Bred to kill

In Lebanon, underground dog fighting is a business

For the aficionados, dog fighting is more than a sport — it is a platform to play God with the violence of Darwin’s natural selection.

“I have Hitler’s mentality,” says 35-year-old Mike Kennel, a pseudonym he chose to maintain anonymity. “I aim for humans to advance, just like I am allowing these dogs to advance — I only let the most intelligent marry each other and the strongest marry each other.”

On the outskirts of Beirut down a winding road off the Hadath highway, an iron gate opens onto a secluded path bordered by agricultural land. Yet the organically grown plots, the picturesque greenery and the peaceful ambiance camouflage a farm of another kind: This is doggie boot camp.

A seemingly abandoned building at the end of the path houses dogs enrolled in a rigorous training regimen, and on the other side of the clearing, leafy fichus trees shade a square fighting arena, in which they are trained to tear each other apart.

Apart from fulfilling his competitive lust, Kennel claims he stages fights to test for specific traits to ensure the preservation of the species.

“I check for the dog with the stronger jaw, the strongest mind and the longest breath, and I use it for the selection I breed. To test it, I need to put it in the ring,” says Kennel. “We believe in the rule of the jungle. We believe in the survival of the fittest, because the fittest will make stronger offspring, and prevent the extinction of the animal.”

When these canine “ultimate fighters” are in the ring, the faceoff is brutal. American pit bull terriers (APBT) have been bred for their capacity to fight and inflict maximum damage. It is also their “gameness,” or ability to attack regardless of their physical condition, that is one of their most appealing attributes for their masters.

APBTs have a predisposition to tolerate pain through anesthetizing compounds that their bodies naturally secrete. The selection and genetic make-up, rather than the use of any drugs, says Kennel, have allowed the development of strong, feisty pit bulls that are born with a predator’s instinct to hurt other dogs.

What started for Kennel as a fascination with animal competitions at age 12 led him, by 16, to become a professional dog-fighter, trainer, breeder, trader, handler and referee; in other words — a dogman. Today he says it is also a lucrative business, but one that he declined to quantify to avoid litigation by auditors from the Ministry of Finance.

Kennel owns 75 dogs that he trains and breeds; 25 are APBTs, which are the only species he raises for fighting purposes. Kennel’s work in breeding and training has earned him a region-wide reputation: in his workshop he builds self-powered treadmills that he sells for $600 around the Middle East to improve the cardiovascular fitness of the dogs without exhausting them.

Dogs also wear weighted collars, usually four kilograms, to increase upper body strength, and their biting power is improved by having them chomp on a hanging rope from which they are suspended for extended periods. Kennel has also developed strict nutrition regimes complete with vitamins and minerals to complement dogs’ training.

A puppy is trained until the age of two before entering the ring for the first time. Formal matches are usually arranged two months in advance to give time for training, with the details — such as the wager of each owner and the weight class of the dogs — drafted into a contract for the competing parties to sign.


Lord of the ring

Just before formal matches dogs are weighed to ensure they adhere to the agreed weight category, and if not, the party in breech of the contract pays a penalty, usually half the value of the bet, or an average of $2,000, to cover the cost of the training. The opponent can then also choose to cancel the bout.

After passing the weigh-in, the dogs are washed to remove any possible poison hidden in their fur. Handlers then bring the animals into the pit, or “ring” — a four meters by four meters square with walls up to 75 centimeters high. They hold the dogs by their hips behind “scratch lines” in opposing corners as the dogs prepare to attack.

The referee stands in the middle of the ring, ready with a wooden or plastic “breaking stick,” which is the only way to pry open a pit bull’s locked jaws. At the signal of the referee, handlers release the dogs for the first “scratch” — dog fighting terminology for an attack — and the animals leap at each other in a fever of bloodlust. 

“We don’t tell the dogs ‘Go’,” said Kennel. “The dog has an instinct to go on its own. If we have to invite the dog to the fight, we don’t want it.”

At the fight Executive attended last month, the dogs became entangled in a “dance of death” standing on their hind legs, then took turns mauling each other, quietly encouraged by their respective handlers with words the dogs were conditioned to hear when striking opponents.

During the first scratch, the dog that locked its jaws on its opponent first won a point. The dogs were then pried apart with the breaking sticks — no one flinched as blood oozed from the wounded animal.

At this point in the match the owners and the referee will check for the dog’s gameness.

“Even if the dog gets wiped, if it still has gameness then it is selected for breeding,” said Kennel.

At the second scratch, the dog that lost the first round will be released to attack his opponent. If after a 10 second count by the referee the dog still has not attacked, then the other dog must scratch and secure a lock on its opponent. If the second dog fails to attack as well, then the dogs are even and the match is over.

“Both dogs will go bye-bye,” explained Kennel with a hint of sarcasm. “They can’t be sold, there is no breeding, and their value will be zero even if they cost $10,000.”

When a dog loses, it gets a loss added to its title record, and if it does not display gameness it will never be bred or enter a ring again.

After each fight, Kennel injects the dogs with antibiotics to speed their healing. He confirms though that unless it’s a finishing game, where a dog has to be kept in the fight until its last breath, no owner would let his dog die in the ring. 

“No one kills a dog worth $4, 000,” he said, though Kennel admitted that dogs often die the day after a fight due to injuries.

As a result, medical care for the dogs before and after the fight is essential in preserving their value and improving its performance.


Gambling on gore

With the blood sport underway in the ring, betting outside goes into full swing, with 10 percent of all bets going to the referee and ring, which usually go together. Kennel says there are three rings in Lebanon for professional fights.

“There are no limits for bets,” he explained. In Gulf countries, bets can reach up to $30,000, and can include automobiles and property.

Kennel says that in Lebanon, the bets don’t go beyond $5,000, and the big betting is usually limited to a handful of insiders. The dog-fighting circle is secretive and clandestine, with heavy emphasis put on the anonymity of participants given the involvement of some of the country’s prominent businessmen, according to sources that also declined to be identified.

The price of a gladiator

As a fully-fledged dogman, Kennel takes a lot of pride in his lineage breeding. The price of a puppy ranges from $500 to $1,500. After that, prices increase with the level of training, the titles a dog earns and the owner’s emotional attachment to the animal.

With each match victory, a dog’s value normally doubles; three wins earns a dog a champion’s title, and five wins earn it the title of grand champion, which can elevate the price to as much as $50,000 in Lebanon.

Kennel’s endeavors have evolved into a highly disciplined enterprise compared to “street level” dog fighting. Sources, which asked for anonymity because they have received threats from dog fighters in these other circles, describe them as being associated with criminal networks, with bouts staged in secret locations that are only revealed to the participants shortly beforehand via SMS mobile messages. Dogs fighting in these settings tend to be subjected to extreme abuse, often deprived of food and forced to live in darkness to increase their aggressiveness.

Kennel, who sees himself as a professional, abides by the “Cajun rules,” a detailed list of guidelines related to dog fighting created in the 1950s in the United States. He argues that street dog fighters are amateurs and ignorant of important information pertaining to adequate dog training, such as the fact that darkness weakens the eyesight of a dog and makes him aggressive towards people in daylight.

“A dog that is aggressive towards humans is not allowed in [our] ring,” he says.

In fact, Kennel now recruits amateur dog fighters to join his training camp, teaching them how to be professional handlers and trainers in the creation of true canine predators.

“I recommend that anyone who has a pit bull, go to a professional to learn… the value and the love of the dog,” said Kennel.

There are currently no laws in Lebanon that pertain to dog fighting. Kennel says he believes that dog fighting should be regulated, and that those who fail to ensure a safe and secure environment for their dogs should be penalized. Inspection and regulation should be the job of the government, he says, and not that of animal rights activists who don’t understand the emotional and financial value of game dogs and want to “castrate” them.

“Why don’t we castrate Mohammad Ali? Or all the people who like boxing?” says Kennel.

“We don’t have to be enemies with animal rights activists, we can work together,” he said. “Instead of stifling those who are addicted to this sport, we can teach them to do things right. This is a dangerous sport and safety procedures have to be respected.”


The fight for legal teeth

The only reference to animal abuse in Lebanese law is found in articles 761, 762 and 763, which define a domesticated animal as “any animal that is in the guardianship of the person who owns it and raises it,” while stipulating that a person who “hurts of exhausts” either a domestic or wild animal without cause may face “prison with a bail of 10,000 to 20,000 LL.” 

Animal rights organizations have been urging for clearer legislation in Lebanon to prosecute animal abusers, as the absence of such laws leaves them effectively toothless in trying to stop dog fighting and address issues related to animal cruelty. As a result, groups such as Animals Lebanon – a non-profit organization promoting animal rights and protection – are now working with the Ministry of Agriculture and a team of lawyers in drafting new laws regarding animal welfare. The new legislation, the first draft of which is due June 17, needs to be comprehensive in addressing animal cruelty, according to Lana el Khalil, president of Animals Lebanon, and include a ban on all forms of animal fighting. “Dog fighting represents one of the ugliest faces of humanity,” said Khalil. “You see the most prehistoric traits of violence in a setting like this.” 

Though there is the argument that dog fighting as traditional and cultural pursuit, Executive Director of Animals Lebanon Jason Mier said that society needed to evolve and recognize things like dog fighting are “simply not OK anymore.” “Does Lebanon want to be at the forefront and join the countries that are making these things illegal, or do we always want to be behind and catch up to other countries later,” he said. Joe Khoury Helou, whose team of lawyers is working on the draft, said that a law is of no value without effective implementation, including the enforcement of sanctions, which would fall under the jurisdiction of the ministries of agriculture and the interior. Currently the team is outlining the key issues the laws should cover, based on the recommendations from activists at Animals Lebanon. 

As Executive went to print, details of the draft were still vague. Animals Lebanon is adamant that dog fighting and animal cruelty be explicitly banned. However, lawyers fear that by going into details about these issues, they might risk not passing parliament. They believe the safer approach is to offer only general guidelines in the earlier stages. A crucial step is for Lebanon to sign onto the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which Minister of Agriculture Hajj Hassan has promised to do within a year. Joining CITES would help plug gaps in domestic legislation, given that where Lebanese law fell short, the international treaty would apply.

Signing CITES, however, would be effectively useless without the presence of national laws, as the two would need to be complementary. The first national workshop on animal welfare featuring experts from the European Union was held on May 18 and 19, under the patronage of the Ministry of Agriculture, to discuss CITES and the European Union minimum standards and how they can be applied in Lebanon. Putting forward the case for proper animal rights legislation in Lebanon, Khalil said: “A country that protects its animals is a country that is likely to protect its people, because it means you have reached a level of civility.”