Animal Fighting Facts
Animal fighting is a contest in which people urge two or more animals to fight for the purpose of human entertainment. In some instances, one of the animals may be a bait animal used for the ostensible purpose of sport or training.
In the United States, the three most common types of animal fighting are:
In organized dogfighting cases, two dogs are put into a ring or pit to fight until one cannot continue or dies. In street dogfighting cases, the level of organization is substantially lacking and fights occur, sometimes spontaneously, in secluded spots within city parks, school lots, alleys or other similar locations.
Handlers attach a razor or gaff to each rooster’s leg (typically the left leg) and put them into a ring to fight to the death. Attendees often consider the events to be family entertainment.
Hog-dog fighting (Also known as “hog-dog trials” or “hog-dog rodeos”)
In a “hog-catching” event, dogs (usually pit bulls) are put in a pen and timed for how quickly they can attack and pin a feral hog whose tusks have been cut off. Handlers may use a breaking stick to pry apart the jaws of the biting dogs. The attack on the hog may be fatal. In a “hog-baying” event, dogs are timed for how quickly they can corner a hog. Injuries can result from dogs biting hogs or defensive hogs throwing dogs in the air. Attendees consider the events to be family entertainment.
Issues common to animal fighting cases:
- Organized animal fighting is usually a secretive industry and very difficult for law enforcement to infiltrate. Accordingly, it is rare for investigators to find a fight in progress.
- Animal fighting activities attract other serious crimes, such as gambling, drug dealing, weapons offenses and money laundering. Children are commonly present at animal fighting events. Pet theft to acquire bait animals is also a common byproduct crime.
- In organized animal fighting cases in which law enforcement officers are able to seize the animals in a raid, there are usually a large number of animals who must be catalogued as evidence, provided with medical treatment, and sheltered during the pendency of the court case. Furthermore, security precautions may be necessary at the shelter venue because animals considered to be from “champion bloodlines” are in danger of being stolen.
- Most animals who have been trained for organized fights are so aggressive that they ultimately must be euthanized. However, prosecutors can petition the court to appoint a guardian/special master to act in the animals’ best interests regarding their final disposition. The special master appointed in the Michael Vick dogfighting case secured the placement of 48 dogs who were not euthanized. Each state has its own court rules regarding the appointment of special masters.
Issues specific to dogfighting cases:
- Canine victims usually suffer ongoing neglect and cruelty during the “training” process. They are often: forced to wear heavy chains and run on treadmills; left outside without shelter; fed steroids to increase muscle mass; fed stimulants to make them aggressive in a fight; fed narcotics so they don’t feel pain in a fight; starved to make them aggressive or so they can “make weight” in a contract fight; and subjected to cruel amateur ear cropping and treatment for fighting injuries. Females may be confined in “rape boxes” for breeding.
- Trainers may viciously kill dogs who refuse to fight or who lose fights. Killing methods include shooting, hanging, drowning and electrocution. In the “dog man’s” world, the credo is “Breed the best and bury the rest.”
- Trainers ruthlessly acquire animals to use as live bait. Acquisition methods include fraudulently acquiring dogs or cats from shelters or via “free to a good home” ads, setting up a sham rescue organization, or outright pet theft. The bait animals are often attacked and torn apart during training.
- Some handlers may lace their dog’s coat with poison or paralytics to harm the opponent.
- Innocent people may become terrorized, fearing for themselves, their children or their pets because of criminal activity among neighbors and their vicious dogs who might get loose.
A state’s criminal animal cruelty statutes may address animal fighting generally or may identify specific types of animal fighting, such as dogfighting, cockfighting or hog-dog fighting, as unlawful. Dogfighting is a felony in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Cockfighting is illegal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and is a felony in 37 states and D.C. The hog-catching method of hog-dog fighting is now illegal in 6 out of about 10 southern states where it had been common, although hog-baying events are generally still allowed.
Legal loopholes present many challenges to investigators and prosecutors. Possession of animals for fighting may be legal or only a misdemeanor offense according to some state laws, so investigators must penetrate a close-knit, underground community to get proof of fighting activities. Being a spectator at an animal fight may be legal or only a misdemeanor offense according to some state laws, so prosecutors must be able to prove who is an organizer in order to achieve a felony conviction for animal fighting.
Although animal fighting is illegal in all 50 states, ALDF is working to make such crimes easier to prosecute and punishable by stronger penalties. ALDF has drafted a recommended amendment to state laws that would enable prosecutors to charge dogfighters under the respective state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (commonly referred to as "RICO") statute. Applied to animal fighting, RICO,which was originally designed to be a weapon against a wide variety of organized criminal efforts, including drug dealing and gambling,would give prosecutors increased muscle in seeking justice for the animals abused and–as in the highly-publicized Michael Vick dogfighting case–executed by their owners. Thirty-two states currently have RICO statutes to which this amendment could be applied. ALDF’s amendment was enacted in Virginia in July 2008, making it the third state, along with Oregon and Utah, whose law lists dogfighting as a RICO predicate offense.
The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is the name for United States Code Title 7 Chapter 54 “Transportation, Sale, and Handling of Certain Animals.” It is one of a handful of federal laws that provide very limited protections for animals. The AWA is enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS). 7 USC § 2156 prohibits animal fighting ventures that involve interstate or foreign commerce. The “interstate or foreign commerce” requirement gives the federal court jurisdiction over an activity otherwise regulated by the state.
“(a)(1) …it shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly sponsor or exhibit an animal in an animal fighting venture, if any animal in the venture was moved in interstate or foreign commerce.”
“(b) It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly sell, buy, transport, deliver, or receive for purposes of transportation, in interstate or foreign commerce, any dog or other animal for purposes of having the dog or other animal participate in an animal fighting venture.”
“(c) It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly use the mail service … for purposes of promoting … an animal fighting venture …”
The federal law known as the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act of 2007 (effective May 3, 2007) amended the AWA 7 USC § 2156(e) and (i) to prohibit the interstate or foreign commerce of knives and gaffs used in cockfighting derbies. It also amended the criminal code to toughen the penalties for violations of the AWA related to animal fighting ventures. This law was enacted in the wake of the Michael Vick case. He was actually prosecuted on federal conspiracy charges 18 USC § 371.
In addition to amending state RICO laws (discussed above), the federal RICO Act could be amended to include any animal fighting activity as a predicate act. Such an amendment would provide for longer jail sentences for offenders, larger fines, and the forfeiture of the assets used in the illegal activity and the gains generated from the criminal enterprise. Also, federal prisons tend to be less crowded than state ones, allowing for more meaningful prison sentences.
Why pursue state charges?
While federal law allows for the prosecution of animal fighting activities related to interstate or foreign commerce, state laws allow for the prosecution of animal fighting itself, animal cruelty and animal neglect. Federal prosecutors are not likely to prioritize animal fighting cases, except in high profile cases like Michael Vick’s, and in fact have rarely (if ever?) charged anyone with violating 7 USC § 2156. Furthermore, it may be difficult to prove the “interstate commerce” requirements of the law. Therefore, it is vital to pursue state remedies as well.
Why pursue federal charges?
Organized animal fighting rings exist because of the participation of many individuals – breeders, trainers, property owners, organizers, spectators and gamblers to name a few. While state laws provide a way to prosecute the individuals who are most directly involved with an animal fighting venture, federal law provides a way to prosecute the individuals who support animal fighting ventures by supplying animals, equipment or money across state lines or to foreign countries. Stopping a single animal fighting operation is not as effective as shutting down its entire support network.
ALDF offers several resources to assist in investigating and prosecuting animal fighting crimes and to strengthen animal protection laws:
- Animal Protection Laws of the United States of America & Canada is a compendium of state laws that highlights several topics, including animal fighting, in quick reference tables and full-text statutory sections.
- The Legal Advocates’ Manual for Animal Abuse Criminal Cases is a guide for investigating and prosecuting animal abuse cases, including advice specific to animal fighting cases.
- Model Animal Protection Laws Collection provides statutory language you can use to improve your state animal protection laws.
- ALDF maintains a database of criminal animal cruelty cases reported to our organization. In the last ten years, we have tracked 180 cases originating in 32 different states, in both urban and rural areas. The top five cases resulting in the greatest jail time for dogfighting have all occurred in the last five years, indicating that laws, investigators and the courts are treating such cases more seriously than in the past.
- ALDF’s Criminal Justice Program provides free legal services to prosecutors and investigators who are handling animal cruelty cases and to legislators who are improving animal protection laws.
Last revised February 2009