Dogfighting bill passes, but other legislation doesn’t sit well with animal advocates

It was one big step forward and two steps back for the Michigan legislature the past two days, at least as far as animal advocates are concerned.

On Tuesday, the state House of Representatives passed a package of bills that would make Michigan the national leader when it comes to punishment for animal fighting. Senate Bills 356 and 358, which originated in the Senate, now to go Gov. Rick Snyder for his signature. A third bill aimed at cracking down on animal fighting with stricter penalties, HB 5789, which essentially is a version of an earlier senate bill regarding animal fighting, now goes to the Senate and is expected to pass.

I wrote about the background and details of the animal fighting bills back in February, when they were scheduled for a vote in the House. Essentially, the bills will make the punishment for animal (dog) fighting in Michigan the most severe in the country, since it would view animal fighting as organized crime.

The bills would allow for seizure of property and other assets purchased with profits from animal fighting, define property used to house animal fighting as a public nuisance and would include animal fighting in the state’s racketeering laws.

“We are one step closer to the enactment of additional legislation that will be critical in further curtailing the barbaric and heinous practice of animal fighting” Cal Morgan, president and CEO of the Michigan Humane Society, said in a news release. “Our cruelty investigators and local law enforcement are fighting this battle everyday on behalf of the animals and they need more tools to bring these offenders to justice.”

While the Humane Society of the United States and the Michigan Humane Society applauded Tuesday’s vote, legislation passed on Wednesday by the House Agriculture Committee regarding the Large Carnivore Act was disheartening.

One bill allows for more exemptions to the Large Carnivore Act, passed in 2000. The law states that people in Michigan cannot have large carnivores, such as bears or big cats, in their personal possession.

Exempt from the law are zoos accredited through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), USDA Class C licensed exhibitors and other entities such as an animal control shelter or a veterinarian with temporary custody of a large carnivore.

Now, however, a group of private exotic animal owners has gotten accreditation from the Zoological Association of America (ZAA) and is working state-by-state to get exemptions for ZAA accredited owners.

“The ZAA has much lower standards for accreditation (than the AZA),” said Jill Fritz, the Michigan state director of HSUS. “They are getting exemptions state by state, getting them to add exemptions for ZAA members to the Large Carnivore Act.”

Fritz offered testimony to the House Agricultural Committee opposing SB 210:

The ZAA supports the private ownership of exotic pets and the commercialization of wildlife, which is contrary to the purpose of the Large Carnivore Act. A number of ZAA-accredited facilities are nothing more than privately run menageries that breed and sell exotic animals, furthering the pet trade and contributing to the problem of unqualified individuals possessing dangerous wild animals. By contrast, in recognition of the negative conservation and welfare impacts of certain private uses of wildlife, the AZA recognizes that wild animals do not make good pets.

Despite the arguments of HSUS and Detroit Zoo, SB 210 passed through the senate on October 11 of last year. Just one week later, a Zanesville, Ohio exotic animal owner released his animals from the pens on his property before killing himself, resulting in most of the animals being killed by law enforcement for public safety. Although the memory of that carnage is still fresh even a year later, SB 210 was passed by the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday and now goes to a full vote before the House, where it is expected to pass.

Another bill easing restrictions on the Large Carnivore Act also made it through the House Agriculture committee on Wednesday and is on its way to the full House.

Senate Bill 1236 would allow the public handling of bear cubs up to approximately nine months of age. Michigan’s Large Carnivore Act currently prohibits direct public contact with big cats and bears in facilities approved to have them.

A HSUS report cites “disastrous outcomes” of human interaction with captive bears and also summarizes problems with Michigan facilities’ history of animal welfare and safety issues. SB 1236, the report says, “would permit these sub-standard facilities to endanger the public by allowing direct contact with bears up to about nine months of age.”

“More and more states are cracking down on private possession of dangerous wild animals, and Michigan should not take a step backwards just so someone can have a picture of himself with a bear cub,” Fritz said in a HSUS release. “Young bears have sharp teeth, powerful jaws, and non-retractable claws that can inflict serious injury. Lawmakers should be strengthening our laws that deal with public safety and the private ownership of dangerous exotic animals as pets, not punching holes in them.”

To read the HSUS alert and get more information regarding the treatment of bears in Michigan facilities, click here.


Animal Law Society symposium helps spread the word on abuse registry, fighting bills

Michigan is on the brink of becoming the nation’s leader when it comes to punishing animal abusers and animal fighters. Now, it’s up to the citizens to let senators, representatives and the governor know their constituents are behind a couple of bills that would do just that.

State Rep. Harvey Santana  (D-Detroit) and JP Goodwin of the Humane Society of the United States discussed the particulars of the bills Saturday at Cooley Law School’s Animal Law Society symposium in Grand Rapids.

Rep. Harvey Santana (D-Detroit) addresses the audience at Saturday’s Animal Law Society symposium.

Santana in February introduced House Bill 5403, which would create an animal abuser registry in Michigan.  Anyone convicted of animal abuse — killing, torturing, maiming, poisoning, disfiguring, bestiality, fighting, neglecting or abandoning — would be required to register and stay on the registry for five years after serving their sentence.

The Michigan State Police would be responsible for the registry, and it would be self-funded by a fee paid annually by the abuser for the five years they are registered. Fines and jail time also would be imposed for those who fail to register or update their information.

“Some of the arguments against the bill might be that there’s no manpower to maintain it,” Santana said. “But the state police would regulate it, and it pays for itself if you have each person paying $250 a year for five years.”

Animal shelters, humane societies and pet stores would be required to check the registry before releasing an animal to an individual, Santana said. The basic information on the registry would be available to the general public for viewing, while those in the business of facilitating the adoption or sale of animals, as well as law enforcement, would have more detail information available.

Santana said the bill, referred to the committee on judiciary, isn’t likely to get a serious look  until after the election and the start of the new term in January. Still, he’s encouraging animal advocates in Michigan to call their state representative, senator or Gov. Snyder in support of the bill. To find your state representative, click here. To find your state senator, click here.

“If the governor says it’s not on his agenda, kindly remind the governor that his agenda is the people’s agenda,” Santana said. “This is a winnable issue.”

Goodwin, the director of Animal Cruelty Policy for HSUS, spoke to the symposium about the history and details of animal fighting, including recognizing training facilities and underground networks, myths related to animal fighting and helping to put a stop to fighting animals.

In Michigan, it already is a felony to fight an animal, to attend a fight or to possess a dog for the purpose of fighting. Other measures to stop the crime include ordinances regarding tethering an animal (at the county level), a reward fund by established by the HSUS to encourage people to report animal fighting, community engagement programs wherein youth can learn responsible stewardship and engage in positive activities with their dogs such as agility or obedience, and raising public awareness.

Reports of animal fighting, Goodwin said, doubled in the year after the well-publicized case of NFL star Michael Vick and his Bad Newz Kennels in Virginia.  Vick, who was arrested in 2007 and spent 21 months in prison, now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles and voluntarily speaks on behalf of HSUS.

Goodwin addressed his organization’s involvement with Vick, which has been criticized in many circles.

“He speaks to schools about two times a month,” Goodwin said. “But three years after he was released, he is expanding what he is doing. He spoke before congress and recently made a statement (to lawmakers) against cockfighting Alabama.

“I can’t see his heart, but I can judge him by his actions.”

Goodwin also brought up a package of bills (SB 356, SB 357 and SB 358) currently awaiting a final vote in the Michigan House before they can move to Gov. Snyder’s desk and become law. Like Santana, Goodwin encouraged Michigan citizens to speak up by contacting House Speaker Jase Bolger to voice support for the package of bills.

The bills would allow for seizure of property and other assets purchased with profits from animal fighting, define property used to house animal fighting as a public nuisance and would include animal fighting in the state’s racketeering laws. In other words, it would qualify animal fighting as organized crime, allowing for more severe punishment of those convicted of the crime.


Michigan bills aim to take severe bite out of dog fighting

If three proposed bills become law in Michigan, all assets associated with dog fighting operations, like this one that was raided in North Carolina, can be seized. (Michelle Riley/The HSUS)

When it comes to dog fighting laws, the “Mitten State” is about to take the gloves off.

Michigan’s House of Representatives is expected to vote soon on legislation that would put into effect the toughest dog fighting penalties in the nation. Three bills, which passed unanimously in the state senate in January, were scheduled for a third reading and vote in the House this week but the didn’t make it to a vote. It is expected to reach a vote next week, after the next session begins Tuesday.

The aim of the bills, sponsored by senators Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), Bert Johnson (D-Detroit) and Steve Bieda (D-Warren), is to eradicate animal fighting by making the punishment for those associated with the crime severe enough to take away any incentive for would-be fighters. In essence, the three bills would:

  •  Allow law enforcement to seize all properties gained from animal fighting, including money made from gambling or the sale of animals related to fighting;
  •   Define animal fighting as a public nuisance, thereby giving private citizens and prosecutors the right to file suit against those using property – including buildings, vehicles, boats, aircraft or property – for animal fighting;
  •  Would amend the state’s racketeering statute to include animal fighting, allowing for fines and punishment to equal those applied to organized crime.

Michigan could be an example for the rest of the country, since no other state currently has all three proposed measures on its books.

“The point of all this, especially the asset forfeiture and the racketeering angle, is to remove some of the financial incentive to be involved in these things,” said John Goodwin, the director of animal cruelty policy for the Humane Society of the United States.

Jill Fritz, the Michigan state director of HSUS, said the bills not only eliminate financial incentives for animal fighters, they also would help law enforcement agencies to crack down on operations in Michigan. Fritz was among those who testified before the House Judiciary Committee in late January.

The new law would require dogs -- and their offspring -- seized in relation to dog fighting to be forfeited to the state. (Michelle Riley/The HSUS)

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Fritz said. “Animal fighting is a violent criminal enterprise that almost always involves other crimes such as drug sales and possession, weapons and illegal gambling. It’s a win for society and for law enforcement to be able to seize the assets and offset the financial cost of fighting dog fighting. The money (from seized assets) will go back into law enforcement to catch (animal fighters).”

Fritz said HSUS has been working with law enforcement around the state, including animal control officers at the Kent County Animal Shelter and a training session in Muskegon, on identifying animal fighting activity and arresting and prosecuting those responsible. She said last year, one state police officer went back to her district not long after the training and was able to identify an animal fighting operation.

“We teach them how animal fighters network with each other through websites, magazines and even down to the tattoos or clothing they’re wearing to identify themselves as fighters,” Fritz said. “We teach them what to look for at a site to identify it as an animal fighting operation, such as the apparatus used to train dogs and roosters, the drugs they use, the fight sticks they use to pry open dogs’ mouths to separate them, the registries they use for breeding of the dogs who are champion fight dogs … how to look for those things and write them into a search warrant and all the steps they have to go through.”

Joe Dainelis, Animal Control supervisor of Kent County, said the new laws would greatly benefit his department.

“The supporting argument is, the money would go back to the law enforcement agency that pursued the case,” Dainelis said. “It takes a long time and a lot of work to get evidence, a warrant and proceed with a criminal case and our organization is already tight on budget. If the money could be used to fight the crime, it would be good.”

Goodwin said while dog fighting is prevalent in the Detroit area, it also exists in West Michigan. He said there are two types of operations: street fighting and organized fighting.

“The street fighting is the younger guys in neighborhood that don’t necessarily know anything about organized fighting,” Goodwin said. “They’re not as committed to dog fighting and it’s not as much a part of their identity.”

HSUS has a program in place to encourage street fighters to take a different approach to their dogs.

“We hire people who used to fight dogs in their neighborhood to become ambassadors,” Goodwin said. “We also bring in dog trainers and set up pit bull training teams so we train the dogs and the young men that have them and help them see the dogs in a different light, as a companion and a friend.

“We try to change the culture that way and show them that dog fighting is a dead-end activity that will ruin their lives. We show them how to have a proper relationship with pit bulls, in a nonexploitive way. They’ll have a friend for life, and they won’t risk going to prison and losing everything they own.”

The HSUS has concentrated its efforts in big cities like Chicago, Atlanta and Philadelphia, but Goodwin said local communities can adopt similar programs on their own.

“Communities need to put resources into it,” he said. “HSUS is putting a lot of staff time and money into these programs because we feel like they’re effective, but we can only do it in a few communities. We’re hoping other people will take these programs and replicate them, maybe with their own twist.”

Organized fighting, Goodwin said, is a more complex operation that requires resources for lengthy investigations to identify participants and piece together the network.

A raid of a dog fight in Monroe County last March led to the arrest of 26 people and the recovery of $40,000 in cash as well as cocaine, marijuana, training equipment and a handgun. Those arrested were from Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri and Georgia.

“Most raids happen on the places where they’re actually raising dogs and not necessarily fights themselves,” Goodwin said. “But they need to seize all that gambling money and some of that can offset the cost of these investigations. If we can get these bills enacted it might be a net financial plus for counties to crack down on animal fighters. They can take away their assets, and there’s some pretty big money in these. I’d much rather see the taxpayer have the money than a dog fighter.”

While Michigan has been strapped for revenue and has faced budget cuts for the past several years, Fritz said the new laws would help in several areas.

“It would bring more revenue in to law enforcement,” Fritz said. “And, when law enforcement goes in, they’re not only finding dog fighting, but they’re most certainly finding weapons, illegal gambling activities, drugs and other violent crime activities, so it’s not just a humane issue but a community safety issue as well.”