CHICAGO — While walking to the corner store over the summer, 6-year-old Lawrence Cadle and his 9-year-old cousin Liana stumbled upon a dogfight in an alley on the West Side.
"I never seen two dogs fight like that before, not even on TV," said Lawrence, who described watching a pit bull kill another dog. "To see two dogs go at it was exciting.”
With dogfighting rampant in some parts of the city, children are increasingly among the spectators in the crowd, officials said. And that can have lasting negative effects on their personalities, experts say.
“Dogfighting is nothing new to kids these days,” said Chicago Police Sgt. Mark George, who heads up the Animal Crimes Unit. "Unfortunately, it has become a part of life for many kids.”
A survey by the Anti-Cruelty Society found that one in 15 children in the city have attended a dogfight. The 2006 survey, the most recent available, found that more than 2,300 of the 35,000 kids surveyed in grades K-12 had seen a fight in person. Nearly 5,200 — or one in seven — said they knew such fights were taking place in their neighborhoods.
The ratio is far higher in some neighborhoods in the city, officials said.
“Most of the kids we see at public schools who have attended a dogfight live in minority areas,” said Robyn Barbiers, a spokeswoman for the Anti-Cruelty Society. “It is amazing how some kids who live in certain zip codes have never heard of dogfighting while other kids know as much about dogfighting as we do.”
The two areas that get the most complaints of dogfights are District 11, which includes North Lawndale on the West Side, and District 7, which includes Englewood on the South Side. Last year, out of 757 total calls to the city's 311 line about dogfighting, there were 127 calls from North Lawndale and 112 from Englewood. Through mid-September of this year, there were 71 calls in North Lawndale and 72 in Englewood out of a total of 530.
"Englewood is a hub for dogfighting," George said.
For the children who live in those communities, coming across a dogfight is all too common.
Liana said the summer dogfight she saw on the West Side with her younger cousin wasn't even the first one she attended. Last year, she watched another in which a pit bull was killed.
"I didn't like it," she said. “I don’t think it’s right that people make dogs fight. They’re humans, too.”
Jason Walker, 14, a South Side eighth grader, said he saw a German shepherd badly wound a pit bull in a vacant lot in a fight last year.
“There were probably 100 people at the fight and half were people my age," he said. "I really don’t see what the big deal is about making dogs fight. If two dogs want to fight then how is that illegal?"
Anti-dogfighting advocates fear attending the fights could have long-term consequences on kids' behavior.
"When a child witnesses the kind of violence in dogfighting staged by people, they can become desensitized to pain and suffering, less able to empathize and more willing to accept physical harm in supposed 'loving' relationships," said Cynthia Bathurst, executive director for Safe Humane Chicago, a non-profit animal advocacy organization. "They can learn that victims are expendable ... and even learn to feel empowered by inflicting pain and suffering. They are at risk of repeating abuse."
And although police say the crime is hard to prosecute because they rarely catch a fight in progress, the kids risk jail time if they end up getting involved in organizing the battles in which thousands of dollars in bets may be at stake.
That's what happened to Derek Brown, 36, a former gang leader of the Vice Lords, who said he "had to learn the hard way."
“It took for me to spend a couple of years in prison to fully realize what I had done,” said Brown, a single father of seven who now is a youth mentor to kids in North Lawndale, where he grew up.
“Back then I treated my dog like a piece of meat. If my dog lost, I left him there to die and would go get another dog to fight," Brown said. "I know better now. And when you know better you do better."