(STEVE HELBER ~ Associated Press)
RICHMOND, Va. -- Animal advocates around the nation hope that public outrage over dogfighting and puppy mill scandals in Virginia will force state and federal lawmakers to pass tougher animal abuse laws.
Some sportsmen, however, warn that the emotionally charged debate could result in laws affecting legitimate owners, especially of hunting dogs, along with the intended targets.
The legislative moves stem 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 behind bars, was followed by a study showing that the majority of puppies sold in Virginia come from puppy mills run by unlicensed breeders who churn out pets like livestock.
The Humane Society of the United States expects legislators in about 25 states will consider strengthening dogfighting laws in 2008, said Michael Markarian, the organization's executive vice president. It and other animal advocacy groups also hope to see changes in federal laws to make it easier to prosecute dogfighters.
In Virginia, for example, legislation has been filed that would add dogfighting as a qualifying offense under the state's racketeering law, which means dogfighters could receive longer sentences 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 the nearly 50 pit bulls that survived his operation.
Dogfighting is a felony in every state except Wyoming and Idaho, but legislators there have promised to resurrect bills to end the distinction. Markarian said the Humane Society would work to strengthen those laws and others that allow people who attend fights and own the dogs to go virtually unpunished.
Attending a dogfight is a misdemeanor in 26 states, and legal in Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho and Montana.
"Those are really the elements that help this underground criminal industry thrive," Markarian said. "People don't walk into a bar on Main Street and stumble across a dogfight accidentally. They have to know where to go."
Laws attacking puppy mills are in the works in several states. Advocates of the regulations argue the mass-breeding kennels often produce unhealthy pets that end up either dying soon after purchase or placed in shelters because of skittish, antisocial behavior. Federal law requires breeders who sell puppies wholesale or for research to obtain a federal license, but the Humane Society study found many ignore the requirement. Only about half of states require licensing or regulation of dog-breeding operations.
The Humane Society hopes to get a bill introduced in Virginia that would limit the number of puppies bred and sold by breeders each year.
"It wouldn't stop people from breeding dogs or selling puppies," Markarian said. "But there would be some cap that would say you just can't turn this into a factory farm."
A rush to pass laws
However, that is the sort of legislation that worries Bob Kane, president of the Virginia Hunting Dog Owners' Association.
Many houndsmen have numerous dogs, and Kane said he fears they will be swept up in the rush to pass laws aimed at unscrupulous puppy millers.
"I don't think there's much question there's going to be a lot of pressure," he said.
His biggest concern is that Virginia and other states will pass legislation mirrored after a provision thrown out of a federal farm bill that would have allowed inspectors from not-for-profit organizations such as the Humane Society to go onto private property to evaluate the conditions in which animals are kept.
"If they're not taking care of their dogs, regardless of how many there are whether it's a couple or 22, if they're neglecting their dogs 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."
The heightened awareness of the issue and momentum do not mean legislation is a certainty, and Markarian is only cautiously optimistic about Virginia's prospects.
"It's a short legislative session and lawmakers have to deal with a lot of important subjects, and unfortunately they often consider animal welfare not to be at the top of their radar screen," he said.