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Expert reveals world of underground animal fighting

Animal fighting operations, like an alleged site found last month in Pierce County, Wis., are “very common,” according to ASPCA Vice President of Field Investigations and Response Tim Rickey. Courtesy photo / ASPCA

ELLSWORTH, Wis.—An alleged animal fighting operation discovered last month in Pierce County turned up an example of a bloodsport awash in cash, cruelty and crime that experts say generally flies under the public's radar.

The Spring Valley-area bust resulted in more than 1,700 chickens and 20 dogs being seized, while the residents of the property now face dozens of animal fighting-related charges in Pierce County Circuit Court.

What also allegedly turned up at the farm — about 5 pounds of suspected methamphetamine packages — fits a profile that investigators of animal cruelty cases said tends to follow similar trends: other illegal activity woven into the operations.

St. Croix County Sheriff's Office Lt. Brent Standaert, whose first brush with cockfighting cases came in 2015, said such operations are often connected to drugs, money laundering or human trafficking.

"They see people and animals more as objects than the humanity behind it," he said. "That's how they justify it."

Standaert said a 2015 case that involved about 1,100 chickens was the first time he had experienced anything "even remotely close to that" in law enforcement.

He and others in the department had to learn on the fly about the activity from members of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The nonprofit agency has assisted with animal abuse-related cases around the country, including in western Wisconsin in recent years.

ASPCA Vice President of Field Investigations and Response Tim Rickey said he counsels law enforcement officials to be on the lookout for other criminal activity anytime they find animal fighting operations.

"If they're seeing or hearing about an animal fighting operation, there's another crime" likely afoot, he said.

Underground — yet common

Standaert, who has since become a Wisconsin resource in other animal fighting cases, said participants in that world sometimes offer the defense that they didn't realize the activity is illegal.

He doesn't buy it.

"They definitely know what they're doing is wrong," or else they wouldn't go to the lengths they do to conceal it.

Rickey noted animal fighting is a felony in all 50 states. He said the operations are exclusively underground, which makes it harder to break them up and often accounts for the accidental nature of how they're discovered. Officers were responding to unrelated calls when suspected operations were found in Pierce and St. Croix counties.

Rickey said its underground nature makes it hard to say exactly how prevalent animal fighting is in the United States, but he knows there's no sign of it waning.

"We're just seeing more public awareness and law enforcement attention to it," he said. "These operations are very common."

Authorities said they battle the notion that activities like cockfighting shouldn't chew up law enforcement time when there are cases involving human victims that should take precedent.

"We couldn't look at it that way," St. Croix County Sheriff Scott Knudson said.

Like Standaert, he pointed to the criminal elements that often take root alongside animal fighting operations. But there's another side of it, too, Knudson said.

"They're living creatures," he said.

That's the main element Rickey said motivates him. He said he hopes people who are dismissive of the activity consider what the roosters endure: Being forced to fight to the death after having blades attached to their legs.

"The pain and suffering and torturing and mutilation," Rickey said, makes cockfighting — and dogfighting — "one of the most brutal forms of torture that anyone can imagine."

The motivation

In a word? Cash, Rickey believes.

"It's the money," he said.

He said the fighting events, which often last entire weekends with people traveling multiple states away to attend, can result in massive amounts of money changing hands. It's not unheard of, Rickey said, for hundreds of thousands of dollars to be wagered on a single fight — though more common bets range from $500 to $5,000 per fight, he said.

More money pours in from animal entry fees, gate fees and concessions, Rickey explained.

But perhaps the most sustained income driver in the underground animal fighting world comes from breeding.

Rickey said the goal is to produce a dog or rooster that's a multiple-time champion. A three-time winner is branded a champion and becomes sought-after for breeding. A five-time winner is dubbed a grand champion, the stud fees from which can become "very high," he said.

Breeding and bloodlines, especially in dogfighting, Rickey said, are a cottage industry unto themselves.

"If they'd put time and effort into something more productive," he said, he can imagine "what they'd accomplish."

Apart from the lure of money, Rickey said the activity is often something that participants find familiar. Maybe they grew up around it. Maybe it's sewn into the cultural fabric of their communities.

No one culture dominates the animal fighting world, he said. In Rickey's experience, "it's all over the map."

And while that can mean rural operations like those found in western Wisconsin, they can just as easily be discovered in urban settings, he said.

"We see about an even mix," Rickey said.

How does it go down

If there is a common denominator in the operations, he said it's the sophistication.

Rickey said he spoke with an FBI agent after the two of them worked a massive dogfighting case in Missouri. Apart from organized crime cases, the agent had "never really seen anything more sophisticated" than that.

"It's very organized," Rickey said.

Word generally travels by mouth among participants, but Rickey said he's seen fights scheduled through secure internet-based apps.

The crowds range from just a dozen or so people around a single ring to 100 or more with multiple fights occuring at once. Every event has a host or a sponsor.

The fights, whether dog or chicken, go until one of the animals can't fight any longer. Chicken fights go faster than dog fights, which Rickey said can last over an hour.

The roosters, assailed by miniature knives and ice-pick-like devices, often die after the fight if they do survive the contest. Injuries in dogfights often kill both dogs, Rickey explained, calling the activity "brutal and barbaric."

Rickey said community members are often the best resources in breaking up animal fighting operations. He encourages people to call law enforcement when something seems suspicious.

"We just encourage people to make that call," Rickey said. "It can be the difference for those animals."

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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