THE BLOG
11/13/2014 03:53 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

Dogfighting Smackdown

Jody Trappe Photography via Getty Images

Yesterday, we closed an important chapter in a long-running anti-cruelty case when a federal judge in Alabama handed down tough sentences for a number of active participants in a dogfighting network that spanned four states. One defendant, dubbed by U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins as "the godfather" of this ring, was sentenced to eight years in a federal penitentiary -- the longest prison sentence ever handed down in a federal dogfighting case. Testimony indicated that Donnie Anderson hosted 80 fights in which nearly 500 pit bulls fought for hundreds of spectators who bet as much as $100,000 per fight.

The case came to light in August 2013 when I joined dozens of my colleagues from The HSUS and staff members from the ASPCA in southern Alabama as we teamed with federal and state law enforcement officials to carry out the second largest dogfighting raid ever in U.S. history. We freed 367 dogs from heavy chains and worn, barren patches of dirt, and from the clutches of a group of dogfighters intent on risking the animals' lives for profit and amusement. Law enforcement, working under the direction of U.S. Attorney George Beck, Jr., arrested 15 suspects that day and in the days that followed, and the number of dogs seized surpassed 400 in total.

When we arrived on the scene on that hot August day, we saw that the dogs had been battle-scarred and neglected, but they were still so gentle as we approached them and gave them copious belly rubs and fresh water -- the sort of human behavior they had probably only dreamed of but never experienced. For the last 15 months, we've been working with volunteers to care for them at an enormous expense to our organization but as a necessary follow up to the raids -- in order to get them into a better place to start their new lives. Some of them have already found wonderful homes, and thanks to the Dogfighting Rescue Coalition many more will go on to good homes.

It is with a special sense of pride that I look back on this case because The HSUS has worked so hard to upgrade federal laws against animal fighting, enabling federal and state officials and our own Animal Rescue team to take the needed actions on the ground and bring the law down on these criminals. (Even this year, we upgraded the federal law yet again, making it a federal crime to attend or bring a minor to an animal fight.)

Judge Keith Watkins imposed three- and five-year sentences on three other big players in an effort to "promote respect for the law." The judge also ordered that after their release from prison, each defendant serve a two- or three-year term of supervised release. While on supervised release, the defendants are prohibited from possessing dogs. Further, a hearing will be scheduled in the future where the defendants may be ordered to pay restitution to The HSUS and ASPCA for the cost of caring for the seized dogs. Some defendants will be required to attend a drug rehabilitation program because of the large cache of narcotics discovered at the sites.

Throughout the hearing, Judge Watkins commented on the extreme cruelty committed both due to the dogfighting and the conditions in which these dogs were forced to live. Many of the dogs in this case were emaciated and very ill with skin conditions, eye infections and wounds that were never properly treated, if at all. He estimated that the defendants had injured or killed between 420 to 640 dogs in the course of this dogfighting operation. Also noted was the amount of drugs, weapons and violence intertwined with dogfighting. Testimony also revealed several instances when children were brought to dogfights -- a crime that now carries a felony penalty of up to three years in prison, thanks to a provision we worked to include in the Farm Bill passed earlier this year.

Over the last quarter century, The HSUS has helped change the legal framework in this country, working to make dogfighting a felony in all 50 states and also a federal crime. And year after year, we've worked to train thousands of law enforcement personnel on investigating this criminal behavior and to remind law enforcement officials and prosecutors that when you see dogfighting in action, you see people who typically have no quarrel with breaking the law.

By bringing cases to the attention of law enforcement agencies, by upgrading the law, by caring for the victims of fighting, and by training agencies and officials and helping them to build cases on the ground, we are helping to establish a zero-tolerance policy for dogfighting in this nation. We are grateful to all of our partners in this important case, and we want to acknowledge in particular the diligent and serious-minded work of Judge Watkins and U.S. Attorney Beck in taking this case seriously. These criminals did not get a free pass for their crimes, and that's as it should be.

This article first appeared on Wayne Pacelle's Blog, A Humane Nation.