When Victorian woman Casey Kemp returned home one morning in March she quickly realised her dog, Choppy, was nowhere to be found.
“He has never got out before, our backyard has really high fences,” she told Yahoo News Australia.
She immediately had a “gut feeling” something had happened to her beloved American Staffordshire Terrier.
She put notes in about 300 of her neighbours’ letterboxes in the suburb of Rockbank, west of Melbourne, asking them to keep an eye out for Choppy.
The dog is registered and microchipped, but four-and-a-half months after he went missing, Ms Kemp’s efforts to search the neighbourhood streets as well as local pounds and lost dog homes have proved fruitless.
She now fears the worst.
American Staffordshire Terriers are one of the most common breeds used by dog-fighting rings and she worries something sinister might be behind the disappearance of Choppy.
She has dedicated herself to making it harder for dogs to fall into the wrong hands and is warning people not to sell their dogs on online platforms like Gumtree for free because she believed free-to-home advertisements are a common place for low-end dog-fighting rings to find easy prey.
“The number-one hotspot for dog fighters to pick up their animals is free to good home advertisements,” she said.
“Whether they’re using them for fighting or bait dogs.”
At least anecdotally, it does appear to happen.
A Facebook post in July last year went viral after a rottweiler/staffy mix was offered up for free on Facebook only to turn up two weeks later at a Queensland animal rescue shelter with horrific facial injuries.
“This is why you never give you dog away ‘free to a good home,’” the centre wrote.
After a Queensland man was convicted of dog fighting last month, Ms Kemp started a petition calling for people not to sell their dogs online for free, which has gained more than 72,000 signatures in three weeks.
Australian dog fighting thought to be on the rise
Advocacy group Humane Society International (HSI) says Australia has a hidden dog-fighting problem, but given the nature of these underground groups, data is impossible to come by.
“Our suspicions are that it’s more prevalent than people have realised and our concern is that it is growing,” Nicole Beynon, Head of Australia Campaigns at HSI, says.
“We know that because of the chatter that we see on the (American-based) dog-fighting networks and there are Australians involved in that.”
In the US, dog-fighting rings can be big business, attracting large underground gambling money.
At least anecdotally, she says there is merit to the concern that dogs can be targeted for theft to be used by, or sold to, dog-fighting rings.
“We hear a lot of anecdotal stories of dogs being stolen and the concern is that this is what they’re going towards,” Ms Beynon told Yahoo News.
“We think it’s an issue that needs a lot more attention in Australia.”
Animal fighting investigator from HSI in America, Janette Reever, was recently in Australia and spoke with police in Queensland and NSW, as well as the RSPCA, detailing her experience tackling underground dog fighting rings in the US.
Dog fighting can be big business, with high-priced semen shipped from overseas, as animal welfare groups fear the practice is being increasingly introduced into Australia.
“There’s probably different levels to dog fighting, including the more professional rings with big money behind them,” Ms Beynon said.
“And there might be more informal dog fighting... that’s how it seems to work in the United States.”
The Australian branch of HSI has recently written to each state and territory with suggestions for legislative changes to better prevent animal cruelty.
However the response “has been mixed from different jurisdictions”, Ms Beynon said.
Facebook moves to ban all animal sales by users
Of course putting a token price on the sale of animals is no panacea for the problem of animal mistreatment, but Ms Kemp thinks it will help make a small difference.
“It won’t stamp it out completely but will ward off a percentage of people, who are trying to get these animals for free,” she said.
At the end of the day, “dog fighters are trying to make money out of these animals”.
Facebook recently moved to ban all animal sales “after collaboration and insights from safety partners around the world”.
“We now prohibit any attempts to sell all animals, with exceptions being offered to brick-and-mortar entities, animal re-homing and adoption agencies, and animal shelters,” a Facebook spokesperson told Yahoo News.
While Ms Kemp continues to look for Choppy, she has been lobbying Gumtree to follow Facebook’s lead and crackdown on free dog sales on its site.
In an email responding to her concerns, a Gumtree spokesperson said: “Our pets category is very important to us and we want it to be as safe as possible, which is why we work with organisations like the RSPCA often.
“We also encourage our users to report any ads that do not comply with our policies.”
A Gumtree spokesperson said animal welfare was a “huge priority” for the company.
“That is why we work in collaboration with the government, law enforcements and animal welfare organisations on the issue,” the spokesperson told Yahoo News.
“We strongly encourage our community to use the ‘Report Ad’ function to flag any concerning ads or any they believe do not adhere to the law or our pets policy.”
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