Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), was particularly repulsed by the brutality of the dog fighting he saw in 19th century New York and elsewhere. He would often personally lead raids of animal fighting pits.
Thanks to Henry Bergh, New York State's animal cruelty law in 1867 made all forms of animal fighting illegal for the first time. But his work is far from done.
Although animal fighting is now illegal in all 50 states, a loophole in federal law protects those who attend organized animal fights.
This oversight is troubling because it is the spectators who drive the market for these events through illegal wagering and admission fees. At a recent dog fight raided by the FBI, the suspects arrested were observed discussing betting $20,000 to $30,000 on a single dog.
In modern day fights, animals are heavily conditioned for aggression and physical strength. They are given stimulants and bloodclotting drugs to increase the fierceness of the fight and to extend its length.
It almost always ends with one dead and the other seriously injured. Even today, animals are forced to fight to the death for entertainment and the profit.
Congress is currently weighing new legislation to close this loophole.
Under the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act (H.R. 366 / S. 666), federal penalties would be imposed on anyone knowingly attending an organized animal fight, ranging from a fine to imprisonment for up to a year for each violation, or for bringing children to animal fights. That offense would be punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment for up to three years for each violation.
Animal fighting received new public attention when football star Michael Vick was convicted in federal court in 2007 on a conspiracy count alleging he and several associates bought and sponsored dogs in animal fighting. Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison, thanks in part to the ASPCA's assistance in the recovery and analysis of forensic evidence from Vick's property.
Since then, Congress and many states passed additional legislation to crack down on the cruel and abusive spectacle of animal fighting. In 2008, Congress passed a law that strengthened penalties against dog fighting and made it illegal to use the U.S. Postal Service to promote animal fighting.
But by leaving spectators out of the equation, federal law fails to address the dynamic that keeps such cruel spectacles profitable for their organizers.
Spectators at animal fights are not there by accident. They often travel long distances across state lines to watch animals fight to the death in secret locations and to gamble on the outcome.
Spectators, and the wagers they place, continue to fuel the illicit market for these cruel events with little fear of prosecution.
When animal fighting operations are raided, the organizers, promoters and animal owners commonly blend into the crowd of spectators in order to escape law enforcement. By making it a federal crime to attend these heinous events, the legislation under consideration would not only discourage individuals from attending animal fights; it would prevent organizers from avoiding arrest by claiming to be “merely” a spectator when law enforcement arrives.
The section related to bringing minors to these spectacles underlines the importance of protecting children from the dangerous and illegal activities associated with animal fighting, such as drugs, weapons and gambling.
Earlier this year, the ASPCA Field Investigations and Response team assisted the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office, along with state and local law enforcement, in a multi-state animal fighting investigation in Kansas, Missouri, and Texas that resulted in the ASPCA removing and caring for nearly 100 dogs. Last month, the ASPCA assisted with the forensic evidence collection and care of more than 60 fighting roosters at a cockfighting raid in Indiana.
Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents.
In addition to the legislation mentioned above, Congress can close the federal loophole on animal fighting spectators by passage of the Farm Bill.
Through the leadership of Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), and David Vitter (R-La.), the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act was added to the Senate-passed version of the Farm Bill. Similar language was included in the House-passed Farm Bill through the leadership of Representatives Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Tom Marino (R-Pa.).
The House and Senate have a long way to go to reconcile the differences between the Farm Bills passed by each chamber. Right now, final passage seems stuck in the all too familiar Washington gridlock.
Americans should not let Washington gridlock prevent federal law enforcement from getting the tools it needs to end this scourge once and for all.
Nancy Perry is senior vice president of ASPCA Government Relations. She welcomes comments from readers.