Dogfighting Victims Need the HEART Act to Find Their Way Home

April 15, 2019

a pitbull in a cage

By Matt Bershadker, ASPCA CEO

In 2013, the ASPCA assisted federal law enforcement agencies in one of the largest dogfighting cases in U.S. history, spanning four states and resulting in 10 arrests. Due in large part to existing forfeiture laws, some of the 367 dogs rescued spent more than a year in temporary shelters until the criminal case was adjudicated. The ASPCA spent more than $3 million to care for the dogs, at an average cost of $39 per dog, per day. 

This case and others like it make clear that dogfighting interventions do not end with the rescue of the dogs. Instead, in many instances, that’s where some of the most difficult and expensive work begins.

The ramifications of that cost can be enormous. Caring for seized animals for months or years following a dogfighting raid can drain the limited financial resources of animal protection agencies. It can be so prohibitively expensive that most agencies cannot afford to assist prosecutors and law enforcement, which may deter them from initiating new animal fighting investigations. 

For the animals, extended time in even the most ideal of emergency shelters can also lead to severe physical and behavioral deterioration due to chronic stress.

To address these challenges, the ASPCA strongly supports the HEART (Help Extract Animals from Red Tape) Act, legislation introduced in Congress which will help dogfighting victims find safe and loving homes more quickly. 

Sponsored by Reps. Judy Chu (D-CA) and John Katko (R-NY), and Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Susan Collins (R-ME), the HEART Act would specifically accelerate the legal disposition process for animals seized in federal animal fighting cases and require animal owners to reimburse the government for the costs of caring for the animals. 

In addition to being supported by the ASPCA and other animal welfare organizations, this bipartisan legislation has also been endorsed by the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. 

Public misconceptions sadly play a part in the continuation of dogfighting, which is why we created and promote National Dogfighting Awareness Day on April 8. In addition to not realizing the cost of caring for seized animals, many people believe dogfights are rare and distant events attended only by hardened criminals, or that dogfighting largely ended the day Michael Vick was arrested in 2007. They’re wrong. 

Despite dogfighting being illegal in every state, the ASPCA has assisted law enforcement with more than 220 dogfighting cases in the past nine years. The cases have taken place in 23 states—from Alabama farms to New York City basements—impacting nearly 5,500 canine victims. 

We’ve also found dogfighters to be lawyers, teachers, high school football coaches, nurses, veterinary technicians and judges spanning all racial and socioeconomic lines. There is no “typical” dogfighter; the only qualities they share are greed and callousness. 

I spent years overseeing and deploying with our ASPCA Anti-Cruelty teams, but am still shocked and repulsed at stories of animals conditioned with drugs to enhance their muscle mass and encourage aggressiveness, then viciously attacked, beaten, electrocuted and drowned. Many of these animals succumb to their injuries, and dogs who lose fights or refuse to fight are often discarded or killed. 

Dogfighting represents the most brutal and loathsome betrayal of animals and persists because some humans shamefully see profit in that pain. The ASPCA estimates that dogfighters number in the tens of thousands, and the full tragic impact of their betrayal and abuse can last for years.

The rescued victims of organized animal fighting have suffered enough—they shouldn’t be victimized again by the red tape of the federal forfeiture system. For their sake, we strongly encourage Congress and the public to support the HEART Act, which will help these dogs not only find their way to safety, but also find their ways home.

Originally Published in The Hill.