Bill Would Expand Law Enforcement's Ability to Stop Dogfighting

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The dogfighting case that sent football star Michael Vick to prison raised awareness of the problem. It also provided some momentum to lawmakers trying to curb dogfighting in California. Once considered a crime restricted to the South, some say dog fighting is on the rise here. KPCC's Julie Small reports on a bill that would give law enforcement one more way to stop it.

Julie Small: What you're about to hear is disturbing.

[Dogs barking, yelping, and whining]

Small: It's a dogfight recorded by the Humane Society. The Humane Society estimates that nationally, as many as 40,000 people are involved in dogfighting for profit. Another hundred thousand fight dogs in the street for fun. The Humane Society's Eric Sakach:

Eric Sakach: The animals are used in these events literally day after day, week after week, until they're so torn up, so infected, just damaged beyond belief, that they're no longer useful, and then they are simply discarded on society.

Small: About a quarter of a million dogs die each year from fights. For a long time, Los Angeles thought dog fighting wasn't a local problem. It wasn't clear who was supposed to check. The LAPD manual said dogfighting was Animal Control's responsibility. The Animal Control manual said it was LAPD's responsibility. Robert Ferber with the L.A. City's Attorney's office says that's resolved now, but...

Robert Ferber: We have neighborhoods in Los Angeles where, I'm not kidding, on this Friday or coming Saturday night, you can drive down and you can hear the screams of the dogs involved in dogfighting. We have locations in Los Angeles on Monday and Tuesday where Sanitation and the police find the dead bodies of the dogs that were the losers in those fights.

Small: Ferber says, while it's easy to find dogfights, it's much harder to shut them down.

Ferber: When two uniformed officers show up at a dogfight, what they need to do is back off very quickly, and somehow wait for a huge armada of police officers, animal control officers, children's services...

Small: By the time backup arrives, the people running the dogfight have fled. So while it's a felony in California to run a dogfight, prosecutors don't put many people away for it. That's why the L.A. City Attorney's office is supporting a bill that would allow law enforcement to go after people who allow fighting on their property. State Senator Ron Calderon of Montebello introduced the legislation.

Senator Ron Calderon: If you don't have a venue, and you don't have anywhere where they can have these events, then you're really taking a bite out of this activity.

Small: The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the bill. It says forfeiture of property will create a bounty for law enforcement, and lead to prosecution of innocent bystanders. But Calderon says his bill protects those on the sidelines. And as for the "bounty" claim, part of the proceeds would go to animal welfare groups. Patty Letawsky believes the money would be well spent.

Patty Letawsky: Jake, leave it. No squirrels.

Small: Letawsky brought two dogs she rescued to the Capitol. Jake is a pit bull mix and Blossom's pure pit bull.

Letawsky: We don't know the exact history of either of them. But she is definitely the look and the size and the breed that you see over and over again in the pit fighting rings.

Small: The two are likely the offspring of abandoned fighting dogs. The Humane Society usually puts down former fighting dogs, but Letawsky believes some can be rehabilitated, like Peaches.

Letawsky: She had crushing fractures. She had a torn nostril. She had a torn ear. She had probably 200 puncture wounds.

Small: Letwasky says Peaches became a tranquil and happy dog, and spent nine years as a therapy dog soothing hospital patients. Robert Ferber with the L.A. City Attorney's Office says he's taken in fighting dogs. He says they can change.

Ferber: I'm absolutely convinced that most dogs, not all of them, but most of these dogs that have been in this situation, can be placed with the right owner, can have a wonderful home. And I've got, I can't tell you how many of them.

Small: And there's proof. Ferber's navy blue prosecutor's suit is covered with dog hair.