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2012-12-20

HR 2492 closes loopholes in animal fight law

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Earlier this month, the United States Senate took a giant step toward strengthening federal laws against animal fighting by unanimously passing the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act.
This legislation makes it punishable by fines and up to a year in prison for knowingly attending an animal fight. The legislation also recognizes that exposure to animal cruelty - especially the brutality of animal fighting - can desensitize children to violence at an early age. For that reason, the bill makes it a separate offense, punishable by up to three years in prison, to bring a minor to an animal fight.
As a spokesman for Last Chance for Animals explained, "Currently dog fighting is a federal offense - US Code: Title 7,2156 - but organizers are hard to catch because when police arrive they act as spectators, which under the current law is not an offense."
In the House of Representatives, Republican Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania and Rep. Betty Sutton, a Democrat from Ohio, have introduced HR 2492, the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act, to close this loophole. Texas District 21 Rep. Lamar Smith serves as one of the 228 co-sponsors.
For it to be enacted into law, the bill must also pass in the House. Currently, however, it has been referred to the Agriculture Committee, where it appears to be stalled. Marino has attempted to impress GOP leadership with the importance of voting on the bill before this Congress ends. However, as everyone is aware the "fiscal cliff" looms. In fact, the website www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr2492 gives the bill only a 53 percent chance of getting past committee and 22 percent chance of being enacted.
A sluggish House fails to negate the importance of the legislation. According to a press release from the ASPCA, the need for the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act is clear: "Spectators at animal fights are not there accidentally; they intentionally seek out the criminal activity. And, (as in the case of then NFL Atlanta Falcons starting quarterback Michael Vick), they often travel across state lines for the entertainment of watching two animals fight to the death and the opportunity to gamble on the outcome."
When law enforcement officers raid animal fights, the fight organizers, promoters, trainers, owners and other active participants commonly blend into the crowd of spectators to escape arrest. HR 2492 will enable law enforcement to pursue and punish the spectators who, not coincidentally, drive the market for animal fighting.
Additionally, the bill will also protect children from the dangerous and illegal activities routinely associated with animal fighting, such as drugs, weapons and gambling.
In the wake of the Vick scandal, Congress passed a new law - the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act - which was enacted in May 2007. This made dogfighting a federal crime illegal in all 50 states and punishable by up to three years in prison. In 2008, another new federal law increased the maximum sentence for animal fighting to five years. Although federal guidelines still specify that only minimum sentences be imposed for typical convictions, an exception can be made for "acts of extraordinary cruelty."
However, the laws against spectators still vary from state to state. The passage of Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act will bring uniformity to charges and penalties.
Supporters of HR 2429 include the Humane Society of the United States, as well as other animal advocacy and protection organizations.
As a HSUS spokesman noted, "HR 2492 closes a gap in existing animal fighting regulations. Spectators are crucial to animal fighting and generate the bulk of revenue for this illegal enterprise. By discouraging spectators, this illegal activity will be less profitable and it will be easier for law enforcement to identify participants in animal fights."
According to the Animal Welfare Institute, while the federal government has increased penalties for animal fighting activities under the Animal Welfare Act, it is still lacking in one area - the spectator. "Spectators are not innocent bystanders; they are active participants in and enablers of these cruel criminal enterprises and should be treated accordingly," an AWI spokesman said.