In-Depth: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) reintroduced this bill to expedite the disposition process for animals seized in federal animal fighting cases, hold offenders financially responsible for the care of animals in custody, and let courts take animals’ welfare into account when considering legal delays:
“Abusing animals and intentionally provoking them is wrong. When our government saves animals that have been victims of cruelty and abuse, we must do everything we can to ensure their welfare. I’m proud to reintroduce this bill to streamline the process of getting these animals the care they need and ensuring that they are properly cared for in the future.”
When she introduced this bill in the 115th Congress, Sen. Harrris made similar arguments:
“All animals must be treated humanely, free from cruelty and abuse, as they often become extended members of our families. We must do all we can to ensure that the welfare of these animals who have been victims of cruelty is a priority, and remove any red tape that prevents them from being properly and safely cared for.”
Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), sponsor of the House version of this bill in the 116th Congress, calls dog fighting a "particularly heinous crime" that must be stopped:
“Dog fighting is a particularly heinous crime that must be stamped out, but, unfortunately, when the animals are seized, the cost and care often falls on local shelters. Court proceedings can take over a year, which means the cost of doing the right thing can total millions of dollars. Additionally, shelters are unable to rehabilitate these animals until the proceedings have completed, which leaves animals stressed. It’s unjust that taxpayers and local shelters are picking up the tab for the care of these animals. This bill would help remedy that by allowing courts to consider animal welfare when determining trial expediency and requiring responsible parties to reimburse taxpayers and shelters for the cost of caring for animals. I am so pleased to be able work bipartisanly to help keep animals safe and place responsibility where it belongs. And today’s introduction of the HEART Act brings us one crucial step closer.”
Last Congress, original cosponsor Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who has cosponsored this bill in both the 115th and 116th Congresses, added that this bill is based on recommendations from the DOJ’s Animal Cruelty Roundtable:
“Animals who have been rescued from cruelty and abuse deserve to be placed in loving homes as soon as it is safely possible. Our legislation, which is based on recommendations by the Department of Justice’s Animal Cruelty Roundtable, would reduce the minimum amount of time animals must be held in shelters and alleviate the financial burdens that fall on those who care for seized animals. I have long advocated for policies that improve the welfare of animals, and I urge my colleagues to support this legislation to help protect animals that have experienced inhumane treatment.”
Last Congress, the ASPCA, which supports this bill, says:
“When the ASPCA assists law enforcement during dogfighting raids, we often find dogs—even puppies—tethered to heavy chains, living without food, water or proper shelter, and horrifically wounded and scarred. After medical attention and rehabilitation, many dogs rescued from these cruel situations can go on to enjoy happy lives in loving homes. But sadly, in many instances animals can suffer in limbo while the abusers’ court cases progress through an often slow-moving legal system. The lengthy holding periods in federal animal fighting cases can result in debilitating stress and health problems for the animals involved, even when shelters provide high-quality care. Also, the astronomical cost of holding and caring for seized animals for long periods unnecessarily burdens animal protection groups and local shelters. These problems can discourage future animal fighting investigations, meaning fewer animals get saved. The HEART Act seeks to address these issues by requiring the owners of animals seized in federal animal fighting cases to be responsible for the cost of their care. The bill will also expedite the processes to get these animals rehabilitated and adopted into safe and loving homes faster.”
Richard Patch, vice president of federal affairs for ASPCA Government Relations, adds:
“Dogfighting is a brutal ‘blood-sport’ in which innocent animals are forced to train, fight and suffer for the entertainment and profit of spectators. These animals have suffered enough at the hands of their abusers, and the red tape of the federal forfeiture system should not be a barrier to their adoption. We are grateful to Senators Harris and Collins, and Representatives Chu and Katko, for championing the HEART Act to streamline the process to give these victims of cruelty the chance they deserve to find safe and loving homes.”
This bill has 4 bipartisan Senate cosponsors, including two each from the Democratic and Republican parties, in the 116th Congress. A House companion bill in the current Congress, sponsored by Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), has 37 bipartisan cosponsors, including 23 Democrats and 14 Republicans.
Last Congress, there were 10 bipartisan Senate cosponsors of this bill, including one Republican and nine Democrats, and it didn't receive a committee vote. The House version of this bill, sponsored by Rep. John Katko (R-NY) with the support of 83 bipartisan cosponsors, including 48 Democrats and 35 Republicans, also didn't receive a committee vote.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Humane Society, National Sheriffs’ Association, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and National Humane Education Society also supported this bill in the 115th Congress. In the current session of Congress, ASPCA Government Affairs and the Humane Society Legislative Fund have again expressed their support.
Of Note: Animal fighting is a staged fight between two or more animals, or between a human and an animal, for the purpose of human entertainment, wagering, or sport. In some instances, one of the animals may be a “bait animal” used for sport or training. In the U.S., the three most common types of animal fighting are dogfighting, cockfighting, and hog-dog fighting. In recent years, the most prominent animal fighting case in the U.S. was that of former NFL star quarterback Michael Vick, who ran a kennel called “Bad Newz Kennels” that housed and trained over 50 pitbulls, staged dog fights, killed dogs, and ran a high-stakes gambling ring with purses up to $26,000.
In organized animal fighting cases in which law enforcement seize the animals in a raid, there are usually many animals that must be cataloged as evidence, provided with medical treatment, and sheltered for the duration of the court case. Recent dogfighting raids have resulted in the seizures of anywhere from one to nearly 500 dogs, with an average of 35 dogs per case. Often, animals seized in dogfighting raids have specific medical and behavioral needs, and their housing, assessment, and disposition can be complicated and expensive. Additionally, security precautions may be necessary at the shelter due to the risk of animals from “champion bloodlines” being stolen.
For animals held as evidence, lengthy forfeiture cases leave them in shelters for months, unable to be rehabilitated or put up for adoption. Due to the amount of time they spend in shelters, chronic stress leads to greater serious physical and behavioral deterioration for these animals.
Currently, the costs of caring for animals rescued from abuse are rarely, if ever, reimbursed by those who abused the animals — they’re paid by nonprofit animal protection organizations and local and federal funds. The financial responsibility local municipalities take on to pay for the care of abused animals discourages future animal abuse investigations and seizures.
There’s an existing federal statute, the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act (2007), that imposes federal penalties for interstate commerce, import, and export relating to commerce in fighting dogs, fighting cocks, and cockfighting paraphernalia. Each violation of this Act can result in up to three years in jail and a $250,000 fine.
Summary by Lorelei Yang
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Zoran Kolunzidja)