A federal investigation into a Cumberland County dog-fighting ring has illuminated a secret and vicious subculture, experts said.
Ten people are charged in U.S. District Court with running a dog-fighting network in New Jersey and three other states. Among them were seven suspects from South Jersey.
Investigators used surreptitious methods such as wiretaps and aerial surveillance to document evidence of dog-fighting. Authorities seized 66 dogs, including dogs from homes in Millville and just outside Vineland.
Few people are prosecuted for dog-fighting and account for a fraction of those believed to be involved in the blood sport in New Jersey, experts said.
“People don’t realize that we’re a common training area in Cumberland County because we’re so rural and we’re close to New York and Philadelphia where the fights actually take place,” said Bev Greco, director of the Cumberland County chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“It’s harder to hide a training facility in the city,” she said.
Anthony Gaines, 35, and Tiffany Burt, 34, two suspects awaiting trial in the case, live on a rural road just outside Vineland in Gloucester County’s Franklin Township. Surrounded by cornfields, the home has a tall, white privacy fence surrounding a large back yard.
Investigators executed a warrant at the home where they seized six dogs found in crates in the basement along with a dog treadmill, weighted collars and surgical supplies such as a skin stapler, intravenous fluid bags and veterinary medications.
Neighbors, none of whom wanted their names used, said they were alarmed by the idea that dogs were being raised for fighting in the neighborhood. They heard barking on the property but never saw the dogs, they said.
According to court papers, seized animals were frightened of people but aggressive toward other dogs. They were heavily muscled and had scars consistent with fighting.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said detailed pedigree records were found in the house along with trade magazines on dog-fighting,
“It’s very organized and not that hard to get involved and educated about it,” Greco said.
Greco said people engaged in dog-fighting take pains to keep their dogs out of public view. The FBI intercepted a phone call on Oct. 17, 2015, in which Gaines told an associate he wanted to build a soundproof pole barn at the home so his dogs could not be seen or heard beyond his property.
Investigators relied on aerial surveillance to gather evidence in the case, documenting dogs in kennels at one suspect’s home in New Mexico. One of those dogs was shipped by air to Gaines’ home outside Vineland, authorities said.
Gaines allegedly tried to hide his fighting dogs from authorities by dropping them off with accomplices in Illinois and Indiana, according to court papers.
“There’s big money in these fights. Some of the puppies sell for thousands of dollars,” Greco said.
Dog-fighting is found across New Jersey. Documenting its prevalence is difficult because of its clandestine nature, said Matt Stanton, an investigator with the New Jersey SPCA.
“We get 10 to 15 cases per year. It’s underground and it moves around a lot,” he said.
“It’s rare to walk in on an actual fight. It’s more common to come across a training facility where dogs are kept and bait dogs are used.”
Bait dogs are used for practice against the fighting dogs and usually sustain serious injuries by mauling, he said.
“They’ll pull an animal off the street and then dump them afterward,” he said.
Dogfights typically take place in secret locations arranged hours before a fight. Two dogs fight, sometimes to the death, in an enclosed space that can be set up and taken down quickly.
More often, investigators find evidence of training.
“These dogs are athletes. They need to train,” he said. “You need a dedicated area.”
The dogs’ owners keep detailed records on fights, which can add to its value for breeding future fighters, he said.
“It’s like an underground AKC,” he said in reference to the American Kennel Club.
Typically, training or fighting facilities have medical equipment such as antibiotics and sutures to treat injured animals after fights.
Dogs trained to fight have an uphill battle to find new homes, she said. Typically, they are aggressive around other dogs.
“They’re traumatized to the point where they’re a huge liability. They can’t be placed in just any home,” she said.
Added to that is the often years-long confinement to shelter kennels while their owners’ court cases are adjudicated. Confinement alone can make dogs difficult to adopt, she said.
“The dogs are victims through it all,” Greco said.