NEW YORK — A woman was arrested on charges of animal cruelty after officials found all the signs that her pit bulls had been used for dog fighting, according to prosecutors in Queens, New York. Huddled in cages inside a garage in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, the four dogs had torn ears, bruises, broken teeth, puncture wounds and cuts.
But it wasn’t just the battered dogs that detectives said confirmed their suspicions. Investigators also found a stockpile of training equipment, such as a bloodied “break stick,” a tool commonly used to separate a dog’s clenched jaws, as well as a device known as a slat mill, a dog-powered treadmill often used to make fighting animals firm and fleet.
The discovery opened a window into the world of how dogs are trained to fight, in particular the murky business of building and selling slat mills and similar devices, which are essentially conveyor belts set on wheels that dogs can run on endlessly. They sell briskly on Facebook and eBay, typically marketed as a great way for a dog to blow off steam.
Yet animal cruelty experts and the police say that these machines are the dog fighting world’s open secret and are found and used as evidence in most dog fighting stings nationwide.
Some pet owners, manufacturers and veterinarians say that the devices can be a healthy way to strengthen dogs and that they can help produce prize dogs for the somewhat obscure world of canine strength competitions. The machines can be used by any dog, their defenders say, but the avalanche of online instructional videos show overwhelmingly that it is pit bulls — the chief breed used in dog fighting — doing the running.
With brand names like Dogtrotter USA and the Game Changer, the largely homemade machines look something like miniaturized treadmills, but are typically not motorized. Dogs are tethered to an overhead bar and move the belt by running on it. Neither of the companies that make the Dogtrotter or the Game Changer responded to requests for comment. Dogtrotter devices have been recovered in several police operations, according to news reports.
At the offices of the Humane Society of the United States in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Chris Schindler, the director for animal cruelty and fighting prevention, keeps as a teaching tool a slat mill recovered during a sting operation. Owning a running machine or making one hardly means that a person is involved in dog fighting — people living in apartments or with limited mobility might find them a practical way to exercise energetic dogs.
Dr. Richard Goldstein, the chief medical officer of the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan, said the center used motorized treadmills to rehabilitate patients, adding that the machines must be monitored at all times by trained workers. Nonmotorized treadmills can be a cheaper and safer alternative for pet owners, he said, adding that sled dogs, for example, are often trained on treadmills before races so they can run indoors.
“We understand that there is obviously abuse of the techniques to train dogs to strengthen their endurance,” Goldstein said, “but it is a legitimate tool for training dogs.”
Slat mills are a preferred piece of equipment for dog fighters, said a man who trained and fought pit bulls across the United States for more than 20 years, before quitting in 2010 and becoming an informant for animal rights groups and law enforcement.
“You can be very discreet with your illegal activity. You can portray it as saying that it’s just exercise equipment,” said the man, who declined to be named because he is an informant. “The reality is, it’s all illegal and it is made to make these dogs fighting machines.”
Experts say there is a strong correlation between fighting and the running tracks commonly sold on the web. “A lot of things can be inhumane in the wrong hands,” Schindler said.
Dog fighting is illegal nationwide, and in 20 states, including New York, possession of slat mills is, too, if there is proof of intent to use them for dog fighting purposes.
“You’re not talking just about the mill itself, you’re talking about the totality of the evidence seized, that show this person is involved in dog fighting, which is inherently cruel,” Schindler said.
Brian Miller, who breeds Olde English Bulldogges, a slim and powerful bulldog variant, in Holton, Kansas, just north of Topeka, runs his dogs on mills that he makes himself and that he markets as Revolution Carpet Mills. Miller’s dogs enter weight-pull competitions, legal Iron Man-style bouts in which dogs haul weights a short distance on their own volition. Running on a carpet mill offers a type of resistance training, he said, and helps his pulling dogs, with names like Static and Smash, build their muscles.
When people call to order mills, however, he has learned to listen for certain buzzwords and unusual questions to try to keep them from falling into the wrong hands. They may mention “a keep,” or ask how long a dog can run until exhaustion.
“I end the conversation abruptly,” Miller said. “It is for my own mental and emotional well-being.”
The woman who has been charged with animal cruelty by Queens prosecutors, Cherise Mickens, 27, had rented a garage in which her dogs were found starving, stacked in metal crates, alongside a slat mill. She faces up to four years in prison if convicted. A lawyer for Mickens did not respond to a request for comment.
Advocacy groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals condemned the discovery and stressed that laws around the running machines should be strengthened.
The whole slat mill industry is problematic, the dog fighting informant said.
Manufacturers “can’t differentiate between if I’m a dog fighter or not,” he said. “They should be banned in every state and every country.”