Those infamous stray dogs might have it lucky – at least they're not ripped apart in one of Bulgaria's illegal dog fight arenas.
Pushing through the crowds of people, soaked with sweat and stinking of strong cigars, it's hard to see where the arena starts and the seats begin. Loud chalga thumps through the thick air, making the punters in the packed-out room shout even louder. If you paid just three leva, you'll need to head to the top row of seats in this small, ex-school gym. If you want front row standing, it's five leva. The company there are mostly male, and much more raucous. There are very few females spectators, and the remainder are selling warm beers.
The shouting increases as the rivals are dragged into the arena. Leva notes are waved in the air as the fired-up punters settle which opponent they're backing. The hapless hounds – the reason for all this fervour – strain wildly at their chains, their eyes fixed on their equally as maddened, equally as frightened opponent. They're released from their chains and the trainers quickly step out of the ring and shut the metal gates, knowing the starved and riled-up dogs will make a beeline for the first biteable thing that comes close. As planned, the rival dogs spend just a few seconds on their warning snarls before they jump at each other, going straight for the muzzle and throat – knowing full well it's do or die. The fights last just minutes, and end with one dog dead or seriously injured, and the other badly wounded.
This is the outcome when the dogs have been specifically bred and bullied for the purpose of being thrown into one of Bulgaria's many underground dogfighting rings. Yet the result is much more sadistic when one opponent hasn't been primed to kill.
Tina White's relocation from Sheffield to Burgas, with her partner and three daughters, was made complete when she received a male Bull Mastiff as a gift. "My partner arranged to have him imported from Serbia. We had to wait seven months for him to arrive, but he soon settled in and never left the side of my two youngest daughters. We called him Nelson, but they called him Fatboy – he was just so soft and gentle.
"When he went missing we were all devastated. We spent hours walking round the village every day. We made posters for the local shop and nearby towns. We posted on all the expat forums. We offered rewards. Finally, someone came forward with some information, and it was worse than we ever could have imagined."
As the information unravelled, the family discovered that a neighbour, a supposed friend, had gained Nelson's trust, then taken him one night. The neighbour sold the dog to a middle-man for just 50 leva, who then took him to a fighting ring in nearby Meden Rudnik.
"We had involved the police from the beginning, as we thought he may have been stolen, considering how rare the breed is in Bulgaria. When the police investigated the lead, they went to a dogfighting arena they knew was in Meden Rudnik. They found what was left of Nelson dumped in a bin behind the courtyard, torn apart. He never would have stood a chance. He was a domesticated dog. His best friend was a three year old girl."
Despite several leads, as well as tipoffs from locals, the police quickly gave up pursuit of prosecuting the neighbour, the middle-man and those involved in the dog ring, due to "lack of evidence."
Whether tough or soft, fighting-dog trainers wouldn't dream of throwing a mongrel into the ring. The breed of the entrant acts as status – the most popular being a pit bull. Only other breeds like Bull Mastiffs, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, or the really renowned – and in many countries illegal-breeds of Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino or Fila Braziliero will suffice. The trainer will acquire these breeds by any means possible, and pimp and prime them specifically for fighting.
The dogs undergo huge physical and mental trauma to encourage their violent streaks, by being chained up and beaten in sight of other dogs to increase fear and extreme territorial reactions. They are regularly fed or injected with gunpowder – which corrodes the brain, and also the stomach, to cause internal ulcers making them more ferocious – and a cocktail of multi-vitamins, hormones and psychosis-inducing amphetamines. Normal doses are 2 ml of amphetamine a day, which is upped to 4 ml and mixed with heroin on the day of a fight, in order to both numb pain and increase stamina, meaning the dog is more likely to fight to the death. Some trainers sew razor blades under the dog's skin to tear the opponent's paws during attacks. The dogs are starved, but maintain their bulk through steroids, like Clenbuterol, which are legal in Bulgaria. When they get really hungry, their "trainers" throw them a live animal, which they rip to pieces in a frenzy. This ensures they are rid of any empathy toward other animals, and learn that blood and killing results in a "reward" of much-needed food.
Bulgarian vets are feeling the increase in dog fighting, with many clinics admitting and treating half-dead dogs when the trainers' make-shift medical services have failed. Underground vet clinics often supply ointments and antibiotics to trainers to self-medicate their dogs after fights, and requests of illegal dental operations to have metal crowns implanted in dog's jaws are common. Ear cropping is another fighting-dog feature. The less ear to get ripped off in a fight, the less blood will be lost, and the dog will keep going for longer.
Yet, it is by no means legal. Article 10 of Bulgaria's Animal Protection Act, which was adopted in 2006, bans dog fights. The penalty is 500-1,000 leva for the first occurrence and 1,000-2,000 leva for subsequent instances. Each town and city has different municipal instructions for public order and safety relating to dog fights, and penalties relating to incidents range from 20 leva in Tsarevo, to 50 leva in Plovdiv, to 500 leva in Shumen.
Despite Shumen's comparatively high penalty rate, it is said to be one of the main pit bull breeding and priming areas, alongside Plovdiv. Numerous adverts can be found online, declaring puppies for sale, "perfect for fighting", nationwide. A pit bull farm in Troyan boasts 100 dogs. A German breeder in Burgas currently has 50 pit bulls.
Pit bulls are the preferred breed as they are readily available in Bulgaria, whereas the imported breeds can be too pricey – especially considering one in four dogs thrown in the ring die within an average time of 20 minutes. The pit bull is a naturally courageous breed, and when improperly socialised or trained toward aggressive tendencies, can be extremely violent to other dogs and people. In the UK, the pit bull was a banned breed through most of the 1990s under the Dangerous Dogs Act, and is now only allowed as a pet under strict restrictions, including being muzzled when in public. The pit bull, and related breeds, are illegal to own in countries such as Serbia and Denmark.
So, who are the culprits that encourage this merciless blood sport? Bulgaria's politicians, businessmen, sportsmen, celebrities and of course, the mafia. This would indeed explain the small penalties and poor administrative control. The "sport" is considered in the same league as hunting, which is legal but controlled in Bulgaria. As the sport grows, due to this lack of control, more opportunities are opening to Bulgaria to export their specially-primed pit bulls to other blood-lusting countries.
Despite being highly illegal, dog fighting rings are very common in the United Arab Emirates. Gulf News recently featured an exclusive interview with a dog smuggler, who revealed that almost all the dogs thrown in the rings in the UAE are imported from Bulgaria and Romania. Pit bull puppies are regularly doped up and sneaked through customs. "These dogs never make any noise," he reportedly said, "that's why it is easy to bring them in hand luggage."
A recent scandal in the United States revealed that American football star and public figure, Michael Vick, had been running a six-year-long dog-fighting club called Bad Newz Kennels. The case caused ripples throughout the United States – a hugely animal friendly country with heavy legislation on blood sports – and Vick now faces years in prison for dogfighting conspiracy and several related charges of racketeering, gambling, animal cruelty and drug crimes.
In comparison, only a handful of half-hearted attempts to crack down on dogfighting have been reported in Bulgaria. One incident in Pernik is a stark testament to this. When two local gangs gathered in a public field, and set their respective pit bulls against each other in an impromptu fight, crowds gathered to watch and wager bets. By the time the mayor came and "chased them away", the two dogs were barely standing. Although the gangs are well known to the municipality, no charges were instigated, despite the fact that this criminal act took place in front of families with children – who risk becoming desensitised and therefore accepting of this violence towards and between animals.
Bulgaria needs to follow the lead of Russia, which, together with the Russian Kynological Federation (RKF) and registered breeders, has succeeded in enforcing bans on dogfighting in its major cities. Not only is the sport itself illegal, but the rings are often bases for other criminal dealings, such as the arms trade, drug smuggling and illegal gambling. Breaking down these rings could be a major step to fighting the organised crime that still dogs Bulgaria.