The dogs spent their lives chained to posts outside, just out of reach of each other, ensuring no fighting took place outside the ring.
Now, some may get a new life.
When investigators made a drug raid on a Rougemont property March 2, they found 30 pit bulls, a fighting pit, animal records and treadmills.
The Sheriff's Office called Orange County Animal Services to help seize and assess dogs. They have been at the animal shelter in Chapel Hill ever since.
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"This is a really cruel thing," said Bob Marotto, director of Animal Services. "You have two dogs that are put in a pit. One is going to win and go on to fight again, and the other is going to die or be killed after that because it's not worthy of fighting."
The dogs' owner, Daniel Isiah Crew Jr., was arrested a month later on 15 counts of dogfighting, five counts of felony cruelty to animals, 25 counts of misdemeanor cruelty to animals and 16 counts of cruelly restraining dogs. The property where he kept the dogs, 9316 N.C. 57, is owned by his parents, Daniel Crew Sr. and Wendy Mae Crew, according to a search warrant.
In the past, the 30 pit bulls would have been automatically euthanized. But a partnership between Animal Services and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals may save eight of them.
Melon was only 6 months old when she was brought to the shelter.
She bounds into the room and darts from person to person, searching for attention or treats. She has short, light brown fur, clipped ears and a tail that's always wagging.
All the pit bulls at the shelter have been given names by the staff, including Cantaloupe and Piggy. Melon got her name because of the shape of her head.
Marotto and his staff distinguished dogs that had been fought from those that had no fighting injuries.
Eighteen of the 30 dogs had bite wounds, scars or other warning signs. They were automatically deemed dangerous under state law.
Dogs declared dangerous do not have to be euthanized, but they must be strictly managed. For example, they must be muzzled and leashed off their owner’s property.
However, Animal Services has a policy of not re-homing dangerous dogs, due to the risk to other dogs and people. The 18 dangerous dogs will be euthanized, or killed by lethal injection.
“It’s one thing for someone’s dog to be deemed dangerous,” Marotto explained. “It is another thing for us to have a dog that is deemed dangerous that we are putting into the public, knowing that there is a much higher level of risk potentially with that dog than with other dogs.”
Another four dogs won't be re-homed after evaluation by a behaviorist from the ASPCA, meaning they will also be euthanized. The assessments focused on the dogs’ behavior toward humans and other dogs to identify signs of aggression.
“The numbers seem kind of sad, but just making these evaluations happen was quite the achievement,” said animal care supervisor Isabel Bukovnik. In the past all the dogs would have been euthanized, or killed by lethal injection.
Dogfighting in NC
Dogfighting is a felony in all 50 states. Tens of thousands of people participate in it, an estimated 30 percent of them women.
North Carolina has organized and amateur dogfighting, said Janette Reever, senior manager of animal crimes with the Humane Society of the United States.
“Unfortunately, it’s one of the top states for dogfighting,” she said.
Between $20,000 and $30,000 can change hands during a single fight, according to the ASPCA.
In addition to gambling, breeding makes up a large part of the dogfighting world, with puppies from champion dogs fetching thousands of dollars. Only the fiercest dogs are bred.
“Their aggression with other dogs isn’t all environmental,” Marotto said. “It’s the result of selective breeding.”
Although Animal Services has seized dogs suspected of dogfighting before, Marotto said since he arrived in 2005 he does not think any owners have been convicted of a crime.
He credits a new focus on prosecuting cases to a collaboration among Animal Services, the Sheriff's Office and the District Attorney's Office.
"They are increasingly addressed as they should be: as crimes deserving investigation and prosecution," Marotto said. “People need to be held accountable to try to deter this kind of criminal activity, which is very cruel."
Reever said fighting dogs must be thoroughly evaluated before being considered for adoption.
“You don’t want to put these dogs back out there and perpetuate the myth about them,” she said.
But that doesn't mean pit bulls are more dangerous than other breeds, said Bronwen Dickey, author of "Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon."
Four breeds make up the pit bull group, and plenty of dogs called pit bulls have no pit bull DNA at all, Dickey said. Many medium-size dogs with a square head get called pit bulls.
"Pit bull is about as descriptive as the term 'hound,'" Dickey said.
Because so many different dogs get included, pit bulls have wide-ranging temperaments, she said. Some are high energy; others prefer the couch. They're a popular pet because there are so many available, they're relatively cheap and they're easy to care for.
"It's a very generic, all-purpose dog," Dickey said. "It's the Honda Civic of dogs."
Dickey also stressed the importance of evaluating dogs before making assumptions about them.
"The only way to figure out what a dog is going to do is by spending time with that dog," she said.
Life at the shelter
The dogs, a mix of males and females, were 6 months to 6 or 7 years old when they arrived.
Five needed emergency medical treatment. All got vaccines and treatment for intestinal parasites at Animal Services. Some were underweight or emaciated.
“All of the dogs are in much better health than when they got here,” said Jasmine Johnson, veterinary health care manager.
The dogs are kept in separate cages and are friendly with the shelter's staff.
“I don’t think we’ve had anything approaching a bite or an attack,” Marotto said.
Their arrival strained operations Nearby shelters and rescue groups took some animals that were already at the shelter. Animal Services also held flash adoption specials to make room.
“We’ve had to juggle around a lot of things to make it work,” Johnson said.
But staff members said they don't mind. “It’s worth the extra work to know that we’re part of something like this and that we’re helping our community,” Bukovnik said.
The average stay for dogs at the shelter is about 15 days. The 30 pit bulls have been there almost four months.
Crew surrendered the dogs, so the cost of their care has fallen to Animal Services. The estimated cost from March 2 to May 4 was $38,303, according to court records.
The dogs are being held as evidence until the case is over, possibly with a plea bargain this summer. Animal Services will then begin re-homing or euthanizing them.
“It’s really important to us to give them the best life they can have while they’re here,” Bukovnik said. “We really do care about them as if they were our own.”
Animal Services will give the eight remaining dogs to rescue groups that will further evaluate their behavior. Some of them will require further help, especially in developing social skills.
Melon passed her behavior test without any problems. She will be among the eight who can be adopted.
"She's the cream of the crop," Marotto said.
Michael Vick case
Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick brought dogfighting into the national spotlight in 2007, when he pleaded guilty to involvement in a dogfighting ring. Vick spent 21 months in federal prison.
The Vick trial was the first nationally known case in which dogs were saved. ASPCA behaviorists evaluated 49 of his dogs to see if they could be safely adopted. All but one were re-homed.
“Prior to Vick, I honestly did not know of anyone anywhere that was doing that,” Marotto said.
Reever agreed the case was pivotal. It also led to a decrease in dogfighting. “Let’s face it, when you have someone convicted of dogfighting, they’re considered a pariah in the community,” she said.
The Vick case popularized evaluating fighting dogs for adoption, but North Carolina law has not caufght up with the approach.
Marotto said he now questions the state's dangerous dog law. Just because a dog shows signs of dogfighting does not mean it is inherently aggressive, or even that it fought another dog, he said; it could have been attacked and not responded, resulting in injuries.
“The experience we’ve had raises the question of whether we should be thinking about possible changes in that law so that we can make a decision about a dog’s fate on the basis of more information that is pertinent now,” he said.
“These dogs can be incredible companions,” Reever agreed. “They can do some amazing things.”
Daniel Crew Sr., and Wendy Crew have each been charged with two counts of dogfighting, though they claimed the dogs were solely their son’s responsibility, according to court records.
Daniel Crew Jr. previously had 10 dogs seized from him in 2012, but he was not charged with dogfighting.
He is due in court Aug. 21.
Want to adopt?
If you are interested in adopting one of the pit bulls, contact Tenille Fox at Orange County Animal Services at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (919)932-4962.