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Wednesday, April 2, 2014 - 9:49am

Animal Fight Gets New Teeth With Federal Farm Bill

Animal welfare advocates in Georgia are frustrated after new state laws against animal cruelty went nowhere during this year’s legislative session. One bill would have made it a crime in Georgia to torture an animal, even if the torture didn’t result in any injuries.
But there’s hope that a new federal law will help break up animal fighting rings, many of which bring in thousands of dollars in cash from spectators.

The Farm Bill, which President Obama signed into law in February, makes it a federal crime to attend an animal fight. The bill also imposes additional penalties for bringing a child to such events.

Andrew Binovi is the legislative director for American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He says animal fighting was already illegal at the federal level, but a loophole protected the spectators.

"These spectators are not there accidentally. They are intentionally seeking out criminal activity at secret locations,” said Binovi. “They’re travelling long distances across state lines to watch animals fight so going after them and making sure law enforcement has the proper tools to combat animal fighting is really important."

Georgia law enforcement and animal advocates say this new federal law could make a big difference where they work.

Mendy Harrison, a volunteer at a nonprofit shelter in Macon called All About Animals, says she's heard from several people that there are currently at least three major animal fighting rings in Macon.

She says the provision in the Farm Bill will send a renewed message to local law enforcement that the federal government is serious about stopping animal fighting.

“I think local governments are just as concerned about it too, but you need staff, law enforcement and training to handle these situations because it’s a dangerous situation when you are going into these places.”

Meriwether County Sheriff Chuck Smith knows about dealing with animal fighting spectators first hand.

Two weeks before President Obama signed the federal Farm Bill, Smith says he could shine a spotlight on dogfighting in his rural west Georgia county- literally.

He recalled a time when he and other law enforcement officials broke up a dogfighting ring near a private driveway in the woods.

“ Lucky for us we were able to put two helicopters up in the air and they were able to pinpoint the area where the fight was going on.”

Smith and his deputies arrested 34 people, mostly on gun and gambling charges.
They also seized more than $28,000 in cash.

If the new Farm Bill had been in effect at the time of the bust, everyone watching the dogfight could have faced federal felony charges.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund tracks the numbers of reported animal cruelty cases nationwide. The top cases, resulting in the greatest jail time for dogfighting, have all occurred over the last five years.

The Defense Fund believes that’s because laws, law enforcement and the courts are all taking animal fighting much more seriously than they have in the past.

In 2008, then Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue signed legislation making dogfighting a felony in the state. The law also makes attending a dogfighting event a misdemeanor.