Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Dogfighting In Florida

Earlier this year, I was in a dog training class with Ella and had the privilege of watching another dog conquer his fears. Harry looked like a miniature black and white sheepdog with soft black eyes that peered out at the world with uncertainty. He was under the care of the Big Hearts rescue group. Harry had been found dumped by the side of the road with multiple injuries. He had been used as bait in a dogfighting operation and was barely alive. Harry survived and is slowly being rehabilitated by the dedicated folks at Big Hearts. Unfortunately his history is being repeated throughout the country. People associated with dogfighting operations have been known to steal dogs from yards to use as bait for their fighting dogs. The stolen dogs have their mouths tied shut and are thrown in with the trained dogs, to be torn apart. Some of the equipment routinely found at dogfighting operations includes bolt cutters, used to cut chains or fences of dogs to be stolen, and multiple collars of all sizes with the tags ripped off. Those are what's left of the stolen dogs.

Harry is only one type of victim of this horrendous "sport." The fighting dog is the other. Pit bulls are the predominant breed used. They're raised and conditioned to be fighting machines. They're kept tied up and isolated, lean and agitated. Devices are used to strengthen their bites, they wear weighted collars and vests and are fed enhancement drugs. According to PETA, there are at least 40,000 dogfighting operations in the U.S., plus many more "hobbyists" who organize impromptu events. Last year in Florida I counted 23 alleged cases that involved fighting dogs on the Pet site, where they track animal abuse cases by region.

Long before football player Michael Vicks was arrested for his involvement in dogfighting, animal rights activists had been leading a campaign seeking tougher laws against animal fighting. In 2007 Congress passed the Animal Prohibition and Enforcement Act. It makes organizing dogfights and participating in interstate trade related to dogfighting a felony, with a maximum $250,000 fine per dog and up to three years in jail. Dogfighting is against the law in all states, but punishment is unequal. Florida's laws rank twelfth toughest on the Humane Society's list of statewide penalties. It is a third degree felony in the state to organize a dogfight, own a fighting dog or attend a fight with a $5000 fine per dog and maximum five year jail sentence.

Even though strides have been made to strengthen laws, arresting and prosecuting is difficult because dogfights are often mixed in with drug and gang activity. Law enforcement officials conducting raids aren't trained to handle animal violations. and animal service officers aren't equipped to handle other criminal activities. Many states don't distinguish whether dogfights fall under the jurisdiction of animal control or law enforcement. In 2004 South Carolina created a task force to deal with this issue. Their goal is to facilitate communication across departments and allow cross training between animal control and law enforcement officers. Due to this task force, a marked upswing of dogs in fighting rings were found. Baltimore Police and Harris County, Texas have followed South Carolina's example and created their own task forces to address this problem.

Does Florida have such a task force or the cooperation needed between agencies? Last week a Tampa man and his girlfriend were arrested for having fighting dogs and equipment. Drugs were also found. You can read more about this story in the St.Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune. It required a court order to search Maurice Bayless' property. Animal Services and police had received numerous complaints about this man and his property. The seized dogs include puppies, who will hopefully be adopted into loving homes. But, the remaining adult dogs are aggressive and non social and often times, dogs like these are euthanized. The judge in the Michael Vicks' case set a precedent by fining Vicks $1,ooo,ooo and 23 months in prison. The money was to be used to rehabilitate and care for the 47 surviving pitbulls in his operation. What will happen to Maurice Bayless' dogs and what sort of punishment will he receive? I will try to follow this case and report on this blog about my findings. Progress has been made in fighting this abuse, but we are a long way from winning the cause. From my research, animal abuse officials say the amount of cases prosecuted is insignificant compared to the number of people they believe are involved in dogfighting. In South Florida last year, shelters were receiving as many as 80 calls a month complaining about dogs used for fighting. They routinely find dogs killed in fights that have been dumped in rural areas. Floridians, how can we do better?

* Some information for this article was gleaned from and the U.S Humane Society websites.