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September 9, 2009

Dealing Dogs a Winning Hand

"Casino Royale: Playing for Change" raised much needed funds to launch End Dogfighting in L.A.

The Humane Society of the United States

It was all in for the animals—and for underserved youths—when supporters of The HSUS gathered in the Hollywood Hills on Saturday, May 9 for "Casino Royale: Playing for Change."

An evening of casino games and a celebrity poker tournament, it marked the kick off of a campaign to bring The HSUS's "End Dogfighting" program to Los Angeles, where the blood sport has reached epidemic proportion.

From the Ground Up

"End Dogfighting" is a unique grassroots program that strives to stop dogfighting before it starts—by teaching "at risk" youths to regard their pit bulls as friends—not fighters. Among those who embraced this animal-human bond was celebrity poker tournament player and actor Michael Vartan, whose role on the hit series "Alias" won him international acclaim.

"I have a passion for animals," said Vartan, who said his Labrador "Millie" serves dual roles as his best friend and his therapist. "Dogfighting is an obnoxious and heinous activity. There is no place in this day and age for this kind of cruelty."

Vartan's poker competitors included actress Shannon Elizabeth, who starred in the iconic "American Pie" movies, and host of the "World Poker Tour," actor Vince Van Patten.   
 
"I'm so glad that so many have embraced this cause—to stop dogfighting across the country and worldwide," said Van Patten, the tournament's first place winner.

Other celebrities who turned out for the event, hosted by the Hollywood office of The HSUS, included Corey Feldman, Tricia Helfer, Jorja Fox, Matt Grant, Charlotte Ross, Hal Sparks, Loretta Swit and Alicia Witt

Bloodsport in the Spotlight

Dogfighting—a gruesome activity in which pit bulls are forced to fight to the death, or until they are too injured to continue—received massive media attention in 2007 when Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was convicted of felony animal cruelty.

Vick backed a lucrative operation in which dogs were routinely and inhumanely executed if they performed poorly.  Although the brutal sport is illegal in all 50 states, The HSUS estimates that as many as 40,000 people in the U.S. are professional dogfighters, with as many as 100,000 involved in informal streetfighting.
 
Jeff Jenkins, leader of the "End Dogfighting" Pit Bull Training Team, which recruits youths with pit bulls and diverts them from dogfighting, told guests that this program has been implemented successfully in some of Chicago's roughest neighborhoods.
 
"It's a human rights issue as much as an animal issue," said Jenkins. "The kids in these neighborhoods have been underserved for generations. We address the problem from both ends of the leash, and this gives us the opportunity to engage these young men so they can rise above their circumstances."

Widespread Support

James Costa, Vice Chair of The HSUS National Council, chaired and hosted the evening. "When I visited Los Angeles animal shelters, they were overflowing with abandoned and injured pit bulls, with little chance of adoption," said Costa.

"I knew immediately that I had to embrace this cause."

Mike Markarian, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The HSUS, said that arrests of dogfighters have increased significantly since The HSUS offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to their prosecution.

"One of the worst abuses is the staging of animal fights," said Markarian. "We show kids there's a better way to bond with their pit bulls."

To learn more about this program click here.

To see photos of the event click here.

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