U.S. House Leaders Introduce Bill to Protect Animal Fighting Victims

The HEART Act will provide much-needed relief to animal protection agencies participating in dog fight rescues as well as enable cruelty victims to find safe and loving homes more quickly
January 11, 2017

WASHINGTON– The ASPCA (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) commends federal lawmakers for introducing legislation that will significantly improve the process of caring for animal victims connected to federal animal fighting cases. The Help Extract Animals from Red Tape (HEART) Act (H.R. 398), sponsored by Reps. John Katko (R-NY), Judy Chu (D-CA), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) will require defendants to reimburse the costs for caring for animals seized in federal animal fighting cases. It will also prevent unnecessary delays in the rehoming and rehabilitation of these animals.

Currently, when criminal cases slowly wind their way through the court system, animal welfare agencies house, feed, and provide critical veterinary and behavioral care for animals seized in those cases. Many of these animals linger in temporary shelters for several months while ownership issues are resolved, and some decline physically and psychologically from stress, even when high-quality care is provided.

The astronomical cost of sheltering seized animals for extended periods of time depletes the limited financial resources of animal protection agencies and local shelters, making it difficult or impossible for them to participate in rescue operations. When the care of animal victims cannot be confirmed, law enforcement is less likely to investigate and intervene in animal fighting operations. The HEART Act bill ensures that those claiming ownership of seized animals bear the financial responsibility for their care, while preserving these owners’ due process rights.

“Animal fighting victims suffer so much at the hands of their abusers,” said Richard Patch, vice president, federal affairs of ASPCA Government Relations. “The red tape of the federal forfeiture system shouldn’t be a barrier to their rescue. The ASPCA applauds Representatives Katko, Chu, Sensenbrenner and Jackson Lee for their leadership in streamlining the process to get these victims of cruelty rehabilitated and into loving homes.”

“It is my pleasure to once again partner with Rep. Chu to introduce the HEART Act and to have Reps. Sensenbrenner and Jackson Lee join our effort,” said Rep. Katko. “Throughout our country, local shelters and nonprofit organizations – like the ASPCA – work tirelessly to provide safety, shelter, and care for abused animals seized by federal officials in fighting and gambling cases. However, the significant cost associated with providing such care is often placed on shelters and on the taxpayer. This bipartisan measure will alleviate that burden by shifting the cost of care to the individual responsible. I’m proud to reintroduce this measure and will continue fighting to make it law.”

“Animal cruelty such as dog fighting is a particularly heinous crime against a defenseless creature. Our government is rightfully vigilant and active in shutting down these rings, but when the animals are seized, the cost and care often falls on local shelters,” said Rep. Chu. “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 fully 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 considering trial expediency. I am so pleased to be able work bipartisanly with my colleague, Representative Katko, to help keep animals safe and place responsibility where it belongs.”

“Among the many reforms needed to the civil asset forfeiture process, particular attention should be paid to animals seized in federal animal fighting cases,” said Rep. Sensenbrenner. “Caring for these animals should not create a burden for local shelters and nonprofits, and unnecessary delays shouldn’t prevent these animals from being rehabilitated and rehomed. The HEART Act will provide necessary reforms while ensuring the protection of the due process rights of those involved.”

“Animals seized during federal cases have suffered enough,” said Rep. Jackson Lee. “They shouldn’t suffer more due to delays in the federal civil asset forfeiture process or because of the uncertainty of who will pay for the costs of care. I’m happy to support the HEART Act, joining the efforts of Congressman Katko and Congresswoman Chu, along with Chairman Sensenbrenner, to ensure animals seized in these cases can be rescued and rehabilitated more quickly.”

Dog fighting is a felony in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The ASPCA has worked with law enforcement on more than 100 dog fighting cases, including the two largest dog fighting raids in U.S. history in 2013 and 2009. In 2016, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) voted to raise the minimum recommended sentence for dog fighters, including enhanced penalties for the worst offenses. To raise awareness about the need for stronger sentences, the ASPCA launched a public awareness campaign, collecting a record-breaking 50,000 comments – the most ever received by the USSC on a single issue – from members of the public urging the USSC to #GetTough on animal fighting.

For more information on the ASPCA’s efforts to tackle dog fighting, please visit http://www.aspca.org.