BOISE – After three years, Rep. Tom Trail was about ready to give up. Three sessions in a row, Idaho legislators were asked to make dogfighting a felony, and three times the bill was killed in committee.
Last year, Trail, R-Moscow, couldn’t even get his bill introduced in the committee he chairs, the House Agriculture Committee.
But now, with pro football player Michael Vick’s expected guilty plea to federal conspiracy charges, a national spotlight has been shining on the cruelties associated with dogfighting and the fact that Idaho is one of just two states, along with Wyoming, that lacks felony penalties.
Now, the bill’s back on. Gov. Butch Otter came out in favor of the idea earlier this month. Trail now has an array of co-sponsors, and he’s being flooded with calls and e-mails in favor of the bill. “I’d say nine-tenths of my e-mail, phone calls and mail all revolve around this issue,” he said.
Rep. Marge Chadderdon, R-Coeur d’Alene, is co-sponsoring the bill with Trail, along with Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, and Sen. Brad Little, R-Emmett.
Chadderdon said she’s received about 10,000 individual petitions backing the bill.
“Just the other day, I ran into a lady in the store; she said, ‘I certainly hope you can do something about it this year. We send you there to make laws – what’s the matter?’ ” Chadderdon said.
At committee hearings on the bill in 2005 and 2006, testimony in favor of felony penalties for dogfighting came from law enforcement, prosecutors, animal lovers and others. But lobbyists for agricultural groups, including the Idaho Farm Bureau, the Idaho Wool Growers and the Idaho Cattle Association, spoke against the bill. They suggested that Idaho’s current misdemeanor penalties are sufficient, and worried that the bill could affect working dogs on ranches.
Jeff Rosenthal, a Boise veterinarian and director of the Idaho Humane Society, which operates the state’s largest animal shelter in Boise, said, “There’s been a learning process in the last three years. … I think the likelihood of passing a bill that focuses on dogfighting is extremely high, and I think we’ll get bipartisan support, and I would predict that we’ll also have either the support or the neutrality of a lot of the groups that have been concerned about it in the past, which are largely agricultural groups.”
Trail said definitions in the bill have been refined to ensure they target only dogfighting operations.
Throughout his efforts in past years, Trail said, “Nobody came out in strong support of dogfighting in Idaho.”
Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, made the successful motion to kill the bill in the House Judiciary Committee in 2005. Hart said he was concerned about overloading Idaho’s prisons by creating another felony crime. “I would have that same concern” again, he said. “I think we have to look at how we’re going to use our prisons, and what types of crimes we have already incarcerated people for, and I think we have to sort of manage the number of beds appropriately as we consider which crimes are the more significant ones that we ought to be incarcerating people for.”
He also questioned why prosecutions have been rare or nonexistent under Idaho’s current misdemeanor law. “Why is that not being enforced? Is it a problem? Do we really need to increase it from a misdemeanor to a felony?” Hart asked.
Backers of the legislation say the lack of felony penalties makes prosecution a lesser priority in Idaho. Most information about dogfighting in Idaho has come anecdotally from local animal protection workers who’ve found injured dogs that show evidence of being used in fighting.
In one such example, in February 2006, Priest River Pet Rescue found a severely wounded pit bull near Priest River with a broken leg, a gaping wound through its lip and mouth, and bite scars covering its body.
Rosenthal said, “What I’m hearing in the grapevine is that everybody is very supportive of the basic concept that we should have tougher penalties and try to prevent this kind of activity from occurring in Idaho. We definitely don’t want to be seen as some type of haven for this type of behavior.”
He added, “I’m very confident. I think they’re going to do the right thing this year.”
Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or by e-mail at