(Corey Noles ~ Dexter Daily Statesman)
Investigators also say they found a dog fighting ring, called a "pit" -- a converted horse stall in a barn which was lined with blood-stained carpet and covered with tarps.
A joint investigation by the Stoddard County Sheriff's department, Missouri State Highway Patrol, Southeast Missouri Drug Task Force and the Missouri Humane Society led to the arrest of three men Saturday. One of the men, Jessey D. Short, was from Cape Girardeau. Police also arrested Jamie D. Sifford, who owned the property at 17239 County Road 481, and Curtis E. Pickering of South Fulton, Tenn.
Police, who were acting on an anonymous tip, seized 26 pit bulls, more than half of whom bore fresh wounds or older battle scars around the head and neck, injuries commonly associated with dog fighting, said Tim Rickey, director of Rescue and Investigations for the Missouri Humane Society.
"Some of them looked like they had been fighting for a long time ... There was severe scarring," he said.
When investigators found the dogs, they were confined by heavy chains in small spaces, with no interaction aside from their "trainers," Rickey said, describing the conditions as "horrible."
They were also infested with fleas.
The pit bulls, along with a beagle that Rickey said may have been either a pet or possibly a stray, were transported to the Missouri Humane Society in St. Louis, fed and treated for their wounds.
"They were taken to a nice, safe, dry, comfortable place, and we just let them chill out," said spokeswoman for the humane society Jeane Jae.
The beagle appeared unharmed, other than from neglect, and there was no evidence that it had been used in dog fights, but may have been intended as a "bait" animal, Rickey said.
Baiting is the practice of throwing a smaller, weaker animal in a pit with a fighting dog as a "test match" to see if the fighter is "game" enough to willingly attack its opponent, Rickey said.
Once a judge officially transfers responsibility for the dogs from the sheriff's department to the humane society, their behavior will be evaluated to see if they might be rehabilitated as adoptable animals.
The Missouri Humane Society does not put pit bulls up for adoption, Rickey said, because dog fighting in the St. Louis area is so rampant.
"The worst thing we can do is put these dogs back in the hands of people that want them for fighting," Rickey said.
Rescue centers, however, often work with the humane society in trying to provide suitable homes for pit bulls they consider to be reformable, he said.
All three suspects were charged with felony dog fighting, a crime punishable by not more than four years in jail or a fine of not more than $5,000.
Police also charged Sifford with possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of a controlled substance, charges that carry a combined sentence of up to eight years in jail. The drug charges were due to the unmarked prescription bottles police found to contain the antidepressant drug Xanax and the painkiller hydrocodone.
Drugs and dog fighting go hand in hand, and there is a proven connection between the two crimes, Rickey said.
Both spell easy money, considering that a well-bred fighting dog will fetch at least $5,000 as a puppy, he said.
"It primarily comes from the people that do this; it's not uncommon to find ex-felons, because, who else is going to come watch an animal fight?" he said.
Sifford has several prior criminal offenses, one for possession of controlled substance, and three women have filed ex parte orders of protection against him in connection with adult abuse, all within the last two years, though those cases were later dropped.
Dog fighting has been rampant throughout the state of Missouri, said Rickey, whose office has investigated reports of dog fighting in practically every county, including several in Cape Girardeau.
The three suspects are being held at the Stoddard County jail, Pickering and Short on $125,000 cash bond. No bond is posted for Sifford.
Rickey commended the sheriff's department on its tenacity in pursuing the anonymous tip, which he said may have come from someone who had seen the number of injured dogs on the property.
Even neighbors living in proximity may not have heard the organized fights, however, because pit bulls stay relatively silent, even in the midst of a fight, due to both an extremely high pain tolerance and intense focus when fighting, he said.
"They were flying under the radar," said Dr. Jerry Eber, a veterinarian with the Animal Care Facilities Act Program.
Eber said that because more than three female dogs were found on the residence, they had a legal obligation to obtain a breeding license.
"If they'd applied for a license, we'd have seen the telltale signs of dog fighting," he said.
335-6611, extension 245