A reality show permits a behind-the-scenes view of animal-fighting investigations.
Philadelphia police officers risk their lives every day to combat crime and keep residents safe. Meanwhile the Pennsylvania Society for Prevention and Cruelty to Animals’ humane society officers do the same as they fight to keep furry, feathery and scaly friends out of harm’s way.
Nat Geo WILD’s, “Philly Undercover,” which debuted Saturday on the network following a Jan. 5 premiere party at The Franklin Institute, follows the nonprofit’s Undercover Animal Fighting Task Force in a six-part series that airs Mondays through Feb. 6. The first two episodes featured a dog-fighting bust that netted 14 arrests at a Grays Ferry home April 10, 2011 and rescued 41 dogs citywide.
The nonprofit’s undercover quintet hit the streets of Kensington eight months ago to investigate dog fighting. After probing for more than a year, their research led them to camp out near Henry “Puerto Rican Junior” Beard’s home on the 3200 block of Magee Street for two days.
“I had basically been hanging out on the street. The guys on the street thought I was a semi-homeless prostitute,” Nicole Wilson, assistant director of humane law enforcement, said of her undercover work.
There, they spotted Beard and Sidney “Big Man” Prosser, a convicted dog fighter, conversing. Chief Investigator George Bengal had a hunch that a fight was occurring that night. Officers followed the suspects to a rowhome on the 2600 block of South Gerritt Street and called the police for backup. When officers knocked on the door, everyone scattered, Officer Wayne Smith said.
“There was an actual fight in progress,” he said. “There was dog-fighting paraphernalia all over the house.”
The premiere episode shows the canines still clashing as officers enter the house, and licking their wounds as officers round them up to transport to their headquarters.
“It’s pretty much not what the dog did, but what they did to condition it,” Smith said.
Many of those in the business are boxing fans, he said. Since it’s easier for them to discipline and train a dog than a boy, they choose the four-legged variety. While the brawl gives the dog owners a thrill, there’s more motivation to producing a top dog.
“It’s a money component to it and it’s a bragging right connected to it,” Smith said.
A known champion producer can obtain a hefty price tag on the dog’s offspring, but love does go into conditioning their trade.
“If you talk to true dog men, they think that they’re doing right. That this is what these dogs are supposed to do,” Smith said.
Currently eight of the offenders are out on bail awaiting their Jan. 24 scheduling conference before Common Pleas Court Judge Adam Beloff, a South Philly native, while four others have either had their charges quashed or dismissed. Edward Gonzalez, 29 of North Philly is once again in jail after failing to appear for his April 19, ’11 arraignment. Jonathon Galarza, 27, also of North Philly, pled guilty to animal fighting Jan. 3. He will serve 11-and-a-half to 23 months in jail plus three years on probation, pay $1,000 in restitution and is prohibited from owning animals.
Animal fighting is a third-degree felony and could result in a maximum seven-year lockup, Assistant District Attorney Barbara Paul said.
“We’ve been trying to educate judges for years that these crimes are severe. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting there,” Paul, who is pushing for at least a two-year sentence for each offender, said.
Regardless of the punishment, many resume the activity upon leaving prison. Rashawn M. Coleman, 31, of North Philly, was one of the men from that bust. In ’01, the North Philly resident pled guilty to animal cruelty and was sentenced to five years of probation.
“There are a few individuals that once they get out of jail, they have their come-to-Jesus moment,” Wilson said. “Unfortunately more often than not, they go back into it.”
There is still more work to be done to eliminate the business, but press like “Philly Undercover” and 2008’s “Animal Cops” on Animal Planet, in which Smith also appeared, adds to public awareness, Smith said.
“We receive tons of calls after every time we do a big bust,” he said. “… Shows like this definitely help what we’re doing.”
Ten offenders have pled guilty to participation in a Grays Ferry dogfight.
On the radar of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for a few months, a Grays Ferry’s dog battleground was disassembled Sunday night.