Spectating at dogfights: Still legal thanks to…rodeo?

Enabled by certain MT legislators

Enabled by certain MT legislators

3/1/15 ALERT:This post was written during the 2013 MT legislature–keep that in mind as you read. A similar bipartisan bill has been introduced again in 2015–HB 378. Already passed by the House Ag committee, it will be voted on by the MT House of Representatives. Contact your representative to vote YES on HB 378 to make attendance at felony dog fights illegal. Find your House legislator here and email him/her or call the Legislative Information Desk at (406) 444-4800 to leave a message for your representative.

Can you think of one animal species with whom you’d willingly trade places? Me neither. It’s a bum rap to be a nonhuman animal in a speciesist world, and here in Montana, brutality toward animals is a way of life. Just ask the bobcat thrashing in a trap, the calf viciously clotheslined by the neck in a rodeo roping event, or any coyote who’s the object of a killing contest. “We’re at your mercy,” they might tell us, “and mercy went missing a long time ago.”

On Valentine’s Day, the 200th wolf was killed in the state-sanctioned slaughter, designed to reduce–by projectile and by trap–a population of 600-some animals, even along national park boundaries. The “Dog Days of Winter Coyote Derby,” held earlier this month in Dillon, was “a fun way to spend a winter weekend and help manage the coyotes in the area,” according to organizers. Most people know by now that killing coyotes doesn’t “manage” their numbers, proving that these folks have some catching-up to do…or that it really IS all about bloodlust. Montana is responsible for shipping to slaughter thousands of America’s last wild bison in deference to the livestock industry. Kids are encouraged to kill and are sometimes celebrated when they do.

Really, though, owing to the Treasure State’s frontier heritage, abundant wildlife, and rural and agricultural nature, brutality here is more a difference of degree than kind. Montana–sadly–isn’t all that different from other places when it comes to speciesism. It’s a human thing.

But in spite of the thousands of traps scattered across our landscapes and the death sentences imposed on beloved national park wildlife species, Montana has found a way to distinguish itself even in this bloody horror show. Just last week, legislators on the House Agriculture committee tabled (killed) House Bill 279, which would have closed a loophole in state statute by making spectating at dogfights a misdemeanor. That’s right, dogfighting. It’s a felony in all 50 states, but Montana is the ONLY one where spectating is still legal–placing it dead last in a ranking of state dogfighting laws.

At the outset of the 40-minute hearing, House Agriculture Committee Chair Lee Randall (R-Broadus) asked for a show of hands from proponents of the bill; when many shot up, he noted the bill’s “overwhelming support.” No hands were raised when he asked for opponents. None.

By my count, 14 supporters stood to speak. They included a representative of the Sheriffs & Peace Officers Association (it’s a public safety issue, he emphasized); a Yellowstone County prosecutor; animal control officers–including a cruelty investigator; a representative of the Montana Veterinary Medical Association; ordinary citizens–including one who has rescued a fighting dog and has committed to a grueling retraining program; a Montana representative from the Humane Society of the U.S. (see their dogfighting fact sheet); and three awesome Cadette Girl Scouts and two leaders from Lone Rock School (Stevensville, MT) Troop 3756. “We teach our Scouts to speak out and take action when they see something that needs to be changed,” said their proud leader.

Testimony frequently focused on the criminal element–the drugs, weapons, and gambling–that accompanies dogfighting. Fight organizers “hide” behind spectators when fights are raided, making prosecutions difficult. “Without spectators,” testified one officer, “there would be no sport.” Spectators bring children along, asserted another.

This was not the first attempt at closing the spectator loophole; two years ago, a similar bill attempted to make spectating a felony, but the Senate Agriculture Committee felt that penalty was too stiff and tabled the bill. In this iteration, spectating was a misdemeanor, but the bill was still tabled. Why?

Slides & video - click

Slides & video – click

Montana legislators who serve agricultural interests will sell even “man’s best friend” down the river if they perceive the slightest slippery slope; this is why attempts to regulate puppy mills fail every time. Today it’s dogs–tomorrow it’s sheep. Today it’s dogs–tomorrow it’s rodeo stock. In fact, Rep. Mike Lang (R-Malta) questioned the prosecutor on that very point: “While I don’t support dogfighting, or any animal fighting that way…and this pertains to all animals, I want your legal opinion…if in a rodeo a Brahma bull decides to take on one of the pick-up men’s horses and that becomes an animal fight, what is gonna happen to the rodeo spectators and the rodeo event?” Good grief.

Yes, he really did ask that. In the end, it was Rep. Krayton Kerns (R-Laurel; no longer in the legislature), who moved to table the bill in executive action. “This is the first step down a very slippery slope,” he instructed; “if you just try to argue uh, uh, the grey area of animals used for fighting or animals suffering, uh, let’s say in a rodeo event, uh, we’re there. Uh, we’re there. So I think this is a dangerous direction we don’t want to go and I make a substitute motion to table the bill.”

Understand this: Rep. Kerns is willing to accept a public menace for Montana citizens and criminal brutality and death for fighting dogs just to ensure that calves can be snapped by the neck in rodeo roping events. To add insult to injury, Kerns is a veterinarian.

In a 10-7 vote, with all six Democrats on the Ag Committee joined by one Republican in opposing the motion to table, spectating at criminal dogfights remains legal in Montana.

I would like to send Representatives Kerns, Lang, and the other eight Republican legislators responsible for suppressing this humane, common-sense bill a one-way ticket to the Crime Museum in Washington, D.C., where a temporary exhibit on dogfighting– “The Voiceless Victims” –is on display. I’d like our illustrious state legislators to see the tools of the violent, criminal trade they again enabled in Montana–including a “rape stand used to immobilize female dogs for breeding purposes; (and) an electrocution device used to kill dogs who lost a fight or failed to show sufficient aggression toward other dogs.” I would like to insist they watch this 4-minute, 56-second video on dogs rescued from a huge, criminal operation in 2009. I want them to see the suffering–and if they don’t care about suffering (and I suspect they don’t)–I’d like to ask them how hard they think it is to get away with similar felony operations in Montana’s vast, empty spaces. It was easy enough–at least for awhile–in rural Missouri (2-minute video).

Most of all, I would like to see these 10 legislators held fully accountable before the Girl Scouts from Troop 3756–girls who were horrified to learn about dogfighting and the lack of consequences for spectators in Montana; young women who felt so strongly that they traveled 150 miles to Helena to advocate for exploited dogs in the halls of their state government. In what should have been a slam dunk against crime and animal abuse, I want to hear these public servants admit why they chose to accommodate felons and abandon heinously abused dogs: to ensure that business-as-usual animal cruelty continues unimpeded in Montana.
Three additional resources (of many): “Dog fighting detailed discussion” from Michigan State University College of Law; Detroit Dog Fighting Caught on Video – Fox News broadcast video, 7 min., 21 sec.; ASPCA’s Dog Fighting FAQ

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