Warren County has seen success against dog fighting operations

Published 1:22 am Sunday, November 19, 2017


NATCHEZ — Instead of deterring would-be criminals, Adams County Sheriff Travis Patten said Mississippi’s lax laws for animal cruelty could actually be enticing dogfighters to the state.

And without adequate legislative backing, Mississippi law enforcement is often left to face dogfighting cases alone.

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Two weeks ago, Patten and his deputies discovered what may be the largest suspected dogfighting operation in the state when they found more than 55 dogs chained up in various states of distress and injury in the Cranfield community.

The severity of the dog’s injuries forced several to be euthanized. The ordeal has prompted local concerns over the widespread dogfighting problem and what many believe are lax laws for animal cruelty.

Aggressive enforcement

In Warren County, Sheriff Martin Pace and his office have had particularly positive results by taking away incentives of animal cruelty.

In approximately 2002, Pace said his office faced several complaints of dogfighting and began a tougher push to clear the county of animal cruelty.

Now, nearly 15 years later, Pace said he is not brazen enough to say dogfighting has been eradicated in the county, but the reports have lessened significantly.

Like any crime, Pace said he is sure unknown fighting rings exist, but he and his deputies are working to make Warren County an unwelcome place for dogfighters.

“As I have said before, I don’t know that we have a magic answer,” Pace said. “We have just been aggressive in pursuing any leads we have and prosecuting everything we could.”

Aggressively pursuing dogfighting for Warren County, Pace said, means tracing down the origin of every barking dog call or animal complaint.

“Some of our cases were developed just from uniform officers pursuing barking dog calls, which is something you don’t normally think will develop into a felony investigation,” Pace said.  “Barking dog calls, they pursue it until they find the source to make sure it’s not dogs used for fighting.”

Often a barking dog call is simply that — a particularly vocal puppy in someone’s backyard. But sometimes, Pace said, investigating seemingly minor claims can lead to big breaks.

Pace said a barking dog call once led to the confiscation of 15 suspected fighting dogs chained up near an uninhabited residence.

“That was what alerted the officers,” Pace said. “They got a call of barking dogs and the reporter said there wasn’t a resident in that area.”

Pace said the numerous connections between animal cruelty and other forms of criminal activity also inform his officer’s work.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation added cruelty to animals to its national criminal database which tracks felony crimes such as arson, murder and assault.

The reason for the addition, FBI Criminal Statistics Management’s Nelson Ferry said is because of studies that “say cruelty to animals is a precursor to larger crime.”

Famously, serial killers such as Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and the Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, all had prior records of animal abuse, as did mass murders such as Greg Abbott, who murdered more than two dozen men, women and children in a Texas church earlier this month.

Pace said in his experience dogfighting and animal cruelty is closely linked with drug activity.

When the Warren County narcotics unit is called into an area in reference to drug activity, Pace said the officers also look for signs of animal abuse.

Pace said Warren’s County’s push to excise dogfighters in the county is not particularly special. No specially assigned task force addresses the issue nor is an extensive training program in place — Pace said his deputies are simply diligent.

“I don’t know that Warren County Sheriff’s office approaches it any differently than anybody else,” Pace said. “We just pursue it. My officers know how I feel about it.”

It takes a village

Community effort, Pace said, is needed to keep a handle on dogfighting in any area. Without the trust of the community, it is difficult to know what is going on in all parts of the county.

“I can tell you that without good communication with the public, without a good relationship with the community, the officers will be hampered in solving any criminal activity,” Pace said. “First and foremost, develop a healthy, positive relationship with the community. When things are going wrong, somebody will call. Somebody will trust those officers to proceed.”

Commonly, Pace said, a strong effort to eradicate crime in one area may simply move the criminal activity.

“That’s with any criminal activity,” Pace said. “If one agency or area has been very successful and aggressive about pursuing and defeating house burglary, the neighboring jurisdiction may have an increase. You may not be preventing the crime, you’re relocating it.”

Instead of relocating crime, Pace said he hoped counties would present a “united front” against animal cruelty.

To unite the state against animal cruelty, Pace said the general public needs to know how cruel the sport is.

“I do think that a lot of people don’t understand, they don’t grasp the gravity of what all is involved in dogfighting,” Pace said, describing the tortuous training dogs go through before a fight.

Many dogfighters purchase treadmills to keep the animals in shape. A box-like container is placed around the conveyer belt of the treadmill, forcing the animal to run. When the dogs are young, Pace said, trainers teach the animals to be aggressive by using “bait dogs.”

Bait dogs are often a younger dog that trainers use to entice the animals to fight.

Bait dogs, Pace said, are often mauled and beaten to death in the effort to create a prizefighter.

“The public thinks dogfighting is two guys saying ‘My dog is tougher than your dog,’” Pace said. “They don’t see the whole picture.”

Pace said his office had recently received the first report of a possible animal abuse case in “about a year.” The case has not yet been located, but Pace said his office is looking into the matter now.

“We will make it as uncomfortable for (dogfighters) as possible,” Pace said, “within the confines of the criminal justice system.”

Change laws, change culture

As his deputies are facing their third dogfighting case in a year, Adams County Sheriff Travis Patten said he wants to focus the fight on stronger penalties for animal cruelty.

Patten said many of his officers are training with animal cruelty experts and learning how to better identify and care for mistreated animals, but his primary focus is legislative action.

Until the punishment for dogfighting and animal cruelty rivals the severity of the crime, Patten said, Mississippi would remain a breeding ground for animal violence.

Local leaders are spearheading the effort to toughen animal cruelty laws, Patten said, such as Mayor Darryl Grennell’s upcoming public meeting on the matter scheduled for Dec. 18.

The meeting, Grennell said, is an effort to show state lawmakers that voters care about animal rights violations and the penalties that follow them.

Grennell has invited local senators, representatives, local law enforcement and community leaders to the meeting.

Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, has nearly completed an animal cruelty bill that Patten said he and his office would like to endorse.

Hill filed a similar bill in the 2017 and 2016 legislative sessions with little success.

This year, however, Patten said he thinks enough of the public supports tougher legislation to make a difference.

“We plan on going to the capitol to support this,” Patten said. “We need a stance, and we need to stand in unity. It could fall on deaf ears, but there is strength in numbers.”