The image of fighting dogs is a fearsome one — all snarling fury and flashing teeth, vicious beasts eager to sate an instinctual bloodlust.
But to Tim Rickey, a Missourian who is one of the country's pre-eminent investigators of dog fighting, those animals are the victims of a cruel and widespread crime — a crime that has been difficult to solve and prosecute.
And like all crime victims, the dogs deserve justice, Rickey said.
Now, he and others dedicated to stamping out dog fighting have a new tool to help.
The first-ever nationwide database of DNA from animals seized during dog-fighting investigations is being touted as an important advancement that will help authorities link abused animals to those who breed, train and handle them.
“It’s a major underground industry that is challenging to infiltrate and get convictions,” said Rickey, who, since January, has been senior director of field investigations and response for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Dog fighters are seldom caught in the act. The DNA database gives investigators the ability to compare blood and other genetic material left at the scene of a suspected fight to known samples.
“That will put that dog, and by extension its owner, at the scene of a dog fight,” said Beth Wictum, director of the forensic unit of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California-Davis where the new database is being maintained.
The laboratory also can identify bloodlines, tracing evidence to known, established fighting lines, Wictum said.
“This will give us a window into the world of dog fighting, and we can see how these bloodlines are carried from state to state. We may also identify new bloodlines,” she said. “It also opens up lines of investigation as suspected breeders and trainers are scrutinized by law enforcement.”
Before going to work for the ASPCA, Rickey was with the Humane Society of Missouri. He led the investigation last year into what turned out to be the largest dog-fighting network ever uncovered in the country.
Authorities charged several dozen defendants in several states and seized hundreds of animals — more than 400 alone in Missouri and southern Illinois. Yet Rickey says that investigation “just scratched the surface” of the “vast” underground industry across the country.
Although the investigation started in Missouri, it led investigators to individuals in other states including Illinois, Texas, Oklahoma and Iowa, he said.
Because of its secretive nature, Rickey said, it’s impossible to know exactly how many people are involved in dog fighting and how many animals are being used.
He estimates that upward of 100,000 dogs could be involved.
“The numbers are staggering, and it’s quite sad,” he said.
Last year’s big raid was the impetus for establishing the DNA database, said Debbie Hill, vice president of operations for the Humane Society of Missouri, which worked with the ASPCA and the Louisiana SPCA to establish the database.
The approximately 400 DNA samples taken from animals recovered as a result of last year’s investigation were the first to be submitted to the database.
“It was an unprecedented opportunity,” Hill said.
Rickey said the idea evolved from strategy sessions leading up to last year’s raids. Initially the idea was to use DNA as part of that investigation, but investigators decided that it could be expanded nationally to assist in future investigations.
“The more we talked about it, the more we recognized the need for something like this,” he said.
As more samples are submitted, investigators will be able to make connections between animals found in one state and breeders or trainers in another part of the country.
“The more you know, the better you can fit the pieces together,” Hill said.
A spokeswoman for the FBI in Kansas City, which assisted the Missouri Highway Patrol and other agencies in last year’s investigation, said the idea of the dog DNA database is a good one.
“Any resource that can assist us in an investigation is a welcome addition,” said Bridget Patton.
In last year’s investigation, dogs were seized from 25 scattered sites in Missouri and southern Illinois, and DNA testing established bloodline links between them, said Melinda Merck, senior director of veterinary forensics for the ASPCA. Because most of the defendants pleaded guilty, that evidence was not used in court.
But she expects that as the database grows, so will the opportunity to use DNA evidence to get more convictions in future cases.
“The sky’s the limit on what DNA can potentially show us,” she said.
There’s a two-tier system for paying for the testing, said Wictum.
If agencies are submitting samples to build the database and not for going to court, no analysis or report has to be written. The cost for that type of sample is $40. The lab is working with the ASPCA to set up a fund to cover that, she said.
“If cases are court bound, there is much more documentation and analysis that is required,” Wictum said. “Those samples are $250 and are generally paid for by the law enforcement agency or prosecutor’s office.”
Unlike criminal cases involving human victims, the animals abused by dogfighters cannot speak for themselves, said Hill.
Many of the animals confiscated in last year’s raid had been maimed and scarred. But about half have found new homes.
“Any tool we can put in our toolbox to bring those animal abusers to justice we’re going to pursue,” she said.