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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Going for the Throat

Two exhausted animals lie limp on the ground, indifferent to the crowd encircling them. It has been two hours since the battle between the reddish Bonny and a black pit bull called Jack began in the small dacha yard of one of the dog's owners, located just outside Moscow and shielded from prying eyes by a sturdy fence.

About 10 people watch intensely, waiting for the two dogs to resume fighting. Both owners and a referee stand inside the small ring walled in by four wooden boards. "Stand up, Bonny! You've got to win," screams Bonny's owner, a pale man in his 30s. He is bowed almost to the floor, shouting straight into the dog's ear: "Come on, sweetie! Get up! Show him who's stronger!" His voice mingles with that of the second owner: "Jack, my baby! Stand up! Smash him again, my lovely hero!"

Suddenly, both creatures jerk convulsively and the black Jack leaps on his opponent, chomping down on her neck and wagging his clenched jaws violently from side to side. The crowd murmurs in admiration. After two hours, the audience seems as tired as the fighters, but no one wants to leave without seeing who will emerge victorious.

Meanwhile, Jack, pleased with his eleventh-hour rally, gnaws away at the prostrate, motionless Bonny. Vapor streams out of all four canine nostrils as faintly audible snaps and cracks disturb the near silence. Bonny's forelegs are visibly broken; nary a blood-free spot is to be found. All eyes are fixed on Bonny's owner in hopes that he will stop the fighting, but he just sweats and waits. Finally, his patience is rewarded: The zealous Jack collapses. This is the fateful moment known as "scratch," when a dog must demonstrate its willingness to attack. Bonny's owner tries to help the pummeled dog to her feet - no easy task considering that all the necessary bones are broken. When at last he manages, the referee cries, "Release!" and, in spite of everything, the wretched reddish creature stumbles to attack. The crowd bursts into applause and Bonny's owner finally calls for the fight to be stopped. Bonny lost. But her perseverance was, in some respect, tantamount to victory. Too bad the bitch died the next day.


.. Hardly. At least not in the historical sense of the term Barbarian. Blood sports were part of daily life in England as early as the 16th century, and not only among the working class. Monarchs such as Elizabeth, James I and his son Charles I entertained visiting European emissaries with ferocious spectacles in which dogs baited bulls and bears (recall the vicious Sackerson from "The Merry Wives of Windsor"). But with the passage of England's Humane Acts in 1835, the popularity of dog-on-dog fights climbed steadily. And no wonder: Compare the effort needed to hide even the fiercest canine with the ingenuity required to conceal or explain away the 200-kilo grizzly chained up in your backyard.

Up to the first part of the 20th century, the image of the pit bull - now considered the world's premier fighting dog - was a far throw from its current reputation as a blood-thirsty killer. During World War I, the modern pit, presumed to be a cross between bulldogs and terriers, was declared the United States' hero dog and symbolized the country on various wartime posters. Prominent pit owners included Thomas Edison and Teddy Roosevelt, not to mention the mischievous but benign "Little Rascals." And dog-fighting as a spectator sport was so unabashedly de rigueur that, in 1881, the Ohio and Mississippi railroads offered special excursion fares to a famed battle in Louisville, where fans were welcomed by local officials and the match was refereed by an active proponent of the "game," the sports editor of, paradoxically, The Police Gazette.


Alexander Semenovsky, 40, has been obsessed with dogs since the age of 12.

"It's impossible to count how many dogs I've had," he says, "What has always attracted me in them was physical power and endurance."

In the early 1990s, the first pit bulls started appearing in the former Soviet Union and Semenovsky yielded to the temptation. In 1991, he got his first pit bull. "It turned out to be a special and completely different dog," he says. "It's got a special energy and is always ready to fight. This dog can not live without fighting."

In 1993, Alexander bought another pit, a two-year-old male imported from the United States to the Ukraine. "We agreed with the Ukrainian handler that I would buy Brown after I saw him in action," Alexander said. The trial took place a day after the dog flew into Moscow. It was Alexander's first fight, but it was the logical extension of his interest in keeping pit bulls. He was hooked. "It was a fabulous battle, and I had no doubts about buying this dog," he recalls.

Semenovsky did not want to reveal Brown's price, but non-committally acknowledged that pit puppies were selling in Russia for $300 to $700.

Since then, Alexander has kept over 30 adult pit bulls and countless young. He has had three contract battles - matches with a cash stake and a special contract - and remembers each one play by play. The unpleasant outcome of the first fight, in 1994, was clear 30 minutes into the match, so Alexander pulled his unseasoned dog from the ring and lost. In the second battle, Alexander's Panda defeated her opponent in just 16 minutes; but her next fight led to a lung injury in the first few minutes of the bout: Panda's "body started swelling all over because of the air leaving her lung." After a three-and-a-half-hour operation and some time on an artificial respirator, the dog survived.

Alexander is a typical case among pit owners. No blue-collar thug, he holds a degree from Moscow's prestigious Aviation Institute and spent eight years as an engineer before realizing in 1991 that his salary was not enough for him, his wife and their daughter. He started training dogs to bring in some additional income. His friend Andrei Sheremet, also 40, keeps his pit in his apartment. With a degree in zoology, he too abandoned science because of money concerns and switched to dog training. For him, dog-fighting is a sort of exam after many years of training. But not all people attracted to this violent sport share his views. "I know many cases when people put a dog in the ring just to show that their dog is strongest," Andrei says. "It's stupid. They do it without any preparation and just kill the dog. There are lots of people like that."


So-called "contract" matches include some ritualistic elements. After at least eight weeks of preparation, the owners arrive at the clandestine location and shake hands. A referee weighs in the dogs to make sure their weights are within 200 grams of the figure indicated in the contract signed two months earlier; otherwise, the pudgy pit is disqualified. Then, each handler washes the opponent's dog to be sure its skin is free of any poison or smelly cream. The referee once again explains the rules. After the match has begun, everyone but the owners must remain silent and not cross into the ring. The dogs start off in opposite corners: "Ready?" asks the referee ... "Release!"

The first unified rules on dog fighting were issued by the American Chauncy Bennett, founder of the United Kennel Club, in the mid-19th century. They have been modified and updated since then, with the last ones released in the United States as recently as 1950.

The existing rules are strict and sometimes elevated to the status of gospel. They stipulate that all matches must be held in a strict weight category and require the presence of both handlers, an independent referee and observers from both sides. When the dogs are not locked in combat, they are given an opportunity to "scratch" - to show whether they want to fight.

"Scratch is very import," stressed Semenovsky. "The dog has an option. If, in the course of 10 seconds, the dog doesn't attack, the match is considered over and the dog automatically loses. That's the main difference between a match and just a fight. Nobody can make a dog fight if it doesn't want to. But the difference between a real pit bull and other dogs is that a pit always goes to scratch, no matter how he feels."

In a ruled match, scratches follow one after the other, says Semenovsky, claiming that this reduces the possibility of dogs getting killed or seriously injured by allowing the owners to gauge how the animals feel. If the referee (usually nominated by both sides and an owner himself) doesn't require scratches often enough, "the dogs can become desensitized and not show that they are weakened or hurt," he explains. Every handler has the right to remove his dog from the ring at any time, but if he does, he loses.

The contracts signed by the handlers indicate the exact time, date and site of the battle, as well as the dogs' weight and gender. Also, the document designates the referee and fines for postponement or cancellation of the match. This covenant seems to be very respected by handlers. One dog owner recalled a case when another owner got in a car crash on his way to the fight: "They left the car stuck where it was and got to the battle site in another one."


Although every contract battle is registered by a referee, and sometimes even videotaped, there is no exact figure on the number of matches over a given period. There is no official association for them. But Semenovsky estimates that about 200 dog battles a year take place throughout the CIS.

The sums involved in dog fighting can be astronomical. A $10,000 battle took place in Belgorod at the end of 1998. (Afterwards, the hapless loser, Rosemary, spent 21 days on the verge of life and death, but doctors did not manage to save her.) But such high stakes are a rarity. Pit bull handlers say wagers have fallen on average to $500 since the August 1998 crisis, and they claim that money is not that important a factor. "Wagers just makes us responsible for the procedure itself," says dog owner Sergei. He says that victory is more important than a one-time cash prize because it raises the dog's overall value.

"The price of young [dogs] strongly depends on the parents. Puppies from a dog who's won several prestigious battles can bring in from $700 to $1,000," he said.

Sometimes handlers organize something like a tournament. One of these took place in Arkhangelsk in 1998. There are an estimated 1,000 pit bulls in this northern city of 300,000, suggesting just how popular this breed has become. About 20 handlers came by car to Levy Bereg, or Left Coast, a wasteland of half-constructed dachas about 10 kilometers outside of Arkhangelsk. Although there is no law prohibiting the fighting, participants avoid public places. They know public opinion is against them and don't want anyone calling the police.


According to some estimates, about 10 percent of dogs die after battle. But even under the best of circumstances, after a prolonged match, a dog is usually unable to fight for at least a year and requires a lengthy rehabilitation period.

"During the match, a pit bull feels nothing but the joy of the fight," says Igor, 25, an owner from Voronezh. "But every single part of his body goes through intense stress and, after a fight, he needs to be checked ... to find out the extend of the damage to each organ."

"People in Russia have no clue about what they should do after a fight," says Sheremet. "They think the dog will be all right the next day, but that's not the case. It needs a doctor as soon as possible after fighting. And a usual veterinarian is sometimes not enough; there are about five doctors in Moscow specializing in the rehabilitation procedure."

Marina, 34, is that kind of doctor. "The recovery procedure is very difficult. The dog has to be under observation for several days. Usually we set up an IV ... and antibiotics are also necessary, but even all that doesn't guarantee that the dog will survive," she says.

Marina refused to reveal how much she earns in a month, but says it is not big money. "Most owners are not very rich," she shrugs.

Igor from Voronezh estimated that, in the first two weeks after a fight, the owner must spend at least $300 to save the dog, buying anesthetics, vitamins and antibiotics. But the rehabilitation process may fail and the dog may remain crippled for the rest of its life.


While in the United States many owners keep their dogs in special areas or pens, most Russian pit bull lovers can not afford special accommodations and have to keep their "pets" at home.

Larisa Safonova has a small apartment in Arkhangelsk. She shares it with her husband Sasha and daughter Nastya. But they are not the only living beings to inhabit the three-bedroom flat: Bagira, Danila, Sharkhan and Lektor live here as well and are equal members of the household. One of the rooms is completely occupied by Lektor and nobody but Larisa can even come up to its door. After surviving a strange infection at the age of two and a half, Lektor - whose nervous system had been affected by the ailment - has grown into an aggressive and dangerous monster who acknowledges only Larisa. "I have been advised to put him to sleep many times, but how can I? We love each other so much that he thinks he's only protecting me when he attacks people," she explains plaintively.

In spite of the lock on the door, Sasha, who was once attacked by Lektor, stays away from the ill-fated room and Nastya is "scared to death" by the dog. Lektor, who remains muzzled even when home, has broken the door three times in as many separate attempts to escape confinement, and each new - supposedly sturdier - door proves too flimsy to hold him.

Bagira usually paces her small corridor cage, while Danila and Sharkhan occupy the other two bedrooms. Human beings live in those rooms as well, but they must be sure to keep all doors closed at all times. "You can't imagine what happens if two of the dogs meet. They'll start fighting immediately and it's very difficult to separate them. There can be a terrible mess in the flat if they clash," says Larisa.

Our friend Semenovsky has already experienced an accident of the sort. He keeps two dogs in his two-room Moscow apartment, where he lives with his wife and young daughter. "One day," recalls Alexander, "I came home to find my two dogs fighting on the floor. There was plenty of blood and my computer and fax were destroyed."

Semenovsky keeps his two other dogs in a special nursery. And although there are about 20 pit nurseries in Russia, they are a luxury for many. Igor and his wife Yelena, 22, run a 23-dog nursery on their 600-square-meter plot of land in Voronezh, where there are about 300 pit bulls. In 1991, Yelena got her first pit bull, Zombik. "I liked the dog very much and we started buying new ones. As we have our own private yard, we decided to set up cages and keep dogs there," she says.

There are about 15 cages for adult dogs with a small cubicle in each one where the dog can hide from the cold. Igor, who wakes up at 5 a.m. to feed and train the animals on special exercise equipment, said that food for the 23 dogs costs them 500 rubles (about $20 at that time) per day.


Post-Soviet Russia imported most of its first pit bulls from the United States. In the early '90s, serious dog fans started bringing them over from various nurseries. "Since 1993, I've gone to the States three times and brought over about 15 adult dogs," says Semenovsky.

Historically, dog fighters have always kept good records of lineage. And the price for pit young still depends on pedigree and on the parents' position in the "match pyramid," with figures starting at $500 to $700 for newborn pups, but sometimes reaching up to $2,000 by the age of one and a half years. The more matches a dog has won, the higher its price. By the time Semenovsky had bought his Hofa in the United States, the bitch had boosted her selling price to $6,500 by defeating a famous U.S. champion, and Semenovsky had to fork over another $1,000 for transporting the dog to Russia. Another owner, Dmitry Ablizin from Belgorod, writes about prices in the Moscow magazine Pitman: "From my own experience, I know that for $2,000 one can buy only a mediocre dog or one with some kind of defects such as bad health, broken feet or teeth. A good dog will cost $5,000 and a very good one from $8,000 to $15,000, but truly top class will cost an astronomical amount."

As of two or three years ago, however, the import of pit bulls saw a decline in numbers since Russian owners had brought up their own generation of dogs. About 15 Russian nurseries advertise their young on the pages of magazines such as Pit Review, Pit Master and Pitman, none of which are officially registered with the Press Ministry.



Russia is probably one of the few countries not to have a general federal law prohibiting dog fighting. There is an article in the criminal code stipulating up to two years' imprisonment for cruelty to animals under the charge of "hooliganism," but dog fighting may not match this definition in court.

In December, the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, adopted a new law including a ban on dog fighting, but the bill failed to win presidential approval.

"Were it passed," says Galina Leskova, a member of the working group that developed the draft, "the law would have established all relations between animals and people. Animals would have gotten rights and would have stopped being merely property."

Leskova believes the draft was blocked through strong opposition by the agriculture lobby, since its stipulations include such nasty inconveniences as standard conditions for keeping livestock: Animals must have enough food, space and even light. This means, for example, that cows can not be kept in the narrow stalls typically used in Russia.

Moscow, on the other hand, does have its own local regulation prohibiting dog fighting. The law, signed by Mayor Yury Luzhkov in 1995, says that "dog fighting and any events allowing cruelty to animals are prohibited." Unfortunately, the city law identifies the crime but includes no mention of punishment. City Duma deputy Andrei Shirokov says that a special law to ban dog fighting and other cruelty to animals is currently being finalized and the draft is expected to go through a first reading at the end of January.

Russia would do well to look to the West for some legislative examples. British law is probably strictest. As Sarah Hammond, press officer for the British Home Office, said, there are two laws under which people can be prosecuted for organized dog fighting in Britain. The first is the Dangerous Dog Acts of 1991 and the second is the Protection of Animals of 1911. Both stipulate punishment of six months imprisonment and/or a fine of pounds 5,000 (US$8218) or pounds 2,500, respectively.

The U.S. laws are strict as well. Although there is no overarching federal legislation, every state has similarly harsh regulations against offenders. In Pennsylvania, for example, any person who "owns, possesses or controls" two or more unlicensed dangerous dogs over the age of six months is presumed to hold such dogs for the purposes of animal fighting. The punishment for dog fighting is determined by the court and is usually several years in prison. Anecdotal evidence suggests the law works: A friend of Semenovsky's had all of his dogs confiscated, was arrested and jailed for over a year after police discovered and proved that he organized fights.


Although dog fighting has not been explicitly outlawed in Russia, pit bull owners tend to be evasive and secretive about their hobby. "Why tell people or journalists about all this," says Andrei, who refused to disclose his last name. "I've seen no positive or even neutral publications about it. People are uninformed, but they judge anyway."

But opponents of the once-aristocratic pastime are uncompromising.

"I think that dog fighting must be banned categorically," says Marina Dementieva, president of the Diana pet club. "It is definitely cruelty to animals and the existence of rules can not serve as justification of this cruelty. The rules are not strict enough to prevent the death or serious injury of animals."

But Dementieva is not especially optimistic about the possibility of permanently eradicating the blood sport. "Very good money is circulating in this business. That is why, I think, it is almost impossible to rid Russia of dog fighting."

Lyudmila Kruglova, head of the Bely Klyk, or White Fang, dog trainers, is not as adamantly opposed to the practice. "I strongly believe that commercial battles must be banned because people get heated and don't think about the dogs' injuries," she says. "But, at the same time, there are some breeds that are genetically selected for fighting. If that kind of dog has not been in battle for a long time, it becomes dangerous. So I believe the law should make exceptions for certain breeds."

But Yelena Pugacheva, an active member of several pet lovers' clubs, is not convinced.

"Some people say pit bulls have a biological need to attack. Don't trust them! It's just an excuse! Owners cultivate bad instincts in the dogs on purpose in order to entertain themselves. If we are living in a moral society, we must oppose all kinds of cruelty."