BOISE – Animal cruelty opponents will focus on dogfighting when lawmakers return to the Idaho Statehouse.
Idaho is one of only two U.S. states where staging a dogfight isn’t a felony. The Humane Society of the United States and other groups hope to change that with a law aimed at those who organize, attend or gamble at an event that uses dogfighting as entertainment.
Last winter, the groups tried to make staging a cockfight or a dogfight a felony – both are misdemeanors now – and to make animal cruelty and abandonment a felony.
But the proposal died in committee after the group ran into resistance from cockfighting advocates.
“They were pretty much blatant about it – that the legislation would shut them down, and they didn’t want to be shut down,” said Jeff Rosenthal, the director of the Idaho Humane Society in Boise.
Now advocates have scaled back their ambitions for Idaho, reasoning that because dogfighting is less prevalent, dogfighting advocates are less likely to fill Statehouse hearing rooms with supporters.
“Felony animal cruelty and felony cockfighting are definitely two things Idaho needs to revisit, but our focus is getting the dogfighting through,” said Inga L. Gibson, a Seattle-based lobbyist for the Humane Society who will work in Boise during the legislative session.
Although Gibson argues that it is common knowledge that staged dogfights exist in Idaho, it’s hard to find anyone who has been to see one.
Idaho veterinarians supporting Gibson’s efforts say they see dogs that have clearly been injured in such fights.
“What alerts me to a problem is always an impound of one to five animals that are scarred severely, with ears cropped all the way to the head, level with the head,” said Tami McReynolds, executive director of the Lewis Clark Animal Shelter in Lewiston. “That’s a typical fighting dog conformation so other dogs can’t grab their ears and have slippery blood everywhere.”
Idaho police and sheriff’s departments say they haven’t seen evidence of fights.
Rosenthal, of the Idaho Humane Society, hasn’t seen much evidence of dogfighting at his job in Boise. He had 25 pit bulls, which are often used in fights, up for adoption at the animal shelter Christmas week – about a third of all the dogs available. But none of them looks like they were used for fighting.
Rosenthal said the practice might become more common as cities like Boise grow.
“Dogfighting tends to thrive as places become more urban,” he said. A new law would also bring Idaho into line with almost all other states.
“We don’t want our state to be more attractive to people who engage in these activities, as the one place in the country where you can go and do this,” Rosenthal said.
Wyoming is the other state where staging a dogfight isn’t a felony; animal advocates there plan legislation in 2007.
Gibson says the practice produces animals that are dangerous to humans.
“The dogs are bred and trained for this activity. They pose a huge threat to public health and safety if they’re abandoned – to children and other animals,” Gibson said. “Dogfighters have been known to steal peoples’ pets and use them as bait for training. There’s real abhorrent activities that go hand in hand with people who fight animals.”
Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, will sponsor the animal cruelty legislation. It would punish anyone who knowingly owns, trains or trades in fighting dogs, or in any other way contributes to a staged dogfight.
“We are referring to the intentional use of dogs for fighting – not the occasion where one dog attacks another due to lack of restraint by the owner,” Gibson said.
Other animal welfare legislation is also in the works. Rosenthal will be lobbying for a bill – sponsored by Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise – that would require animal owners whose pets were seized in cruelty cases to pay for the animals’ care while the case was in court or give up the animal. Otherwise, the Humane Society foots the bill in cases that can drag on for months, Rosenthal said.
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