You can hear the snarls, yelps and barking. You can smell the blood and urine. But, in this place some would call cruel, you can also feel the love, a bond between a person and a dog.
Soweto’s pitbull fighting scene is a murky, secretive world. These young boys and men – who urge on their animals to bite, gouge and sometimes kill other dogs – would be hated by most animal lovers.
Yet to watch them as they feed and groom their dogs, and then gently tend their gashes and bites after the fights, is to see something deeply touching.
Frankenstein is a stocky, muscled, mainly white pitbull who carries the scars of previous battles all over his body.
He’s just come out of a bloody encounter with Cable, an equally powerful black-and-white dog. Frankenstein’s hair is spotted with blood, his own and that of his adversary. Minutes earlier he was a killer in a thrashing and brutal contest, but now he is calm, soothed by the hands cleaning out his wounds. Hands he trusts.
“Eish sorry mfana kuzolunga (sorry boy, it will be fine),” says Frankenstein’s owner. Frankenstein can feel his wounds, that much is clear as he winces on occasion. But he doesn’t growl or show any aggression towards his owner.
One of the boys explains that the animals are bathed straight after the fights: “If we don’t do this as soon as possible, they will get infections and I don’t want my dog to get sick, you understand suster.”
When I enter this illegal world, clearly some of them feel I am a threat. I have to assure them I will be discreet because, as they put it, “old people tend to call the police when they witness these fights”.
The fights happen mostly during the day and I get calls at short notice. The clashes normally don’t take long and they disperse quickly, leaving those in the fight area none the wiser.
Their dogs have unusual names: Frankenstein, Cable, Diesel, Scratch, Sakzana and a puppy named Hitler.
The dogs come in different colours and definitely have different attitudes. There are friendlier dogs, who will play with a “diski” (a soccer ball) before a fight, and some not so friendly.
As I follow them and document their underground society, I become attached to the dogs. It hurts me to watch them as they lie down, bloody and tired after a fight.
So why do they do it?
For the boys, it is simple. “This is nature taking its course. These dogs were born to fight and would be bored out of their minds if they did not,” says one of the boys.
In all the time I follow the boys and record the violent encounters between the dogs, I don’t see any money change hands. They don’t do this for money.
But it is not only the dogs who get hurt.
The owner of Mercy, a big bitch who is a black-brown colour with white patches, is almost in tears when he phones me to tell me she has been stolen. The dogs are sought after as guard animals. Better than a gun, some say. Other boys, like Cable’s owner, tether their dogs with sturdy chains and hefty padlocks.
When I visit Amber’s owner, he removes his hat and battles the tears. He’s the tough guy who told me these dogs were born to fight. “Eish suster, the puppies have died.”
He tells me they succumbed to biliary. “I tried to treat them with medicines I have, but by the time I rushed them to a doctor they had died,” he says.
Amber has been taking their deaths badly.
“I have been taking her for walks and a swim at the park a lot these days just to console her,” he adds.
On another occasion, Magogo (“granny” – so called because at four she is regarded as old) is listless as she lies at her owner’s feet after her fight.
“Ukhathele (she is tired); maybe I should carry her,” he says. “You see, suster, she is old now, she just needs water,” he says as he whispers soothing words in her ear.
A few days later, his mother reveals that Magogo is pregnant. She does not know that her son fights the dog.
There are smiles all round. He is happy. His dog is happy. It is a happy day. - Bongiwe Mchunu, The Star