Court cases reveal Philly's weak history of punishing dogfighters.
Philadelphia’s most recent dogfighting trial was scheduled last Wednesday morning in courtroom 904 at 11 a.m. The case folder read, “The Commonwealth vs. Anthony Clark.” By noon, Prosecutor Barbara Paul was pacing the hallway. The defense attorney hadn’t shown yet. Odds were when he did show, he’d probably have some reason to ask the judge for a continuance—try to postpone the trial until the Vick storm passed.
The Philadelphia Eagles’ signing of Michael Vick was having consequences right here in this courtroom. For her part, Paul didn’t want a postponement. She had a half dozen police officers and PSPCA officials waiting to testify. Plus, the Vick outcry could only work to her advantage. Ever since being appointed as Philly’s animal cruelty prosecutor last year, Paul has successfully put down 40 cases, including four dogfighting felonies. But none of these animal cruelty convictions led to actual jail time.
“It’s very, very rare for judges to give prison time for dogfighting in Philadelphia,” said George Bengal, the PSPCA Director of Law Enforcement. “It’s just not a priority here.”
According to the Humane Society of the United States, Pennsylvania’s dogfighting statute ranks among the strictest in the nation. It’s a third degree felony punishable by up to seven years–but that’s just on paper. A review of court records shows that even Philly’s worst dogfighters usually get slaps on the wrists, or even just probation.
PSPCA Humane Officer Tara Loller couldn’t stand it if the man on trial today, Anthony Clark, became the next Philly dogfighter to enjoy a light sentence. As the people inside the courtroom waited for the day’s proceedings to begin, Loller sat on a bench in the hall and sighed.
“Wasting time … ” she said.
With every passing hour away from the street, Loller was falling further behind on her caseload. On average there are about 75 complaints of animal fighting each month in Philadelphia. The work never stops, and it pained Loller—on the job for a little under a year—to think of the complaint calls she was missing. But she was determined to testify. She was the responding officer on the Clark case, which stretched back to January when police officers set up surveillance on his N. Avondale street address.
The 37-year-old Clark has a criminal history for rape and attempted murder. Those cases did not result in convictions. On the night of his latest arrest he was busted selling crack from his porch. When police went inside, they found five chained-up and caged pit bulls in his squalid basement.
Two of the dogs were near death. As responding officer, Loller photographed the injured dogs during their hours of grueling emergency surgery. The pictures of the broken dogs were in a folder on her lap. She was looking forward to showing them to Clark.
“I want him to see the extent of what he did to these dogs,” she said.
Of the five pit bulls tied-up and caged in Clark’s basement the night of his arrest, two of the adult males had the worst wounds. The black one with the blue eyes–who PSPCA vets later named Ren—had infected bites to his nose making it difficult for him to breathe. The tan one with the white patch across his head—renamed Stimpy—whimpered in a cage, unable to put any weight on his right leg.
Experts say fight dogs are either bred as “boxers” or “wrestlers.” A “boxer” will grab an opponent’s head and maul it till the dog collapses from blood loss. Whereas a “wrestler” will go after his opponent’s limbs and try to take him down that way.
From the deep, infected wound on the back of Stimpy’s right leg, it was probable that he had been matched against a wrestler.
Worse, the lower part of Stimpy’s leg was rigidly bent back towards his body, an injury Loller had never seen before.
“He looked extremely sad and in excruciating pain,” said Loller.
Loller wanted to see remorse on Clark’s face. Like the remorse Philadelphia and the rest of the nation has been waiting to see on the face of one particular dogfighter: Michael Vick.
Like it or not, Vick, a felon who fought dogs as sport, and then shot, hung or drowned them if they couldn’t win him tens of thousands of dollars, is now a part of our city’s collective identity—a potential hero to many if he again dominates on the football field. Unfortunately, he’s already proven to be a hero of sorts. Experts say they’ve seen a direct increase in Philadelphia dogfighting since Vick’s 2007 arrest and incarceration.
“Philly’s always been a Mecca of dogfighting, but after Vick it exploded,” said Bengal. “He’s an idol.”
Well, now the idol’s wearing green. And even before Vick accepted a two-year contract that could net him nearly $10 million, Philly dogfighting was up drastically from last year. The PSPCA has investigated over 400 animal cruelty cases so far this year, compared to only 237 in all of 2008.
The only way Vick can begin to make up for his heinous crimes is by dedicating a generous portion of his salary to animal welfare organizations here. After that, shut up and go win us a Super Bowl.
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Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4