Johannesburg - Dog fighters forced children as young as 9 to imitate real dog fights, placing bets on which child will cause the most injury through biting and scratching.
The horrific form of abuse, which shows just how damaging dog fighting can be to children, came to light early last year in Ekurhuleni, but not much has been done to help the children involved.
Inspector Wendy Willson, from the special investigations unit at the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA), was called to a school in Springs in June to see if they could do something about the problem there.
Willson said the school principal, who will not be named to protect the identity of the children, was concerned that pupils were returning from breaktime with torn clothing and injuries.
Teachers then discovered the children were fighting each other in dog fighting role-play, while other pupils were placing bets on who would win.
The children were doing this because adults were encouraging them at weekends to take part, both in actual dog fighting and the role-play fighting.
Willson witnessed the children getting down on all fours – barking, growling, biting and scratching each other.
“They rip into each other. The play is aggressive enough to cause each other injury,” she said.
In a video of one fight, which was much tamer than what was really happening because the children were asked to provide an example, the imitation of dogs is so authentic that if you close your eyes and listen, you will think you are listening to real dogs.
The children who were bystanders were acting out the role of dog handlers and were betting R2 to R10 on the fights that were taking place.
“The winner of the fight then gets to mate with a younger child as a reward.”
Willson was not sure if the mimicry moved on to actual copulation. She said this was in imitation of the best fighting dogs who get to be stud animals and mate with female dogs.
“It’s incredibly disturbing that young children are being forced to be involved in this,” Willson said.
She added that the children had told her that in order to stop being a “female dog”, you have to bring in a younger child to take your place.
Willson said the NSPCA had discovered, just as they had seen in other areas in which dog fighting had taken hold, that violent crime was increasing.
The NSPCA removed dogs that were involved in fighting. It also discovered cases of bestiality and other instances of horrific animal cruelty, and removed the animals from the situation.
Willson said the perpetrators involve children in the theft of the dogs, the training and in the actual fights. The children were rewarded either with money or dog food for their own dogs, which were used in fights.
She said the older the child, the less empathetic he or she was. One child had told her: “It makes me feel like laughing. It makes me feel powerful”.
The inspector said they had recorded elevated levels of aggression, bullying and theft in the children. There had been attacks on teachers, causing injuries.
“I have never seen this before,” Willson added. “I searched for examples of children being used like this internationally and came up with nothing.”
The Gauteng Department of Education said it had been made aware of these allegations early last year. “The department had contacted the SPCA to request their intervention,” said spokeswoman Phumla Sekhonyane.
Willson said the NSPCA had conducted two awareness-raising workshops at the Springs school and the local police station, involving members of the community, principals, police, the Justice Department and child protection services, but while everyone had raised concern, nothing significant had been done to help the children.
A director of IRS Forensic Investigations, Glenda Paul, said the matter was of grave concern. “It is bad enough that criminals are gambling on animals tearing themselves apart for their sick pleasure, but to involve children is pure evil.”
“They are like cogs in a machine”
Teddy Bear Clinic director Shaheda Omar said it was the first time she had ever heard of the dog-fighting role-play taking place.
“I have seen cases where children violate animals and show no remorse, but never this,” Omar said. She said it sounded to her like a situation in which children had unmet emotional needs and they needed to find ways to be in a powerful position.
“These children are being used. They are like cogs in a machine. I’m sure some sort of reward is offered and they are being socialised into that behaviour,” Omar said.
“Violence begets violence and the children are learning it from adults.”
The situation needed urgent, systemic intervention, and different departments needed to get involved to stop the abuse and the children’s behaviour, she said.
“If nothing is done, this will become a breeding ground for sociopaths,” Omar said.
Dirty secret breeding organised crime
Dog fighting is defined as a sadistic contest in which two dogs, which have been specifically bred and trained to fight, are placed in a small arena to fight each other for the entertainment of spectators and for gambling purposes. It is violent organised crime that is often linked to other criminal activities.
There are three broad categories of dog fighting:
* Street-level dog fighting, which is usually linked to gang activities and during which people boast about their dog’s strength and fighting ability.
* Dog fighting as a hobby involves people buying dogs of average ability and entering them in local and regional matches.
* Professional dog fighting is the most sophisticated of the three and is sometimes conducted at national and international levels. High-stake matches featuring experienced fighting dogs with established bloodlines take place.
Many children in high-crime areas and informal settlementsare exposed to dog fighting intheir neighbourhoods, and this routine exposure to unfettered animal abuse and neglect is a major contributing factor in their later manifestation of social deviance.
It is well documented that by exposing children to such cruel brutality and repeated violence, they become desensitised and tend to perpetuate the cycle of violence, as well as promoting insensitivity towards animal suffering, an enthusiasm for violence and disrespect for the law. - Source: SPCA brochure entitled Dogfighting – SA’s dirty little secret