It's Time to Get Tough(er) on Dog Fighting

04/09/2015 10:39 am ET | Updated Jun 09, 2015

2015-04-09-1428590233-6120269-mattndfad.jpgThere's no question dog fighting is a deplorable crime. Few things are crueler, which is why the barbaric activity is a felony in every state. Nonetheless, organized dog fights continue, attracting large and surprisingly diverse crowds of participants and spectators in locations that range from rural towns to dense cities across the country.

By our estimate, there are tens of thousands of dog fighters in the U.S., forcing hundreds of thousands of dogs to train, fight, and suffer every year.

These are not fringe or rare events; dog fighting is a cruelty-for-profit industry. In the last five years alone, we've assisted law enforcement on over a hundred dog fighting cases, come to the rescue of more than 2,100 dogs, and helped prosecutors file 463 criminal charges related to dog fighting. Less than three years ago, we assisted in the raid of the second-largest dog fighting operation in U.S. history, involving over 350 dogs.

As long as this blood "sport" continues, we must do more to fight it. Animal fighting laws can be strengthened to ensure that penalties match the severity of crimes committed. Police officers can be better trained to identify and investigate dog fighting cases. And law enforcement can be given adequate resources to care for canine victims so that authorities are not deterred from raiding these sites.

By changing our local and national priorities, we can ensure that dog fighting is seen, treated, and punished not just as a heartless offense but as one of the most despicable crimes in our society.

Achieving that goal requires the enthusiastic participation of law enforcement, as we have here in New York with our NYPD partnership. But to explore how police officers across the country view their animal welfare roles and challenges to them, we conducted a national study of over 500 law enforcement officers.

The results revealed that while most officers consider dog fighting a "severe" crime, 40 percent said limited resources -- including money, time and manpower -- pose a major obstacle when it comes to pursuing dog fighting cases. And nearly half (49 percent) reported that they need more training on how to investigate animal cruelty.

When asked how much specific training they'd already received, 52 percent of the officers said none whatsoever. And 75 percent reported that they had not received training or guidance on dog fighting cases in the last year.

These results show that many police officers are ready and willing to take on dog fighters but aren't equipped with all they need to work most effectively.

More and more, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies are asking for the ASPCA's assistance with these cases, and for dog fight investigation training. We're committed to providing our expertise and resources to help law enforcement around the country combat this horrific crime.

But the public can also make a big difference. While every city has its own approach and barriers to fighting animal cruelty, what they have in common are communities of outraged people, eager to do whatever they can to end dog fighting for good.

Some of these voices come from full-time animal advocates like the ASPCA and our partners. But they also come from professional wrestlers like A.J. Lee and Marcus Louis; television stars like Katherine Heigl, Rachael Ray, Lake Bell, and Beth Behrs; political leaders including Senator Chuck Schumer (NY), U.S. Reps. Nita Lowey (NY), Tom Marino (PA), Gwen Moore (WI) and Dina Titus (NV), and New York Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal; as well as state and federal government agencies including the U.S. Department of Justice and the Baltimore City Health Department.

But mostly, the voices come from people like you, simply dedicated to protecting animals from suffering.

So this week, as we observe the second National Dog Fighting Awareness Day (April 8), we're asking everyone to do a few things over the course of this month:

  • Speak out and start dialogues using the hashtag #GetTough and visiting
  • Contact your public officials directly and tell them how important this fight is.
  • And sign our letter to the Department of Justice, asking for even more vigorous prosecution of dog fighters.

If you hear or see anything that makes you suspect animal fighting or the training of animals to fight, notify the police immediately. Public tips are often the breakthrough authorities need to stop not only animal abuse but other crimes often found at the scene, including drug dealing and illegal firearm sales.

Even if you've never heard about a dog fight, that doesn't mean they're not happening nearby. We also can't relax simply because animal fighting is illegal. I've witnessed enough horrific crime scenes to know that animal fights can take place anywhere, and that they represent the absolute worst of human nature.

When we put more pressure on our local and federal government, offer more training and resources to our police forces, and ultimately give the issue of animal fighting the seriousness it deserves, many more lives will be saved from suffering.

It all starts with a commitment to #GetTough.

Matthew Bershadker is President and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).