Cow Palace Blues, As Told by Bobby Callahan to Sean O’Reilly – San Francisco, California, USA

Welcome to the moral penal colony.

I had a bad feeling about this one. It wasn’t the rainy weather or the two guys bullshitting in loud tones outside our window. There was something indefinable in the air, as if something were lurking behind the smell of urine coming from the seedy motel next to the Cow Palace, or hiding in between the noise of the crack heads in the parking lot. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that we had come from four different states to fight our dogs in an illegal dogfight in a warehouse somewhere south of Market. Maybe it didn't. I didn’t think about the illegal aspect, at least in a city like San Francisco, known to break a few rules now and then. To some of us, this was just a hobby, to others a livelihood, but we were also here to have a good time.

We didn’t know it when we arrived, but the warehouse was only two blocks from the county courthouse. The place was big and like most new warehouses, it was well lit. We walked through a maze of hallways until we arrived at the pit. The air was full of smoke, laughter and conversation. The pit was about fourteen by fourteen with five foot high, golden trophies gleaming and leaning against the wall for the winners. A barbecue area with hamburgers and hot dogs cooking on the grill was just to one side of the exit hallway.

The whole place was finished in plywood sheets painted white and put up lengthwise to make the arena. Eighty people were gathered – wisecracking, smoking and talking about dogs. Our mood softened as we exchanged stories with other breeders and handlers. Despite the belief that we are vicious people, most of us love our dogs. I believe that pit bulls were born to fight and that we are just giving them an opportunity to do what is in their nature. All the stories you hear about the dogs biting on people are true, but one important detail is left out. It is not the breeders who are doing this, it is the irresponsible kids and adults who buy them and don’t know how to deal with their dogs. I have twenty dogs and four children and not one of my kids has ever been bitten.

It was amazing to see the different types of people who were there. You had your basic workingman rubbing up cheek by jowl with lawyers in suits, aging guys with ponytails from Oakland and the East Bay, punks with tattoos and educated looking men in jogging outfits from Palo Alto. All were bound together by a common love of gambling and the questionable respect that is earned by anyone who is good at doing something illegal.

At one point someone yelled out, “Whores upstairs. Cut your own deals.” A murmur ran through the crowd, a mix of humor and displeasure. Professional dog people don’t need that kind of shit at a wager. It just gives the rest of us a bad name.

I was more interested in looking for clues about the dogs; something to give me an idea which way to cast my bets. I was good at betting on the fights and wanted to keep both my record and my wallet intact.

The first two dogs were brought out and washed down for any poison that an unscrupulous owner might put on his dog’s fur. The referee yelled out, “Face your dogs.” The dogs were brought into the arena and made to face each other. “Face and release!” The dogs' two small pit bull bitches launched at each other and fought savagely for about a half an hour, until one of the bitches quit. Her owner conceded the match and took her off and put her to sleep with a lethal injection over in the corner. Dogs that quit will quit again. Killing a dog that quits is part of the ethos of the business. Personally, I think it makes the owner look good at the expense of his dog, but there is a certain perverse logic to the whole thing.

The next fight involved some poor handling and could have been won by the dog that lost, if the owner had been more experienced. He didn’t let his dog go for the kill when it could have, and then his dog lost. He called a "turn" and took his dog to the corner for a "scratch" that is the only legitimate break the dogs are allowed. By then, the other dog had recovered to the point where he took the match. Strategy is everything in these fights.

The third fight was mediocre but the betting was hot and heavy. The fight was over quickly and money changed hands. Nobody welches on their bets at these fights; if you do your ass is in serious trouble.
The fourth fight was scheduled but the dogs weren’t present. One of the coordinators of the fight went to get the handler and his dog (they were apparently at a nearby motel). Nobody knew why they were late. The handlers weren't happy about going back to the motel and bringing the dogs to the warehouse. What they didn't know was that the Humane Society and the SFPD were going to follow them back to the hotel. (We later discovered that we too had been followed by the police that morning, but they lost us in heavy traffic. The two guys who were jiving it up at the hotel were undercover cops).

When they finally got back, bets were placed and dogs were washed and faced, and everybody settled in for a good fight – unaware that an undercover operation was about to explode in their faces. The most heavily favored dog leapt with fangs bared. Suddenly, there were screams and yells that the cops were there, and then people were running and shouting and trying to cram through a narrow hallway that couldn’t hold them all. Wallets, guns and money were thrown into garbage cans or any place handy to get rid of incriminating evidence. The swat teams moved even faster and swarmed into the pit ordering everybody to lie down. Those who didn’t lie down were kicked in the butt or clubbed until they did lie down. Cops stood on peoples' backs and swatted those who didn’t move fast enough or didn’t put their hands behind their backs. Some of the guys were crying out because the plastic ties were turning their hands purple.

A few of the cops were saying out loud that the goddamn dog fighters should feel some of the same pain that they inflicted on their dogs. The Humane Society was right in there with them. These were people who had more interest in animals than people, cared more about how pigs become bacon than about how kids become crooks; there were probably at least half a dozen violent crimes that took place while these jokers were playing morality games. Yeah, I know dog fighting is illegal, but give me a break. Their time and money would have been better spent patrolling Hunter’s Point or the Tenderloin.

A shot was heard. One of the dogs that had growled a little too vigorously at the police had been shot. A moment later, one Asian cop confided to several of us that he thought the whole thing was ridiculous, and that they all should just be given tickets instead of being treated like major criminals. Unfortunately, he was not in charge and we were thrown into paddy wagons a few minutes later. You could smell the fear on some of the younger cops (I imagine even a swat team might be intimidated by a roomful of pit bulls and guys with guns.). That didn’t prevent them from confiscating what some of the players later indicated was in the vicinity of $100,000 dollars, declaring only half the amount actually confiscated and pocketing the rest of it for themselves without reporting the full take. I had four hundred dollars worth of betting money; my declaration slip showed only two hundred dollars – nothing like justice in action. We could hardly breathe in the paddy wagon; there were so many of us stuffed inside. We were surprised when the trip was over in about two minutes. None of us had realized how close the warehouse was to the county lockup.

Forty of us were jammed into cells designed to hold only ten people. We were thrown in with all sorts of other criminals. Yes, that is what we were now, criminals for betting on the dogs. Other inmates beat one of the black guys in the cell for not washing his feet. The police in turn beat the guys who beat him. My, my I thought, this is going to be a picnic. The next thing I know, we are being dragged off to another bigger cell for about two hours. This process is repeated over a period of about 24 hours. We were moved around as we were booked and photographed and made to fill out whatever other paper work was needed for the machinery of justice. Some inmates cooed at us and indicated they needed fresh meat. Others approved of our status as dog fighters. All in all, I think we provided a diversion from the everyday for inmates and cops alike.

Later that morning we were all taken out in chains just like a cartoon of convicts on a work detail. Brought before the magistrate, most of us got off with fines and community service. At one point, some of the guys were blubbering about how unfair it was to them and their families. I was so disgusted that I shouted out in the courtroom: “Hold your heads up. You’ve done nothing to be ashamed of. Show some pride.” There was dead silence; even the magistrate couldn’t believe his ears but he kept right on handing out sentences and ignored my outburst. The bigger wheels have cases that are still pending a year later. The owner of the warehouse pleaded ignorance or some such, but he was probably lying. The Humane Society destroyed all the dogs found at the fight.

Later, and after paying a hefty fine, I drove through Golden Gate Park. I watched a man hunting for cigarette butts near the Polo Grounds. I couldn’t help thinking that maybe I was lucky getting off on a technicality. Maybe this was the man upstairs' way of telling me that I was doing wrong, that all life needs to be protected and that maybe, just maybe, some of the things that I personally like might really be wrong. San Francisco is like that, it makes you think.

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