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.