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New dogfighting seizure ordinance has more bite

TAMPA - The dogs were leashed on chains weighing 84 pounds, near a circle of dirt closed off by pieces of wood that formed a makeshift ring. Before the canines were turned loose to tear each other apart, they were deprived of water. "The owners will dehydrate them before a fight because they'll bleed less," said Pam Perry, investigations manager for Hillsborough County Animal Services. "It's sickening." Perry was describing the scene she found last year in a scrub forest in Seffner, a dogfighting operation she said spanned 20 years even as authorities worked to toughen laws against the crime.
This particular crime, investigators said, is held sporadically in backwoods, back alleys and on vacant properties. Over the years, penalties have grown stricter, and law enforcement agencies have become better at ferreting out those who own, train and bet on fighting dogs. Still the practice persists, even in urban counties like Hillsborough. It's a secretive society that's wary of outsiders, Animal Services investigator Ken Vetzel said. He said members usually have criminal records for other crimes. "To even be accepted in this community, you have to give three or four references, people who can vouch for you being legitimate," Vetzel said. "They assume everybody is associated with law enforcement." Information on matches are spread via word of mouth or posted in online message boards and chat rooms using coded terminology, Vetzel said. No one lingers for long after the match's bloody end. "It's so secretive that by the time we find a site, they're already gone," Vetzel said. "The matches move around. I've seen a great decline in the showboating aspect. It's more underground now." Tougher state laws passed almost 10 years ago have played a part in pushing dogfighting to the fringes of society. Dogfighting was once a misdemeanor crime. It's legally defined by terms such as "cruelty to animals" and "baiting, breeding or possessing animals for the purpose of fighting." Now anything associated with it — the breeding of dogs, the sale of equipment, the possession of equipment or even just being present at a match — is a third-degree felony carrying a maximum five-year prison sentence. Hillsborough County commissioners are pushing for even tougher ordinances. Earlier this month, commissioners unanimously passed a measure that would allow authorities to seize the property of anyone who promotes animal fighting. Because of the preponderance of evidence usually collected in a typical dogfighting case, which includes equipment, videotapes and the animals themselves, the crime has a high conviction rate, Assistant State Attorney Pam Dato said. "If we have to file (charges), we have enough to convict," Dato said. Dogfighting is more sporadic than rampant in Hillsborough and thus is tough to root out, investigators said. Anonymous tips often are investigators' best leads in foiling dogfighting operations. That's what led Vetzel and Perry to Stark Road in Seffner in November. They found seven flea-infested dogs, equipment used in matches and the property's owners, who took a cavalier attitude about their enterprise, Animal Services spokeswoman Marti Ryan said. Vannie Franklin, 55, "actually admitted to us that he's (been) fighting dogs out there for 20 years and jokingly said that were walking on a graveyard," Perry said. "He had no remorse, no qualms about it." Vetzel said people who breed dogs to fight see the animals as tools. "I've never heard any of those guys that I've encountered define why they do it," Vetzel said. "It's always been a macho, bravado thing. For a few individuals, it's a bloodlust. They actually get their kicks watching these dogs tear each other apart." Franklin was charged with four counts of baiting, breeding, owning or possessing animals for fighting and other animal cruelty-related charges. He was released from jail after posting $57,000 bail. Russell Franklin, 41, who also lives on the property, was arrested on seven animal cruelty-related charges and remains in jail without bond. Vannie Franklin could not be reached for comment; Russell Franklin declined a request for an interview. Of the seven dogs seized from the Franklins, one named Fyfy, used just to breed, died from heartworms. The other six are still at Animal Services, where they're undergoing medical treatment and rehabilitation. Rudolph, a 3-year-old American pit bull terrier, has bite marks and scars on his chest and front legs. The tips of Rudolph's ears are jagged where bits of flesh were gnawed off. Documents on the kennel door at Animal Services identify Rudolph as an animal cruelty case. Another piece of paper, signed by a veterinarian, says Rudolph "likes chicken." Rudolph sat with his tail tucked under him and his ears drooping. But once he was allowed to run around in an outdoor pen, his demeanor changed. Rudolph scooted across the yard, tail wagging and tongue lolling, sniffed patches of grass and paused for long moments in the late afternoon sun. In these moments, he didn't look like a dog trained to maim or kill other canines. Rudolph looked like a family pet. Soon, he'll be up for adoption, Ryan said. It's difficult to rehabilitate dogs that were used for fighting, Vetzel said. The canines still retain a prey drive and can pounce on a smaller animal — say, a neighbor's poodle — in an instant, Vetzel said. That instinct comes from breeding and training, Perry said. A typical daylong match can generate at least $40,000 in wagers, Perry said. "Nothing is heartfelt about any of this," Vetzel said about the owners' relationship to the animals. "These dogs are specifically bred for their traits, to see if they've got game in them. It's all about the money." Dogs that lack an instinct to fight are quickly abandoned or killed. "I've seen puppies drowned in a fish tank," Vetzel said. "I've seen them shot. I've seen them hanged. It's pretty horrific all the way around."

rreyes@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7920

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