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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Time to Knock Out Animal Fighting

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has pleaded guilty to federal dogfighting charges, and will receive the terms of his sentence next Monday.  But one verdict was already in: America has no tolerance for the cruel and degrading spectacle of dogfighting.

We must wonder, then, why 39 federal lawmakers recently sided with dogfighting interests.  Two Democrats and 37 Republicans—including several who were criticized for their votes by the news media and constituents in their districts, such as U.S. Reps. David Davis of Tennessee, Sam Graves of Missouri, Scott Garrett of New Jersey, and Robin Hayes of North Carolina—voted in March against legislation to upgrade penalties for illegal transportation of fighting dogs—the very crime Vick was charged with. 

Pitbullstill The vast majority of members of Congress supported the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act to put a stop to precisely the type of behavior that Vick admitted to—participation in a multi-state dogfighting network.  This anti-crime legislation was backed by animal welfare groups, the poultry industry, more than 400 law enforcement agencies, and President George W. Bush.  It was approved by 368 members of the House—215 Democrats and 153 Republicans—before passing the Senate unanimously and being signed into law by the president in May. 

A handful of lawmakers, however, apparently preferred to give dogfighters and cockfighters a free pass, rather than strengthen the federal government’s enforcement of laws to combat animal fighting.  Never mind that dogfighting is a felony in 48 states and cockfighting a felony offense in 35.  Never mind that the illegal transport of birds for cockfighting has been linked to deadly diseases such as bird flu and exotic Newcastle, threatening public health and the poultry industry. These lawmakers took a stance at odds with law enforcement, public health and animal health, and America’s mainstream values.

Animal fighting not only fosters unspeakable cruelty to animals, but also spawns other criminal activity, such as narcotics traffic, illegal gambling, public corruption, and violence toward people.  The new law brings us one big step closer to eradicating the dogfighting and cockfighting industries, and that goal cannot be achieved too soon.

Ironically, the new federal law against animal fighting was enacted just after the crimes had been committed by Vick and his co-defendants, and they narrowly escaped the imposition of even more onerous penalties.  Federal prosecutors have delivered some felony charges against Vick by invoking the federal Travel Act and conspiracy in their first charge.  But the second and third charges in the indictment are misdemeanor charges relating to the federal animal fighting law—penalties that 39 representatives sought to keep weak.

Dogfighting_fence_2 With dogfighting making national headlines, new legislation has been introduced in Congress to crack down on this underground criminal network even further.  In some states, even though dogfighting is a crime, it is still legal to possess dogs for the purpose of fighting and legal to be a spectator at a dogfight.  The new legislation in Congress would make these activities illegal nationwide.  States like Georgia, Idaho, New Jersey, and Wyoming are also considering legislation to strengthen their anti-dogfighting laws. 

Some defenders of animal fighting might argue that the activity is already illegal and no further laws are needed.  But there are 40,000 active dogfighters in the United States, and existing penalties have not been enough to deter them from engaging in this lucrative, underground activity. When animal fighters can earn tens of thousands of dollars wagering on a single fight, our laws have to be up to the task.

They might also argue states’ rights—that animal welfare issues should be the domain of the state government, and that Congress has no business interfering in these matters. But as the Michael Vick case has illustrated, dogfights attract participants from all over the country, and the crime is not confined to any single state or local jurisdiction. A local sheriff or prosecutor often does not have the reach or the resources to crack a multi-state dogfighting ring—or may choose not to act for public corruption reasons or just a simple lack of resolve.  The federal government needs to assist local and state agencies in cracking down on this organized crime.

Michael Vick will serve his time in prison—he may even redeem himself by showing young people that you must take responsibility for your actions and that dogfighting is not a benign hobby, but a sickening, barbaric and criminal action. We are a nation that believes in redemption, and it’s not too late for lawmakers who voted against tougher animal fighting laws, like Vick, to turn around their records, and take a stand to help protect animals from needless cruelty.  I’m encouraged that Rep. Robin Hayes, in fact, has signed on as a co-sponsor of the new dogfighting legislation, and I hope that others will find their way to the right side of this issue.

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