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Veterinary Forum April 2008 (Vol 25, No 4)

Editor's Note: Last states add bite against dogfights

by Marie Rosenthal

    Wyoming and Idaho recently became the final states to make dogfighting a felony in the United States. I hope this gives enough legal bite to end this horrendous abuse.

    It won't be easy, though. In 48 states, dogfighting has been a felony, and yet it remains a highly organized — and profitable —- criminal business, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), with more than 250,000 dogs pitted against each other each year.

    John Goodwin, manager of animal fighting issues at HSUS, is optimistic. He said the federal laws enabling prosecution of these criminals are inflicting pain on the dogfighting industry.

    Before Michael Vick's conviction for dogfighting last year, an estimated 40,000 people were involved in organized dogfights and another 100,000 were involved in amateur street fights. Goodwin thinks that number is lower, but he did not have new figures when we spoke.

    "Dogfighting is more pervasive than most people realize, but I think the events of last summer put a spotlight on it and woke up a lot of people," he said.

    Dogfighting purses can go for $100,000, but most are much smaller. In addition, champion dogs command high stud fees. "People will pay $1,000 to breed a winning dog if they believe they can capitalize on getting the genetics into their breeding program," he told me.

    Before making it a felony in every state, dogfighters would set up a fighting pit in a misdemeanor state, and people would cross the state line to attend the fights. "It is a lucrative gambling crime, and misdemeanor penalties are ignored because it is considered the cost of doing business. If you can win $5,000, you are not going to be deterred by a $250 fine," he explained. "Making it a felony offsets the gain from breaking the law."

    In 48 states, spectators also can be prosecuted.

    A fast-growing dogfighting sector is among city gangs, he said, where it has become a preferred form of recreation. It is here he thinks the federal penalties will have some real teeth. "When law enforcement officials realize that where there are scarred pit bulls they are likely to find drugs, they will use the dogs as a red flag to investigate all sorts of illicit activities. That will send a message to gang members: If you keep on fighting these dogs, it will put your entire criminal enterprise in jeopardy."

    Veterinarians can play a real role, he said. "I think it is important for veterinarians to study this issue, and the sorts of injuries and scar patterns that result from dogfighting so they can be available as expert witnesses. Defense attorneys are always going to say that the injury was from a hunting accident or getting cut up on a fence post."

    Now that the criminal penalties are tougher throughout the United States, I hope it is the beginning of the end for dogfighting in this country.

    NEXT: FORUM Five (April 2008)
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