It is not uncommon to spot DeAndre Weaver strolling through Northwest Atlanta streets with his loyal pit bulls Champ and Gia at his side.
However, unlike many other young men in his neighborhood, he does not scour the community in search of fellow dog owners willing to “fight” their pets for status or winnings from small wagers. He patrols the area — with a stack of fliers in hand—promoting the contrary.
“It’s a very serious issue; I have a lot of associates who do fight dogs and some of them are young,” he says. “It’s very important to let them know that they can do other things besides fight their dog.”
Weaver, 24, is now an ambassador of sorts for The Humane Society of the United States’ (The HSUS) End Dogfighting campaign, an initiative now underway in Atlanta and two other U.S. cities, that aims to divert at-risk youth away from urban or “street” dogfighting.
“This helps people see a different side and it works,” says Weaver, a program alum who now works with as an Anti-Dogfighting Advocate (ADA). “It helps people see that if you love your dog you wouldn’t want to hurt your dog.”
End Dogfighting In Atlanta campaign “community organizer” Ralph Hawthorne insists dogfighting has gone well beyond “trend” status in most inner-city neighborhoods.
“It’s become a cultural norm,” he says. “That’s what we are up against. We’re trying to change hearts and minds.”
The fallout over former Atlanta Falcons Quarterback Michael Vick’s controversial dogfighting conviction four years ago, undoubtedly has drawn attention to the program, now also in Chicago and in Vick’s new football hometown, Philadelphia. Dogfighting, The HSUS says, is rampant in U.S. cities, perpetuating animal cruelty and desensitizing young people to violence and other crimes.
“One Chicago Police statistic found that 70 percent of those convicted of dogfighting were also ultimately convicted of other violent crimes,” says Hawthorne, a recovering drug addict and former gang member with a background in violence prevention. “That’s an indicator that we need to catch people when they’re young. Over time that desensitization gets stronger and stronger.”
Watch Hawthorne talk about End Dogfighting In Atlanta on Fox 5’s Good Day Atlanta program.
The HSUS estimates that each year more than 250,000 dogs are abused, killed and tortured in both organized dogfights, mostly in rural areas, and informal street dogfights, mostly in urban areas. Campaign leaders hope this effort, now exclusively concentrated in the economically devastated English Avenue area, will help reverse the dangerous trend.
“Street dogfighting is rampant in U.S. cities and it is one of the most underreported crimes,” says Atlanta Coordinator Elisabeth Gambill-Niksich. “The HSUS actually estimates that hundreds of thousands of inner city youth are involved.”
The program launched before Vick’s conviction in Chicago in 2006, the same year that the organization funded a University of Chicago survey that found children as young as nine taking part in or witnessing dogfights primarily for “status, toughness and excitement,” she says. The Atlanta initiative began in 2008.
“In the underground world of dogfighting, whoever has the toughest pit bull is the winner and the dogs and our communities are the losers,” Gambill-Niksich says.
The End Dogfighting Campaign uses a multi-pronged approach to strike at the core of urban dogfighting including:
So far the Atlanta initiative has provided training classes for about 100 dog owners. The school program has reached just over 500 middle and high school students in Chicago and Atlanta. A community outreach program held over the weekend at Washington Park included training demonstrations, a weight-pull contest and dog food giveaways.
“When we introduce them to alternatives and show them that there are other things that their dog is capable of, a lightbulb goes off in their heads,” contends Hawthorne. “We’re trying to show them that not only is it morally wrong, it’s legally wrong. It’s all about changing hearts and minds.”
Along with desensitizing young people from violence and bloodshed, Gambill-Niksich asserts that dogfighting also often exposes young people to other illegal activity, including gambling, guns and drugs. Much like the Vick conviction did, The HSUS also hopes the campaign will reinforce that dogfighting is a felony in all 50 states. In Georgia, even spectators may face equally stiff penalties for repeated violations.
Vick is not an official HSUS spokesman, but since his prison release, he has chosen to speak to young people nationwide about why they should not engage in dogfighting. Gambill-Niksich says Vick’s words could have great impact.
“Some people still look up to him, even though he’s a convicted felon,” she says. “For that reason, hearing what happened to him and why it was wrong has the power to influence so many.”
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.