Dogfighting laws may tighten in Missouri
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: In a small, fenced exercise yard off Macklind Avenue, Humane Society of Missouri employee Pam Whitcraft and King -- a 3-year-old male pit bull with a coat the color of yellow sand -- were taking full advantage of the warm sunshine for a few precious minutes of outside playtime.
A strong wind was kicking up clouds of dust inside the pen, but it was not the wind that was bothering the animal this Thursday morning.
"He doesn't like the construction noise," says Whitcraft, the Humane Society's adoption center manager as she motioned toward the cacophony of banging and roaring engines next door.
"I think he'd rather be inside today."
The dog and four others like it, which have been at the Humane Society's shelter since shortly after they were seized as part of a raid last fall near Dexter, Mo., in Stoddard County, find themselves in the middle of a debate over just how to deal with dogfighting in Missouri.
On one side are people like Debbie Hill, an official with the Humane Society of Missouri, who say the state needs new and tougher laws to better protect the animals and strengthen prosecution of those involved in what Hill calls a "brutal, barbaric system of torture."
On the other side are people like Karen Strange, president of the Jefferson City-based Missouri Federation of Animal Owners, or MoFed, who feel just as strongly that the state's dogfighting laws already are tough enough. To go any further, Strange says, would be to begin unfairly eroding the rights of dog owners.
"MoFed does not condone or participate in dogfighting," Strange said. "But we don't want animal rights to become so important that they are equal to, if not greater than, crimes against humans."
The Missouri legislature, just three weeks from the end of its current lawmaking session, is considering three basic changes in the state's laws on dogfighting.
The new legislation would change how dogs are dealt with once they are seized, allow police to seize vehicles and other personal items used in dogfighting and would impose stiffer penalties for spectators convicted of a second offense.
Julie Leicht, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation, says the proposals offer a chance to "close some loopholes" in the law and protect animals.
The Humane Society's Hill says it is the least we can do for man's (and woman's) best friend.
"This is an urban problem; this is a rural problem," Hill says. "It happens in garages, barns, basements. The people who do this are very violent people."
Get dogs out of shelters
The first change -- and the one that seems to have the best chance of success this session -- involves the disposition of animals seized as part of dogfighting raids. Current law requires that shelters keep animals until any criminal case ends.
"That could be a year, two years, and it can be very costly to hang onto those dogs, and the shelters can't adopt them out or really begin to rehabilitate them," Leicht said.
The proposed law would mandate a disposition hearing within 30 days of the date the animals are seized, something Leicht says would be consistent with animals seized in cases of abuse and neglect.
Hill noted that a quick disposition hearing would mean that a dog like King could undergo rehabilitation and placement much more quickly than would be otherwise possible. Although one of the people arrested in the Stoddard County raid has admitted owning more than 20 of the dogs, allowing for the disposition of those animals, King and four other pit bulls remain unclaimed and remain evidence in the case against two other men.
"This is not like putting a gun or another inanimate object in an evidence locker," said Hill of the mandate to hold onto seized dogs. "It can be very harmful for these animals to sit like that."
While Strange, with MoFed, says her group doesn't feel strongly "one way or the other" on the disposition issue, she said, "We do not like the idea of destroying or eliminating evidence before a trial date." It is unfair to law enforcement and it is unfair to owners who ultimately are found not guilty.
"If a person is found innocent, their dogs are gone."
Animal rights groups also support charging a two-time spectator at a dogfight with a felony. While current law allows prosecutors to charge dogfight owners with a felony, Leicht said that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to identify who actually owns the animals.
"Everybody drops a leash and says 'not me,'" Leicht said.
As a result, she said, there has to be a way to toughen the charges against those who attend a fight. "What we're saying is this so-called sport can't be a sport without spectators," she said.
Strange, with MoFed, said she and her group do not feel such a change is necessary.
"Our prison systems are full now," she said. "There are things we think are of much greater importance to keep lawbreakers off the streets. Being a spectator in a dogfight is not as serious as being a rapist or a murderer.
"When you're convicted of a felony, you can't vote, you can't own a gun. It's just taking things too far."
But Hill with the Humane Society in St. Louis asks, "why would anyone want to protect people who are involved in this kind of brutal, illegal activity.
"As things stand, you claim you are a spectator and you walk away with a misdemeanor -- a fine, probation or a suspended sentence.
Bite in the pocketbook
Strange says her organization is strongly opposed to the seizure of personal property in dogfighting cases, similar to the way police now can confiscate personal property relating to drug cases.
"I don't think they need to be seizing people's property," she said. "If you murder someone and the vehicle is not involved in the murder, you can't confiscate the vehicle.
"It's just a way to take away more of our rights," she said.
Supporters of the law note that Illinois already allows the seizure of personal property in dogfighting cases, but Strange said such a law simply allows "the sheriff's departments to get new vehicles."
Leicht, with the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation, calls a seizure law "one more tool" for law enforcement.
And Hill says it is crucial to "hit them (dogfighters) in the pocketbook. This (seizure law) could be key to stopping this kind of thing," Hill said. "This is done for one thing: money. And if you aren't hitting them in their pocketbooks, you won't stop them."
The Michael Vick factor
Both sides agree that the impetus for the proposed changes in Missouri law was the arrest and conviction of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. Vick was sentenced in December to up to 23 months in prison for his role in operating a dogfighting ring on his property in rural Virginia.
Strange said that when the Vick case was "blown wide open in the press," the national humane society used the publicity to raise money for itself and to campaign for sweeping changes across the country.
"People think this group helps shelter animals and helps animals, but what they actually do is just take in more money for more legislation," she said. She said that animal rights supporters like humane society groups have agendas similar to those who are trying to take away people's rights to have guns. "They are very similar things," she said.
"When people contribute money to them, they think they are helping animals; actually they are helping the organizations take away their rights to have animals.
"We're not exactly friends; I guess you can tell that."
The Humane Society of Missouri's Hill says she doesn't buy the argument that groups like hers are infringing on people's rights.
"I've seen the tapes (of dogfights)," she said. "I've seen children among the spectators. There is a proven link between abuse to animals and abuse to humans. Why would anyone want to allow people to hide behind these heinous acts of cruelty."
Leicht said she remains hopeful that at least some of the legislation will pass. But, she says, she has been disheartened by the attitudes of some she has met in the legislature.
She said a state legislator asked her at a recent committee meeting, "what's the difference between dogfighting and me taking my dog out there and chasing a coon?"
"They view their animals more as property, where we view them more as pets to be taken care of. They're surprised that you'd even let a dog in your house.
"That's what we're up against."