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Fighting the Bad Fights

© Ariana Huemer/HSUS

Since 1976, federal law has prohibited transporting animals for fighting purposes across state lines or national borders. But federal authorities have pursued no more than a handful of dogfighting and cockfighting cases, despite repeated violations of the law across the country, frequent tips from informants, and requests to assist with state and local prosecutions.

That’s largely because the crime of animal fighting carries only misdemeanor penalties under federal law. Prosecutors are reluctant to take such cases, and even when they do, the small fines and risk of minimal jail time do not serve as meaningful deterrents for those engaged in high-stakes animal fighting enterprises—they’re considered merely a “cost of doing business.”

For a number of years, Congress has tried to raise the bar. In 2001, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate each passed provisions—as part of their farm bills—to upgrade the penalties for federal animal fighting violations to felony-level. Although the House and Senate provisions were identical and should not have been subject to further discussion, they were stripped out when a key House-Senate conference committee met to reconcile differences in their respective farm bills.

Legislation to establish felony penalties has been reintroduced several times and garnered broad bipartisan support—passing the Senate as an amendment to another bill in 2003 and winning approval in a key House committee in 2004—but has not yet made it over the finish line.

Now the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act is poised for final action. The Senate version, S. 382, introduced by Sen. John Ensign (R-NV)—one of two veterinarians in Congress—was approved unanimously in April 2005 and has 50 cosponsors. An identical House bill, H.R. 817, introduced by Rep. Mark Green (R-WI), has 232 cosponsors (more than half the House) and had a strong hearing in the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security on May 18.

In his testimony at the hearing, HSUS president and CEO Wayne Pacelle emphasized discrepancies among existing laws. Though animal fighting was a felony in only one state when Congress first enacted its misdemeanor law in 1976, the picture is quite different today: dogfighting is a felony in 48 states, and cockfighting is a felony in 32.

“State laws commonly authorize jail time of three to five years or more for animal fighting,” said Pacelle. “The Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act brings federal law in line with state laws and other federal laws related to animal cruelty.”

This legislation has been endorsed by the National Sheriffs’ Association and 390 state and local sheriff and police departments covering all 50 states. Law enforcement professionals know that animal fighting often involves movement of animals across interstate and international borders, so they can’t do the job on their own. They need the federal government to do its part to curb this illegal activity.

The Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act also has the support of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Chicken Council. In addition to humane concerns, these and other agencies are worried about the potential for cockfighting to spread virulent diseases—an outbreak of a poultry disease spread by cockfighters in 2002 and 2003 cost taxpayers $200 million to contain, and at least eight people in Asia are believed to have died from bird flu due to cockfighting exposure in 2004.

It’s time for the House to act so the federal animal fighting felony bill can be signed into law soon. For more information, go to the HSUS End Cruelty and Fighting page.  

Mimi Brody is the Director of Federal Affairs for The Humane Society of the United States.


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