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February 2017

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Federal law has big impact on animal fighting

The original federal law to curb some aspects of animal fighting (adopted in 1976) did not prompt a single prosecution for more than a quarter century, even though dogfighting and cockfighting went on in thousands of dark corners and even some brightly lit arenas every year in the U.S. That’s why HSLF went to work to strengthen the law and make it more viable and effective. We’ve upgraded the law four times in the last 15 years, the latest upgrade in 2014. I’m pleased to report on a clear example of the new, stronger framework—criminalizing the act of bringing a minor to a fight. This improvement to the law is making a difference in the real world:

Last month, a Virginia man was sentenced to two years in prison for taking a minor to cockfight in Kentucky. This is a direct result of the passage of the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act, which was strongly backed by The HSUS and HSLF and included as a provision in the 2014 Farm Bill. 

Wv-cockfighting-raid-270x240
Heather Severt/The HSUS
Example of a cockfighting ring in
WV busted by The HSUS

The law made it a federal crime to attend a dogfight or cockfight, and a federal felony to bring a child to one. In prior years, we also convinced Congress to outlaw the sale of fighting birds, upgrade animal fighting to a felony offense, and ban the possession of fighting animals.

These upgraded federal laws are rooting out this despicable behavior. Last year, a cockfighting pit in Citronelle, Alabama, was shut down by federal authorities, after multiple undercover investigations conducted by the FBI and The HSUS. During the execution of the search warrant, authorities uncovered a huge arena with bleacher seating, concession stands, trophies, cockfighting paraphernalia, and rental holding spaces for participants’ birds with space for more than 1,000 animals.

Also last year, a federal investigation into suspected dogfighting operations led to the rescue of 66 dogs and the seizure of dogfighting paraphernalia at properties in New Jersey, Illinois, Indiana, New Mexico, and Washington, D.C. The case was led by the U.S. Department of Justice, with assistance from The HSUS, and nine individuals were charged as part of a coordinated effort across numerous federal judicial districts to combat organized dogfighting.

The recent case, however, is especially noteworthy as the first time anyone has been prosecuted under the federal statute for bringing a child to a cockfight. (There have been previous prosecutions for attending dogfights.) And there’s more. The man sentenced for his role in cockfighting at the Big Blue Sportsmen’s Club in McDowell, Kentucky, also pleaded guilty to distribution of hydrocodone. Of course we’ve known that animal fighting goes hand in hand with other crimes, and the adults who bring children to these spectacles expose them to drugs, violence, and bloodletting.

The children, of course, pay a high price for witnessing the cruelty of animal fighting first hand. Research shows that regularly being exposed to animal cruelty puts children at serious risk. When children become accustomed to the pain and suffering they witness, they become desensitized. Not only are they at risk of becoming animal fighters themselves, they are at risk of becoming involved in crimes against people.

Also, with the FBI now tracking animal cruelty crimes in the uniform crime reporting database, and organizations like the National Sheriffs Association speaking out forcefully against animal cruelty, we should see more enforcement of all animal fighting laws. The HSUS is also training thousands of law enforcement agents across the country on how to enforce laws against cockfighting and dogfighting. 

It was less than 20 years ago that cockfighting was still legal in five states. The HSUS and HSLF marched state by state to close the gaps in the legal framework on animal fighting. And because many of the dogfights and cockfights are multi-state and multi-jurisdictional, we worked with our allies in Congress to fortify the federal statute as a complement to the state laws. We are now seeing the results of all that work paying off for animals and for communities around the country, and we are grateful to all the lawmakers who advocated for tougher laws to crack down on the scourge of animal fighting.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Maryland seeks to close the door on the trade of imperiled wild animal products

Following the worrying results of an investigation into the sale of wildlife products from imperiled species within its  borders, Maryland lawmakers are taking steps to make sure that their state no longer has a hand in this destructive trade.

Md-wildlife-investigation
photo courtesy of The HSUS
An example of an elephant ivory piece found for
sale at the Baltimore Antiques Show

The Humane Society of the United States today released the results of an investigation conducted late last year that uncovered products of imperiled species, notably elephant ivory jewelry and collectibles, for sale in stores and markets throughout Maryland. Investigators found that at least 30 sellers at antique stores and malls, auction companies, consignment stores, and jewelers across Maryland had elephant ivory items for sale. Leopard fur was also found for sale at a Frederick antique mall.

With only one exception, none of the sellers offering ivory or leopard fur would provide documentation to investigators to verify the age or origin of the products. That lack of documentation and transparency makes it impossible to know if the products were genuine antiques, for example, or from more recently killed elephants, imported in violation of the federal law on selling African elephant ivory.

The investigation also found that several sellers at a popular art and jewelry show in Baltimore had traveled from other states, including New York—where, thanks to 2014 legislation supported by HSLF, The HSUS, and other wildlife conservation and protection groups, the sale of ivory is now illegal.

When asked, many Maryland antique sellers claimed ignorance of existing laws regulating the sale of ivory, while others seemed to deliberately confuse or mislead potential customers.

In a survey conducted last year, an overwhelming 83 percent of Maryland residents said they support legislation to curtail this trafficking within their state’s borders, to help save the world’s most majestic and endangered wildlife from extinction and cruelty. With broad support, state legislators have introduced a package of bills, H.B. 686/S.B. 560, to prohibit the sale of these products in the state.

The poaching of imperiled species is a growing global crisis, and the U.S. is one of the world’s largest retail markets and  a major contributor to the $20 billion illegal wildlife trade. We must do all we can to stop poaching of wildlife in range countries, but we can also take action here at home to reduce the demand that creates global instability and pushes many iconic animals to the brink of extinction.

The actions by poachers are immensely cruel and even as they decimate the populations of these species, they threaten the economies of many nations dependent on wildlife tourism. Poachers hack off an elephant’s or rhino’s face, sometimes while the animal is still alive, to retrieve their tusks or horn. Every year approximately 35,000 elephants are killed in Africa to supply the demand for their ivory. The savanna elephant population has declined by 144,000, or 30 percent of the population, since 2007, primarily from poaching.

Other iconic animals aren’t faring any better. Cheetahs have lost an estimated 91 percent of their historic habitat and fewer than 7,100 remain in the wild. At least 1,305 rhinos were poached across Africa in 2015 out of only 29,000 remaining in the wild. All seven sea turtles species are threatened with extinction. There are only 3,200 tigers left in the wild. African lion populations have declined by 43 percent since 1993 and are still declining.

Evidence and seizure data suggest that poaching and wildlife trafficking is the fourth largest transnational crime, after the trafficking of drugs and people, and counterfeiting. In the case of ivory, armed militia and terrorist groups on the African continent engage in elephant poaching and ivory trafficking to finance their nefarious operations. Many agencies, including INTERPOL and the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, recognize the increasing involvement of organized syndicates in wildlife crime.

The federal government has an important role to play, and we made progress last year with the passage of the END Wildlife Trafficking Act in Congress and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s rule to close loopholes in the domestic ivory trade. But states must also take action to help dry up demand for poached products within their own borders. There is strong and bipartisan support for these laws, as seen in huge ballot measure victories by HSLF and our coalition partners—winning 70 percent of the statewide votes in Washington in 2015 and Oregon in 2016 to ban the trade in wildlife parts.

The new legislation in Maryland would keep the products of elephants, rhinoceros, tigers, lions, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, sea turtles, and great apes off the market, ensuring that consumers do not unwittingly contribute to the illegal wildlife trade. Maryland can join California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Washington which have passed similar laws—building momentum in the fight to shut down local markets that allow so many to continue seeking profit from destructive wildlife trafficking.

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