Just before sunrise, in an open field in rural Qormi, around 200 people would gather to bet on which dog could tear the other up, according to a former dog fighter who shed light on the dark world of illegal fight betting.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the former fighter detailed how dog owners would parade their “champions” around the horse racing track in Marsa, trying to attract challengers for a showdown on Sunday morning.

“In my day it was about the challenge, it was pika (pique) and the fights were mostly about the skill of the dog. I’m not saying it was right, and today there is a lot more awareness about animal rights, but my guess is that the fights today are much more violent,” he told Times of Malta.

Police sources on Monday indicated that the fights being investigated today were probably using breeds such as the pit bull, favoured by trainers for its obedience and willingness to continue fighting through extreme pain and exhaustion – something Maltese dog fighters call “zeal”.

The spectre of illegal dog fighting was raised in Parliament last Tuesday by Opposition MP Mario Galea who said he had been shocked to learn the heinous form of animal cruelty had made an unwelcome comeback in recent months.

The matter is now being investigated by the police and animal welfare officials. Sources in both entities encouraged the public to come forward with any information they may have on the practice.

An increasingly violent 'sport'

Meanwhile the former dog fighter told Times of Malta that several years ago he had been convinced to get involved in the fights by friends who attended dog fights for fun.

The black market ‘sport’ would then see owners agree on an impartial referee, and meet in a field in rural Ħandaq in the outskirts of Qormi – the same neighbourhood believed to be hosting the illegal fights today.

In his day, the former dog fighter recounted, the breed of choice was a boxer mix – his had been a boxer mixed with a Maltese hunting dog (tal-kaċċa).

The ‘sport’, he said, had resembled a form of wrestling, with dogs winning a fight if they asserted their dominance by climbing on top of their opponent for at least a minute unchallenged.

“It would attract quite a crowd. Some would bet – sometimes for big money – others would just do it for the prestige of winning, or because of pique,” he said, adding that he had once competed for a cup that dog owners had pitched in for.

And, while attendance at these fights – held at around sunrise mainly on Sundays – was believed to have dwindled, they were also believed to have become increasingly violent.

Rewarding violence

Sources in the Veterinary Department said that dogs used for fights were typically raised in isolation, spending most of their lives on short, heavy chains and conditioned for fighting through the use of repeated violence and rewarding of extreme behaviour.

Dogs made to participate in fights would likely have their ears cropped and tails docked close to their bodies to minimise the animal’s normal body language cues and to limit areas that another dog can grab during a fight. Since it was illegal to make these bodily alterations to pets, fighting dog owners would keep their animals locked away from prying eyes, sources said.

Meanwhile, the former dog fighter told Times of Malta that fights could take anything from a few seconds, to as long as half an hour, with animals often sustaining serious injuries.

He recalled how, prior to fights, opponents would wash their rival’s dog clean, to ensure that the animal had not been rubbed down with liquids that deterred other dogs from attacking.

This had been introduced to discourage cheating dog owners who, among other things, would rub down their dogs with bitter rabbit gallbladders.

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