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Time may be ripe for canine rights

December 31, 2007|From the Associated Press

RICHMOND, VA. — Animal rights advocates around the nation hope public outrage over dogfighting and puppy-mill scandals in Virginia will force state and federal lawmakers to pass tougher laws against animal abuse.

Legislative actions have stemmed from the arrest of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and friends on charges they were operating a dogfighting ring at his 15-acre country estate in southeastern Virginia.

That case, in which Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison, was followed by a study showing that the majority of puppies sold in Virginia came from unlicensed breeders that churned out pets like livestock.

The Humane Society of the United States expects that legislators in about 25 states will consider strengthening dogfighting laws in 2008, said Michael Markarian, the organization's executive vice president. His and other animal advocacy groups also hope for changes in federal laws.

In Virginia, for example, a measure seeks to add dogfighting under the state's racketeering law That would mean that dogfighters could receive longer sentences than is now the case, and their assets could be seized.

But it's not just harsher penalties that are needed, said Randall Lockwood, senior vice president for animal cruelty initiatives for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"Those are the sort of sounds-good-and-feels-good laws. What's harder to push for is the nuts and bolts that deal with the economics of actually enforcing animal cruelty laws," Lockwood said.

"Frankly, if law enforcement has no place to put the dogs they might seize in a dogfighting raid, that raid is not going to take place."

In Vick's case, a federal judge ordered him to pay more than $920,000 to provide long-term care for about 50 pit bulls from his operation.

Dogfighting is a felony in every state except Wyoming and Idaho, and legislators in those two states promise to resurrect bills to erase the distinction.

Attending a dogfight is a misdemeanor in 26 states. It is legal in Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho and Montana.

"Those are really the elements that help this underground criminal industry thrive," Markarian said.

Laws against puppy mills are in the works in several states. Advocates of the regulations say the mass-breeding kennels often produce unhealthy pets that end up either dying soon after purchase or being placed in shelters because of antisocial behavior.

Federal law requires breeders that sell puppies wholesale or for research to obtain a federal license, but the Humane Society's study found that many ignore the requirement.

About half of states require no licensing or regulation of dog-breeding operations.

The Humane Society hopes that Virginia will consider limiting the number of puppies bred and sold by breeders each year.

Such legislation worries Bob Kane, president of the Virginia Hunting Dog Owners' Assn. Many houndsmen have numerous dogs, and Kane said he feared they would be swept up in the rush to pass laws aimed at unscrupulous puppy mills.

He especially worries about measures seeking to let inspectors from nonprofits like the Humane Society to go onto private property to evaluate animals' living conditions. (Such a provision was thrown out of a federal farm bill.)

"If they're not taking care of their dogs, regardless of how many there are . . . then I've got no use for them," Kane said. "I don't think private citizens ought to be the ones deciding this kind of thing."

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