Health and Fitness

The Sad Reality of Pitbulls

Salvaged from a cruel dogfighting ring, the Laguna pitbulls are now fighting a social stigma that’s branded them as vicious. But they just want to be loved.
IMAGE Daemon Becker
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This article was originally published in our August 2013 issue. 

You hear them before you see them—loud, raucous yelps escape from the steel cages that hold them; a cacophony of a hundred barking canines. The dogs come into view as you pull into the center at Villa Escudero, rows of cages partially camouflaged by a light canopy of leaves. The pitbulls are whipped into a frenzy, not because they're lusting for some blood, but because they're excited to see you.

It's been a year and a half since the raid that's been called the world's largest dogfighting bust. Some three hundred pitbulls were discovered in San Pablo, Laguna where six South Koreans were arrested for operating an illegal dogfighting ring. They are currently languishing in a detention center where they will serve out two more years of their three-year sentence before they get booted back to South Korea, a country where dogfighting remains a large underground industry, along with the dog meat trade (the same goes for the Philippines).

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Dogfighting, a blood sport, has been around since the ancient days when gladiators were pitted against each other in a Roman arena.

The dogs were found in terrible condition—they had been improperly cared for, chained to steel drums, exposed to the elements, drugged, tortured and made to fight other dogs; in successful matches, they fight to the death. Most bore the wounds of war—deep gashes, torn flesh, and mangled faces. Those with cropped ears used to be beautiful show dogs, given up by their owners. Who would give these beasts another chance? Who would adopt these miserable and much maligned creatures?

Some of them were sentenced to euthanasia after the raid, having been adjudged as aggressive. The group CARA (Compassion and Responsibility for Animals) stepped in with volunteers who were experienced pitbull owners. After a few months in San Pablo and then Lipa, the dogs were finally moved to the facility in Villa Escudero, a leased two-hectare tract of land where they have been in rehabilitation since. A handful of the dogs have been selected as ready for adoption. These are the ones who were successfully nursed back to health, have learned to socialize with other dogs and humans, and seem to have recovered from the trauma of their past. But the work isn't done yet.

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What makes the pitbull unique is also what makes them the most loyal and abused dog in the dogfighting culture. "They're very tenacious. Once you tell them to do something, they do it to the death," says Shiella Lloren, CARA volunteer and an owner of seven pitbulls.

The Origins

Dogfighting, a blood sport, has been around since the ancient days when gladiators were pitted against each other in a Roman arena. Known as baiting, bears, bulls and other animals were thrown in the ring with dogs for entertainment and gambling purposes, and the enjoyment of spectating such a sport carried on until the 19th century when animal welfare laws were introduced. Naturally this only pushed the activity underground, and organizers turned the dogs against each other instead, since they were easier to conceal than a bull or bear bait. Dogfighting is illegal in most of the world today, but continues to be a lucrative blood sport associated with gangs, drug trafficking and other criminal activity.

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The pitbull has become the most popular dog bred to fight, but they were originally propagated from crossing English Bulldogs, known for strength and stamina, with British terriers, which are prized for their speed, for reasons like shepherding and family companionship. Because they've been interbred for so long, the pitbulls seen today come in all shapes, sizes and colors, ranging from mastiff-like beasts to muscularly compact dogs much like the aspin. In the United States, there's debate as to whether the pitbull is an actual breed, but in general the pitbull as we call it is some permutation of the various breeds like the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, the bull terrier and the bulldog.

What makes the pitbull unique is also what makes them the most loyal and abused dog in the dogfighting culture. "They're very tenacious. Once you tell them to do something, they do it to the death. That's one of their faults. And they're really, really loyal to their handlers," says Shiella Lloren, CARA volunteer and an owner of seven pitbulls. "At a dogfight, you'll see the handlers in the ring with the dogs, motivating them, telling them to 'go go go.' The dogs want to impress their handlers, they want to please them. They're wiggling their butts and biting each other." (The fights at San Pablo were different, however—three dogs were placed in the ring and the handlers just let them at it.)

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Pitbulls are notoriously non-aggressive towards humans, even those who make them suffer in combat training. With loving owners, they are especially gentle and are excellent with children. Brutus, one of the first Laguna Pitbulls to be adopted out, did not bark or bat an eyelash when I, a stranger, crossed his territory. Shiella, her husband Julien Bourraux and their young daughter Isabella welcomed Brutus, the gentle brown giant, into their dog-filled home in November 2012. Brutus let me stroke his head and generally just sprawled out on the living room floor. It's hard to imagine him as a fighting dog, kind of like finding out your boss is a former drug addict or your pastor was a convicted criminal.

"It was difficult to focus on the health of so many dogs, so we decided to foster Brutus,” Shiella explains. “Fostering helped some of the special needs dogs. He was just skin and bones. We brought him home so he can relax, and he did. And we never brought him back… Now he's on a diet," she adds with a laugh. Though healthy and happy now, Brutus did endure a period of terror at the hands of the Koreans and whomever else they employed. Brutus was not born into the syndicate. He was sold to them from his previous owner.

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Pitbulls are notoriously non-aggressive towards humans, even those who make them suffer in combat training. With loving owners, they are especially gentle and are excellent with children.

The Operation

You can find anything on OLX. Many of the LPBs were purchased in bulk from breeders, by Filipino brokers hired by the Koreans. They set up shop in San Pablo in January 2012, only a month after eight Koreans were busted in Indang, Cavite with 227 dogs. "The bail was like loose change for them," says Save The Laguna Pitbulls media coordinator Owen Santos. "It's a big, big operation, with live streaming broadcasts and online betting." The police were tipped off by a resident of Barangay Mahabang Kahoy, who complained about the loud barking coming from a nearby warehouse. The men were fined a mere P5,000. "Right now, they're at the BID (Bureau of Immigration Detention), which is luxurious compared to a city jail."

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On March 30, 2012, six of the eight Koreans were again caught, this time with more than 300 pitbulls (the other two men got away and remain at large). The Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) were initially on the scene, called on by the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) to assess the dogs. Because of the large volume of sick, malnourished and wounded dogs and nowhere to keep them, they put down at least 30 of the animals with a decision to euthanize the rest in batches. On April 4, CARA took on the responsibility as the lead organization in charge of caring for the dogs, and relocated them first to a sanctuary in Batangas, then Quezon. The ongoing rehabilitation project is being sustained by loaned funds and dedicated volunteer help.


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Pitbulls also tend to attract unethical breeders and thuggish types who want to look badass, feeding into a cycle of irresponsible dog ownership leading to ferocious dogs. 

The Rescue

"We had to say, stop putting down the dogs! There were vets, but they treat different kinds of animals, and pitbulls are special breeds. First, they've been maltreated, plus there's all this negative stigma and misconceptions about them," says Shiella. She tells me about Tinkerbell, one of the smallest ones on the kill list. "She's so afraid, she won't come out of her drum. Maybe they tried to pull her out by her chain and she snarled, maybe that's why they thought she was aggressive. It took us two weeks to get her outside her drum, just coming to sit next to her and waiting."

Experts in the pitbull community like Shiella and her husband were rounded up to help reassess the state of the dogs. While many were suffering beyond repair, others were merely traumatized and needed a Cesar Milan-level of understanding and patience. Owen says in terms of dog breeds that have been sensationalized, now is the time of the pitbull: "Media has interpreted dog behavior from the time of the bloodhounds, the German shepherds to the Doberman. All these dogs have had bad raps throughout the years." Pitbulls also tend to attract unethical breeders and thuggish types who want to look badass, feeding into a cycle of irresponsible dog ownership leading to ferocious dogs. "Again, it's not a pitbull thing, it's a dog thing," she points out. "Even a person who has been abused would act scared." Owen herself has taken in Ruby, one of the mellower LPBs to fit into her one-cat household.

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More than a year after CARA took over, only five pitbulls have been adopted out. The first eight months at the center were spent getting them back in shape. Now they're learning to socialize by walking with people and other dogs. With around 164 dogs, five caretakers and a handful of volunteers, the dogs don't get to walk every day, maybe once a week at most. But there are plans to improve the facility and add dog runs where the they can be let loose. CARA President Nancy Cu Unjieng, who drives three hours up to the center at least once a week, says that the whole operation requires a constant stream of donations. "The dogs eat two sacks of food a day, and each sack costs over P1,000. Then there are the caretakers. We're always fundraising, fundraising."

The adoption process is also strict enough to weed out shady interested parties (it's been reported that some of the "adopted" Cavite pitbulls were only returned to the fight ring by paid operatives. The rest of them are under the guardianship of Island Rescue Operation in Cebu.) A minimum of five visits to the center is required before CARA representatives inspect the prospective home. They do this to ensure both the safety of the dog and the happiness of the future owner, who would have spent enough time bonding with the dog and getting to know his individual quirks.

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At my visit, the dogs were nothing but sweet, licking hands and shaking paws, sticking their noses out of their cages to be rubbed. (I would have tried to adopt one myself if I didn't already have to contend with a menagerie of aspins and pusapins taken from the streets, living together in various degrees of harmony.) Even though they were still locked up, they looked calm and bright-eyed. The dogs that were kept way in the back of the lot were less friendly, still coming out of a dark place. Those dogs were heavily fought and abused. In the sick bay were the dogs that developed ear problems and cancer from steroids. Nancy calls them the "lifers," meaning they will most likely spend the rest of their days at the facility. Not every one of them will be adoptable, but certainly a good portion are on their way to getting a second lease on life.

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"They're very forgiving. They live with the now," Shiella says.


"It's not a pitbull thing, it's a dog thing," she points out. "Even a person who has been abused would act scared."

The Future

The Animal Welfare Act that gave the Koreans a mere slap on the wrist in 2011 now has some teeth. On June 16 the Senate passed the amendment of the 15-year-old act, giving stiffer penalties for the crime of animal cruelty and neglect, and up to three years in prison for running a syndicate. PAWS was instrumental in lobbying for the bill and during the last election campaigned for animal-friendly officials like Rep. Bernadette Herrera of Bagong Henerasyon Party List, who authored the amendment, and strong supporters like Sen. Chiz Escudero and Sen. Gringo Honasan.

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The men held in custody have been charged (under the old law) on three counts, with one year per count: violation of the Animal Welfare Act, violation of the Sanitation Code, and the Illegal Gambling Act. With the Internet, it’s virtually impossible to shut something down and not have it pop up elsewhere. As for the actual dogfights, the risks are worth it when you're making up to two million pesos a day.

Not all of the San Pablo dogs made it to the rehab center—some "disappeared" from the site during the melee of the raid, possibly to be recycled again into the ring, moved to some other rural area where the local authorities are easily paid off. Many smaller, locally operated pockets of dogfighting, and dog meat trading, still thrive under the radar. But groups like CARA and PAWS can only do so much.

"There's still this mindset that needs to be changed," says Owen. "Some people accuse us for caring more about animals, when there are so many needy people out there." During the floods of the Habagat, animal welfare volunteers mobilized to rescue and feed the pets that have been left behind. In the back of a pickup truck in waist-deep waters, volunteers were distributing goods when flood victims jumped in and grabbed stuff from them, getting angry when they discovered it was dog food. "The way I see it, we all have our roles in society,” she says. “Just because we take care of animals doesn't mean we don't care about people. If there are animals that need help and nobody's stepping up, we will do it."

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Audrey N. Carpio
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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