Today – National Dogfighting Awareness Day – we should remember that dogfighting still represents the most brutal and loathsome betrayal of animals. The criminal activity exploits dogs’ natural desire to please humans and exposes them to intense torture, suffering, and often painful death. Even though dogfighting is illegal in every state, it persists because some people shamefully see profit in that pain. We estimate that dogfighters number in the tens of thousands, and the full tragic impact of that betrayal and abuse can last for years.
I spent years overseeing and deploying with our ASPCA Anti-Cruelty teams, but am still shocked and repulsed at stories of animals conditioned with drugs to enhance their muscle mass and encourage aggressiveness, then viciously attacked, beaten, electrocuted, and drowned. Many of these animals succumb to their injuries, and dogs who lose fights or refuse to fight are often discarded or killed.
Public misconceptions sadly play a part in the continuation of dogfighting. If you think dogfights are rare and distant events attended only by hardened criminals, or that dogfighting largely ended the day Michael Vick was arrested in 2007, you’re wrong. In the past nine years, the ASPCA has assisted more than 220 dogfighting cases in 23 states – from Alabama farms to New York City basements – impacting nearly 5,500 canine victims. We’ve also found dogfighters to be lawyers, teachers, high school football coaches, nurses, veterinary technicians and judges spanning all racial and socioeconomic lines. There is no “typical” dogfighter; the only qualities they share are greed and callousness.
In 2013, the ASPCA assisted federal law enforcement agencies in one of the largest dogfighting cases in U.S. history, spanning four states and resulting in 10 arrests. Due in large part to existing forfeiture laws, some of the 367 dogs rescued spent more than a year in temporary shelters until the criminal case was adjudicated. The ASPCA spent more than $3 million to care for the dogs, at an average cost of $39 per dog, per day.
This case and others like it make clear that dogfighting interventions do not end with the rescue of the dogs. Instead, in many instances, that’s where some of the most difficult and expensive work begins.
The ramifications of that cost can be enormous. Caring for seized animals for months or years following a dogfighting raid can drain the limited financial resources of animal protection agencies. It can be so prohibitively expensive that most agencies cannot afford to assist prosecutors and law enforcement, which may deter them from initiating new animal fighting investigations.
For the animals, extended time in even the most ideal of emergency shelters can also lead to severe physical and behavioral deterioration due to chronic stress.
Fighting Tragic Delays with the HEART Act
The ASPCA created National Dog Fighting Awareness Day to increase awareness of the prevalence and cruelty of dogfighting, but a bill recently introduced in Congress can effectively address the specific cost-of-care challenge.
Sponsored by Reps. Judy Chu (D-CA) and John Katko (R-NY), and Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Susan Collins (R-ME), the Help Extract Animals from Red Tape (HEART) Act would specifically accelerate the disposition process for animals seized in federal animal fighting cases and require animal owners to reimburse the government for the costs of caring for the animals. It’s the most direct way to ensure dogfighting victims not only find their way to safety, but also find their ways home.
Laws cannot stop dogfighting or help dogfighting victims on their own. They need people standing up and speaking out on this issue, whether they personally know animals in danger or not. Only that combination of legislative, law enforcement, and public action can put us on a path to eradicating this vile activity once and – indeed – for all.