When football superstar Michael Vick was arrested for dog fighting in 2007, most of the world was shocked when the gruesome details of his Bad Newz Kennels operation came to light. While many people knew that there was a dog fighting subculture, it was unknown to the general public just how widespread the problem is and how horrific the conditions in which the dogs live really are.
But there were some people who did know about the dog fighting problem. In fact, there were—and still are—committed individuals actively working to stop it. Kris Crawford, for instance, has been fighting for the rights of dogs, Pit Bulls in particular, for years.
In 1997, she founded For Pits’ Sake, a Northern California-based non-profit organization devoted to humane education, safety programs and training dogs for search-and-rescue and therapy work. Currently, Crawford has three working dogs: Tahoe, Cheyenne, and Dakota. (Her search-and-rescue Pit Bulls have responded to more than 200 search missions, including the Laci Peterson case in Northern California.) After founding For Pit’s Sake, she followed up with the programs Safety Around Dogs, which educates children on dog bite safety, and Knock Out Dog Fighting, a program devoted to ending dog fighting and the inhumane treatment that comes along with it.
If there is a silver lining in the wake of the Vick case, it’s that more people are aware of dog fighting and the torture dogs endure, such as beatings, electrocution, drowning and hanging. Pit Bulls, used in disproportionately high numbers compared to other breeds in fighting rings, are often erroneously seen as vicious animals as opposed to devoted, affectionate companions as a result. Then came the Vick case. Perceptions about the breed were about to shift considerably.
“The Michael Vick case is what brought dog fighting to America’s consciousness,” Crawford says. “After the Michael Vick case, the Pit Bull became a victim. People starting realizing what was happening to these dogs—that they weren’t willing participants. Some of the information about what he was doing was getting out, how the dogs were trained, how they were killed and tortured.”
Knock Out Dog Fighting combines several elements to create its unique program. Crawford is keenly aware of the challenges she faces and tries to come up with solutions that actually work. The result is a proactive, thorough and multi-faceted approach to dog-fighting prevention. She knows, for instance, that just giving an inspirational talk to a group of kids won’t do much good.
Many of the kids Crawford tries to reach come from gang-impacted neighborhoods and they may not be getting any guidance, security or a sense of belonging at home. As a result, many kids turn to gangs as a way to fill those voids.
“Right now, the fastest growing segment of dog fighting is 13- to 17-year-old inner city youth,” says Crawford. “That’s because they saw a role model get involved.”
Consequently, at-risk youth can more easily fall into something like dog fighting, an activity helps create a tough reputation in the neighborhood, becomes a source of revenue, and that’s glorified in hip-hop (Jay-Z’s video for “99 Reasons” serves as a perfect example) and pop culture (such as the game “Mafia Wars,” which recently removed Pit Bulls as a weapon option).
That’s where the “knock out” part of Knock Out Dog Fighting comes in. Despite everything she’s accomplished with her own dogs, Crawford knows she’s not what inner city teens look for in a role model. So she has partnered with several fighters, including mixed martial arts (MMA) athletes, because they have a much better chance of connecting with kids. “[We have] some of the baddest men on the planet come in and say ‘It’s not cool to fight or abuse a dog. That doesn’t prove you’re a man.’”
Through Knock Out Dog Fighting kids can learn how dog fighting is not only not cool nor proves how tough you are, but how it’s inhumane, from people they look up to.
It’s helpful, too, that many of the fighters who participate in the program come from similar backgrounds as the kids, so they’re in a position to understand what they’re going through and relate to them.
Such is the case with Brett “The Grim” Rogers, an accomplished MMA athlete who has competed in EliteXC and currently in Strikeforce. Like the other athletes who volunteer for the program, he works with kids at the ground level and, hopefully, helps them put a stop to their own dog fighting before it starts.
“The kids are going to be put in a place where they decide whether or not they should or shouldn’t [fight dogs], so before they get in that position I want to already have my voice in their heads saying ‘Hey, it’s just not the thing to do,’” Rogers says. “I explain to them why dog fighting isn’t a good thing. Don’t put your pets up for fighting, even if it is for money. I don’t care if you’re poor. I come from a poor background. That doesn’t mean I raise animals to have them kill each other. It’s just not right.”
Crawford selects the fighters she partners with carefully. As with Rogers, the athletes who volunteer for Knock Out Dog Fighting do more than just pose for promotional posters or recite dialog for public service announcements. They get heavily involved with talking to kids and educating them and give up their free time to participate. Like Crawford, their time is donated. No one receives a paycheck for working with Knock Out Dog Fighting.
She also has a strict no-dog-fighting-history policy when it comes to the athletes who volunteer for the program. “I can’t have a fighter who’s been involved with dog fighting or hasn’t had the courage or the strength to say no,” she says.
But it doesn’t stop at setting up meetings between fighters and kids; follow up is vital for success. Inspirational talks do no good unless resources are provided to help kids stop. Otherwise, she says, it’s a waste of time.
Through Knock Out Dog Fighting, Crawford teams up with community-based organizations, such as gang prevention task forces, the district attorney’s office, the mayor, the city council, community leaders and even the FBI, among others. By doing so, she says, they can offer services such as vocational training, which is an important element in helping.
Because many of these kids have dropped out of school and may be covered in tattoos, their options are often limited to minimum wage jobs. Money is earned faster and more easily by fighting dogs, so they need better options than, say, working at a local fast food restaurant.
This is also where the fighters come back in. Getting kids off the streets and into an MMA gym where they can train is one more step in finding other options for them.
“Just telling them, ‘I’m a big bad ass MMA fighter. You need to stop,’ doesn’t work,” Crawford says. “It isn’t enough. We have to be able to provide them resources.”
While many believe that teaching inner city youth fight techniques is a bad idea, Crawford begs to differ.
She points out a commonality between Pit Bulls and MMA fighters—both are frequently misunderstood by those who don’t take the time to learn about them. While Pit Bulls are dismissed by many as vicious, so, too, is mixed martial arts seen as a blood sport by those who don’t understand the skill and discipline involved in learning the art.
Just like Pit Bulls face breed-specific legislation (BSL) that hampers their existence in certain cities or counties, MMA has fought similar legal battles for acceptance. When Royce Gracie, member of the respected and legendary Gracie family and son of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu co-founder Helio Gracie (one of Brazil’s first real sports heroes), was crowned champion of the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 1993, it took place in Colorado because it was one of the few states that legally permitted the tournament.
Although the sport has gained considerably more acceptance by states since then and is enjoying soaring popularity with fans now, it is still banned outright in some states, including New York, Michigan, South Carolina and West Virginia.
Senator John McCain, in fact, once famously dismissed mixed martial arts as “human cockfighting.”
Crawford even notes that when Michael Vick was busted for dog fighting, “a lot of his football-playing buddies publicly defended him by equating dog fighting with mixed martial arts, which couldn’t be further from the truth, but the public doesn’t know that.”
In reality, fighting, and martial arts in particular, teaches students respect, discipline, motivation and self-esteem. The athletes who participate in MMA take their training seriously.
“I don’t think of it as fighting,” says Rogers. “I think of it as a sport.”
Labeling MMA fighters as merely aggressive or violent individuals who beat each other up in a cage belies their commitment to training, conditioning and nutrition—the exact opposite of many people’s perception of them.
“MMA athletes are some of the best conditioned athletes in the world,” she says. “And they refuse things. They can’t just go have a Big Mac whenever they want. They have to train every single day. It’s discipline. That’s what we teach these kids.”
To provide this service, Knock Out Dog Fighting partners with fight gyms so kids can train free of charge. The program also provides training equipment, such as gloves and punching bags, and when necessary tries to partner with rapid transit so students who don’t live close to a participating gym can easily get to class. Easing kids’ limitations, such as financial burdens or transportation woes, helps keep them in the program, as many participants come from low-income families. By doing so, it gives kids an outlet, a place to go, and teaches them respect and discipline.
Once in the gym, trainers often find themselves in the role of mentor, not to mention “councelor.” Crawford notes that the man who runs the training facility Knock Out Dog Fighting mainly works with actually moved into a gang area; his program works because the kids relate to him and trust him. He doesn’t just train them on fighting techniques, he finds out what’s going on in their lives, in the neighborhood and families. And why they’re in gangs.
And that’s part of what’s unique about Knock Out Dog Fighting. The program’s willingness to understand the people they’re working with and connect with them at the street level gives volunteers versatility in their approaches. The program reaches out to schools, community centers, juvenile halls, detention ranches and even parks.
Because she works with gang prevention task forces, it helps Crawford identify the gang “hot spots” in a community, enabling the program to have the ability to target the areas she needs to work with most on at the street level.
Her approach is working, so Crawford was recently asked by a couple of community leaders how her organization does such a good job reaching kids. She took them to a community center in a park that was also located in a gang-impacted area. Accompanying the group was a Frisbee-loving Pit Bull and its trainer, who had the dog doing tricks and jumping to catch the disk.
“We walked up and there were three kids hanging out in the park. I looked at them and thought, now if I walked up to them and said, ‘Excuse me. I’d like to talk to you about the resources available through the mayor’s gang prevention task force,’ they’re not going to listen to a word I say,” she says. Thanks to the Pit Bull’s Frisbee prowess, though, things went differently.
“Within 15 minutes we had over 25 kids in the park asking us to teach them how to do that with their dogs. And that’s how we get them,” she says.
She tells kids in detention ranches and juvenile halls where to find the program after their release and how they can get help. Some of the presentations offer information on more than just MMA, which might not appeal to some people. There is a dance program, for instance, and a scientist who volunteers time to work with kids interested in science. Programs at detention centers and juvenile halls are tailored to the kids there and to what the rules allow, of course.
“They join us,” she says. “They help us stop dog fighting in the community.”
One of Knock Out Dog Fighting’s major facets is teaching kids positive training methods for dogs and the importance of humane treatment.
“We have kids who have impeccable obedience skills in their dogs and they’re still going to fight them because they need the money,” Crawford says. “We address these kids.”
In essence, that requires retraining the kids about how they view their dogs, as many of them show up with dogs that are on chains as opposed to collars and leashes. Up front, students who participate in class receive the tools they need for responsible dog ownership: a collar, leash, Kong, bait bag and dog bed, all of which are paid for by Knock Out Dog Fighting.
The results of the program’s influence are multiple. In addition to educating kids about dog fighting, the program aims to curb their violent behavior altogether by offering the MMA training and teaching humane animal treatment, moves that ultimately make the community safer in general.
“A lot of people don’t want to get involved in that because they think, ‘Oh, it’s just a Pit Bull issue’ or ‘It’s just a dog issue.’ Research shows that there is a link between animal abuse and child abuse, spousal abuse, and people who go out and commit crimes against people. The way you approach a community is not just about saving the dogs, it’s saving the kids and the entire community by what we’re doing. We bring the humane education aspect into it, too. If we can get a kid to stop abusing an animal, we may be preventing that child from going on and committing crimes against people.”
She recalls one instance where she approached an upper-middle-class community about giving Knock Out Dog Fighting presentations in area schools. She was met with resistance because the people she spoke with didn’t think they needed such a program, not seeing the importance of educating kids on treating animals humanely.
“I asked, ‘But do you have child abuse? Spousal abuse? Elder abuse?’ And I talked to them about the link [between animal abuse and people abuse] and we don’t just go in and say, ‘You need to stop fighting your dogs.’ We go in with the humane education portion and then I talk to them about getting children to stop abusing animals to prevent domestic abuse. Now they have us in every school in that community because they ‘got’ it.”
And that’s part of the problem Crawford faces in many aspects of her work. In addition to fighting against breed-specific legislation and the prejudice Pit Bulls face in general, she also works to educate the public as a whole. Animal abuse and dog fighting aren’t the plague of certain neighborhoods, but all communities. Until more people get involved, these problems won’t go away anytime soon.
A lot of people condemn dog fighting, but that’s where they stop, Crawford says. Participation in some way is needed to truly bring dog fighting to an end.
“Unless more people get involved in stopping it, it’s not going to change,” she says. “A lot of people don’t get involved because they think it’s a Pit Bull issue so we’re trying to mobilize the MMA community because they’re pretty influential right now. But just mobilizing the MMA community isn’t enough. Just condemning dog fighting isn’t enough. Signing an online petition isn’t enough. Most of those don’t work because you can’t validate the signatures. Producing change is a lot of hard work.”
One need not be a famous fighter to help. Donating time, skills (such as athletic training, dance instruction, writing, graphic design, photography, etc.) and money all go toward bringing an end to dog fighting. Photographer Christopher Ameruoso, for instance, who shot Holly Madison and her dogs in i Love Dogs Diamonds for a FIDO Friendly cover shoot, has photographed program participants for posters promoting the program.
Because Knock Out Dog Fighting is so thorough, it requires money to pay for equipment (both fighting and dog training), transportation, promotional materials. Furthermore, Knock Out Dog Fighting and For Pits’ Sake also get involved in the rescue and re-homing of the former fighting dogs themselves, which is another expense. (You can see the available dogs on Knock Out Dog Fighting’s Facebook page.) The list of things to keep the program going is extensive.
“I get emails for our posters every day from police officers, animal shelters, and schools,” Crawford says. “But then always the last sentence is ‘But our budget has been cut. Is there any way you can send them for free?’ We want the posters to get out. How do you say no to that?”
This also explains why Knock Out Dog Fighting has been somewhat slow to spread to other cities. The program has been established in some areas outside of Northern California, such as Minnesota, so Brett Rogers can speak to the kids around the area in which he lives. But the program’s expenses and thoroughness require that it be set up in a specific way to work successfully.
Despite the the long hours and uphill battles, Crawford continues to forge ahead, buoyed by the program’s success. “We’re making a difference,” she says. “It is really, really hard work, but then seeing the kids that we’ve made a difference to and seeing the dogs that we’ve made a difference to [makes it worthwhile.]”
Crawford has no plans to slow down just yet. As someone who has been involved in the Pit Bull community for a long time, she knows her work is too important to give up on now.
“Every morning I get up and I look in my dogs’ eyes. I can’t say to them, ‘I’m sorry, you’re not worth it,’” she says. “There are people out there whose dogs are being taken out of their homes simply because of what their dogs look like. I can help stop that through this program.”
But she can’t do it alone.
“Simply condemning dog fighting isn’t enough,” she says. “We need help. Dog fighting is huge and that’s why I went to the best fighters in the world to help but it’s not enough. It is hard work and if you can’t do the work, try to figure out another way to do something, even if it’s just running our newsletter or something like that. We’re a perfect example of people getting involved and it’s working. We can stop this but people have to get involved.”
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PHOTOS: Courtesy of Kris Crawford, ForPitsSake.org
Have you donated time or money to For Pits’ Sake or Knock Out Dog Fighting? Or have you done something to stop dog fighting in your community? Tell us about it in the Comments section below!