting on its own terms, and not just catch it as a byproduct of solving more highly prioritized crimes. He sees it as incredibly dangerous that kids "are engaged in this horribly bloody thing just for fun, all the while seeing police cars cruise by."

To Ferber, it's not just an activity that's linked with gangs and drugs; those are mere symptoms. "A kid can get a hold of a pit before heroin, guns," he explains. "It's about the link with violence in society that's crucial. Duh!"

In Aliso Village, gang kids got rid of each other with a quick drive-by. For those still breathing, there's also the revolving door of confinement, which Diego first went through at 15.

He went in and out of camps, jail and prison about 14 more times, never having any kind of epiphany on the inside about how to live a better life. The process just made him harder.

"You're in there with the worst of the worst," he says. "You learn from the best."

Over in Lennox Park, Paz frets at the $34,150 annual price tag to maintain one inmate in the California detention system, especially since he thinks for $2,000 per kid a gang prevention program could prevent most of the crime and violence in the first place.

"Imagine all these pit bulls in one cage," he says. "What's gonna happen? Only the strong will survive."

Diego would get excited as each release date neared -- time served was a badge of honor, making you hot with both your friends and the girls who'd line up to be with the newly freed bad boy.

But it also upped the stakes. "The tougher you are, the easier it is for other people to get you to do their dirty work," Diego says. "Say a friend of yours gets killed or something. 'He's tough, he'll do it,'" someone says, about the retaliation. "And you're trying to prove who you are. You're not gonna say no."

"SHUT UP!" yells Tia Maria, as she trudges across her Santa Clarita property. She loves her 200 pit bulls there, many of which share backgrounds similar to Amy's, but says she has to maintain control or they'll get out of hand.

Along with her Villalobos pit rescue, Maria runs her Pets in the Hood program, whereby she takes the dogs to visit juveniles serving time -- many just like Diego used to be -- and teaches the kids how to care for them.

"I know what you're thinking. 'What could this white bitch possibly have to offer me?'" she says, playacting her standard opening lines when she meets a new batch of young men. Maria understands the link between the pits and the locked-up kids -- both come from rough backgrounds, both are tough enough to deal with the other and both are society's throwaways who could use a nonjudgmental companion.

After some work together, the pits can become more adoptable and the guys can learn that patience, dedication and compassion can sometimes tame the most errant creature. Perhaps they are tamed a bit too.

Once the young men are done serving their sentences, they can live on the ranch and help take care of the dogs there. Maria needs all the help she can get since she's only able to place about one pit a month after a thorough screening process of the new home.

She looks at the pits in a line of kennels. "I'm not saying every one of these guys is great, or every person is great. But if I can stop one from biting or shooting someone ..."

Maria knows lots of her pits will never get adopted -- nor does she think they should.

"You're taking a chance with a deadly weapon," she says about those whose aggression is too ingrained. She sees that potential for attacking as more of a people problem than a pit problem, since the dogs are so often trained to be vicious.

She stops by the kennel of a big male pit, with a black circle around his eye. He barks and growls. "We have our lifers," she says, matter-of-factly. "Just like in prison."

Ferber and Amy return home from lunch at an outdoor café that not only allows dogs, but also offers menu selections for them. Amy crawls under the desk in Ferber's office, trying to dodge the sexual advances of the blind Lhasa apso. His newly formed fetish for her haunches is Amy's biggest problem these days, but certainly one that won't hurt her.

Diego has also found some peace in his life.

"This is it. This is my life. There ain't nothing good." That's what Diego says he thought as a teen. But then something turned.

After getting out of jail the last time, he went to live with relatives in Georgia to avoid some retaliation activity that had been brewing while he was still behind bars. For the first time, he saw that there was another world outside of Aliso Village, one that didn't mean daily combat.

He came back to LA and has worked for the past two years as a carpenter at Modernica Furniture. His boss, Lori Weise, who hires lots of guys like Diego, raves about his skills and work ethic. Behind the warehouse is a small kennel, headquarters of Downtown Dog Rescue, where Weise houses and rehabilitates a small group of pit bulls she has pulled off the street -- the very types of dogs Diego used to watch fight and die.

Diego wishes his mother had stayed home with him more when he was little and that he hadn't felt cornered into the gang life he says he never enjoyed. But now he has a wife and a baby girl, has moved to another part of the city and is deeply grateful to Modernica for giving him a chance.

In turn, he has proven himself to his boss and to himself. It's a whole new way of being.

But his old way of being still lingers in his head, and while he smiles, his eyes tell a different truth.

"Ya know," he says, and then pauses before continuing, "I never asked for much."

Neither did Amy. They both just wanted someone to care about them.

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