Congress should close spectator loophole in animal-fighting laws

Despite reforms to tighten prohibitions against animal fighting, a glaring federal law loophole remains: Attendance at an animal fight must be made a federal crime. This blood sport continues to be well-financed regularly and routinely by crowds of spectators who also engage in illegal activities such as gambling, drug dealing and extortion — generating thousands of dollars in illegal bets and attendance fees. 

Last month, I introduced the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act, joined by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and David Vitter (R-La.). This legislation would establish a federal prison sentence or fine for spectators who knowingly attend an animal fight. Although many states have enacted legislation to make attendance at an animal fight a criminal offense, local and state law enforcement need a federal law to effectively prosecute these individuals because animal fighting operations commonly involve spectators from different states. A federal law to deter people from attending animal fights would give local and state law enforcement vital help, authority and support to attack this abhorrent activity at its root.  

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The Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act would also prevent organizers of animal fights from evading law enforcement. Frequently, when animal fighting operations are raided by law enforcement, the organizers and promoters portray themselves as mere spectators — beyond the reach of the current law. A federal statute criminalizing attendance would mean that everyone present at an animal fight would be held accountable, and individuals responsible for organizing and profiting from these horrific spectacles would be more easily prosecuted. 

Under the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act, not only could a person receive up to one year in prison and fines for attending an animal fight, but he or she could also be punished by a prison sentence of up to three years and fines for bringing a minor to such an event. 

Astonishingly, children are often forced to watch the maiming and torturing at animal fights because an adult brings them or because they live at a residence where these fights are hosted. Such compelled attendance is not only a form of child abuse, but also leads to psycho-social conditioning that encourages a child, at best, to ignore a living creature’s suffering or at worst, to enjoy it.

In 2009, local and state law enforcement raided a Canary-Saffron Finch animal fighting ring at a residence in Shelton, Conn. Police confiscated nearly $8,000 in cash and 150 birds that were being trained to fight, including some that had injuries including blindness from previous brawls. Nineteen individuals were arrested and charged with animal cruelty and gambling, some from as far away as Boston and Newark — evidence of the multistate nature of this problem. 

That same year, Connecticut State Police raided a cockfighting ring at a residence in Harwinton. Police confiscated more than 350 chickens and roosters, all of which had to be euthanized because they were too aggressive. 

The birds had been mutilated by having their combs and wattles cut off and were shaved and de-feathered. According to public reports, cockfighting organizers shaved and de-feathered the birds so spectators could see which ones drew “first blood” and declare a winner. 

Last year, this legislation was added as an amendment to both the Senate and House versions of the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act, also known as the farm bill. Unfortunately, the farm bill never became law. The Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act also passed the Senate by voice vote on Dec. 4, 2012, but regrettably, the House failed to take action on this proposal before the end of the 112th Congress.  

Now, the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act presently has 14 bipartisan co-sponsors in the Senate and 147 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House. It has already been included as a provision of the Senate’s 2013 farm bill (S.10). 

This legislation is supported by a host of animal welfare groups and approximately 300 law enforcement organizations. 

My hope is that the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act will become law this year. Closing the spectator loophole in federal animal fighting statutes will help close the books on this inhumane activity.

Blumenthal is chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee On Oversight, Federal Rights and Agency Action, and serves on the Commerce and Veterans' Affairs committees.


—This post has been corrected from an earlier version.