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Groups get to root of Atlanta dogfighting

Dogfighting in Atlanta is a problem of culture, education, economics and a host of other factors with one common thread: They are problems of people, not pit bulls, says Ralph Hawthorne, community organizer for the Humane Society of the United States' "End Dogfighting" campaign in Atlanta.

"These dogs, they have been taught to fight," he says. "They can be taught not to fight."

His team's approach is simple: Build a healthy pet-owner relationship that involves something other than fighting. They try to reach dogfighters through free dog obedience and agility training, free transportation to the training, and presentations in local schools.

With education comes awareness of the pit bull's pet potential, says Annemarie Pizzi-Jones, a veterinary technician with highly rated Sprayberry Animal Hospital in Marietta, Ga., and a volunteer with Dogs on Death Row animal rescue. She owns one pit bull and is foster parent to another.

The dogfighting threat is so great that the rescue group won't let people in certain parts of Atlanta, such as downtown, adopt pit bulls because the dog theft rates are "astronomical," says Jodie Richers, founder of Dogs on Death Row.

Hawthorne says many in Atlanta view dogfighting as normal.

"Even Michael Vick says at 8 or 9 years old he was fighting dogs," he says.

The name of Vick, an NFL quarterback, comes up often in dogfighting conversation. He was playing for the Atlanta Falcons when he was convicted in 2007 on federal dogfighting charges.

Greg Norred, owner of Norred & Associates, a private security firm in Atlanta, took it personally when Vick's crimes came to light.

"Greg is a very avid Falcons fan, but he is also a very avid animal lover," says Chuck Simmons, director of special operations for the firm. "After this Vick thing, he hooked up with a couple of rescue groups and he basically said, 'We'll do this for nothing.'"

The company builds a case based on tips to its hotline and website, helpstopdogfighting.com, then hands it to law enforcement.

Animal cruelty experts say the large, often rural dogfighting breeders and rings, with betting pools of $100,000 and trained dogs costing several thousand dollars, rarely interact with the inner-city culture of street dogfighting with its impromptu matches and relatively small wagers. But as in Vick's case, one can lead to the other.

Hawthorne says the efforts on all fronts will take time to see results.

"I have people say, 'My grandfather used to take us to dogfights at the church,'" he says. "Any time you try to change the mindset of individuals, it's an uphill battle."


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