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Target spectators to curb animal fighting in Minnesota

It has been a year since the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal broke, and the public has demonstrated both its disdain for animal fighters and its support for strong, anti-animal-fighting laws. But are legislators listening?

A bill in the Minnesota Legislature, S.F. 3360, would increase penalties for being a spectator at a dogfight or cockfight. It was approved in both the House of Representatives and the Senate and is now in a conference committee, where some members think the provision raising the penalties to a gross misdemeanor from a simple misdemeanor should be stripped.

That would be a mistake, and here’s why.

First, spectators are equally culpable in animal-fighting rings. They provide the gambling money and support that sustain these bloody operations. Without spectators, animal fighters would go out of business.

Second, states that allow spectators to get off lightly create an escape route for the actual animal fighters. It is often difficult for law-enforcement officials who bust an animal fighting event to prove who actually owns the animals. Knowing this, dogfighters and cockfighters nabbed in a bust will claim that they are just spectators in order to slide by with lesser penalties — and a license to continue their abuse against animals.

Forty roosters, just two men charged
A good case in point is the bust of a large cockfighting event in St. Paul earlier this year. The April 19 bust, in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood, turned up nearly 40 roosters and close to 50 participants. Of the 50 or so people involved, only two men wound up with felony animal-fighting charges. If the remaining people had been arrested, they would have been handed measly misdemeanor spectator charges — even though, with 40 birds on hand, it seems dubious that only two men owned the birds.

S.F. 3360 would also make possession of weapons used in animal fights — like the razor-sharp knives strapped to fighting roosters’ legs to enhance the bloodshed — a felony offense. This would help law-enforcement officers take out animal fighters before animals actually have to lose their lives in the fighting pit.

Aside from being good for animals, a strong animal-fighting law benefits the community as a whole. As a general rule, animal fighters don’t limit their violence and disregard for the law to just the animal arena. More often than not, law-enforcement officers find narcotics, illegal firearms and even child-welfare problems when they bust animal-fighting operations.

So what is the problem at the Minnesota Capitol? Key Senate conferees contend that this is a non-issue, and further, that a “new” gross misdemeanor will add costs.

Neighbors seek accountability
The neighborhoods most affected by such activity beg to differ. “I would like to see much greater accountability for any participation in cockfighting or dogfighting — not only for the primary participants, but also the spectators who create the demand,” says Dayton’s Bluff resident Jennifer Marcus Newton. “Ignoring animal abuse doesn’t just cost the animals; it costs us our humanity.”

In some cities, police seeking to make a narcotics bust are now targeting animal fighters, knowing that where one exists, the other is likely present. In nearby Illinois, a three-year study by the Chicago Police Department found that of those arrested for animal crimes — including dogfighting — 70 percent had previous arrests for other felonies, 65 percent had past arrests for violent crimes, and 70 percent had been arrested for narcotics crimes.

In 2008, at least eight states so far have passed legislation strengthening their animal-fighting laws. All 50 states have declared dogfighting a felony; 37 have made cockfighting a felony; and 22 have laws making it a felony to be a spectator at a dogfight. The proposals contained in S.F. 3360 to raise animal-fighting penalties are modest ones for which there should be little debate. The Legislature should pass them swiftly into law.

Jill Fritz is the Minnesota/Wisconsin state director of the Humane Society of the United States.


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