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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

States Tackle Centuries-Old Cruelty

State legislatures have convened around the country for the 2011 sessions, and some lawmakers are taking aim at one of the oldest forms of animal abuse first targeted by the early humane movement.

Around 1800, the first animal welfare campaigners in England worked to stop bull baiting and bear baiting—where a bull or bear was tethered to a stake and dogs were set loose to attack the trapped animal. Bears had their teeth and claws removed and were left with no natural defenses, to be torn apart for the amusement of spectators—not unlike the gladiatorial games of the Roman Colosseum centuries earlier. The practice was banned in the United Kingdom in 1835, and New York became the first state to outlaw it in 1856.

Until recently, we believed that bear baiting persisted in only a few remote areas of Pakistan, but last summer, an HSUS investigation uncovered the practice in several rural areas of South Carolina. Undercover video footage showed one 15-year-old female bear attacked by about 300 dogs in succession over a four-hour period. The terrified bear has reportedly been trucked around to baiting competitions all over the state for years.

South Carolina law prohibits animal fighting and baiting, but has a specific exemption for so-called “bear baying” competitions. Two bills have been introduced to correct this problem and clarify the law—S. 201 by Sen. Joel Lourie (D-Richland) and S. 253 by Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston)—and we are grateful to them for their leadership and swift action to address this terrible abuse. As Sen. Lourie said recently, “I was appalled by the recent reports in the media detailing this barbaric practice. It needs to be outlawed. South Carolina cannot have the distinction of being the only state where you can chain up a bear and sic dogs on it for sport.”

Bears aren’t the only animals being forced into staged animal combat with dogs, and another permutation of this abuse that we've seen is the practice of fox and coyote penning—trapping foxes or coyotes in the wild, selling them to be stocked in fenced pens, and setting packs of dogs loose on them in a timed competition. The dogs often kill the fox or coyote, tearing the animal to shreds. After HSUS-led campaigns and state agency investigations into the illegal trade to stock pens, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission unanimously voted to ban the practice last year, and the Indiana Natural Resources Commission in 2008 stopped the trafficking of live coyotes trapped in Indiana to pens in the Southeast.

But the Indiana commission has backtracked, and is now allowing fox and coyote pens within the state, with a phase-out of no new pens after January 2012. In rebuff, an editorial in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette said, “Allowing hunting dogs to chase and kill fenced-in coyotes who have little chance of escape is unsporting.” And the South Bend Tribune said that regulating the practice, rather than banning it,  “doesn’t erase the fact that running by dogs in enclosures, even big ones with culverts and brush piles meant to provide the foxes and coyotes escape from being caught and torn to shreds, isn’t ethical. It isn’t likely that every one of the hunted animals would win the run for its life.”

State Reps. Dave Cheatham (D-North Vernon) and Linda Lawson (D-Hammond) have introduced H.B. 1135 to prohibit fox and coyote pens in Indiana, and an overwhelming majority of statewide voters support the proposed ban, with 85% in favor and only 9% opposed. Rep. Lawson pointed out the irony of the wildlife commission’s current position: “If we wouldn’t allow (the animals) sold to other states because it was inhumane, why would we allow it here?”

English pamphleteer Philip Stubbes asked in 1583, “What Christian heart can take pleasure to see one poor beast to rent, tear and kill another, and all for his foolish pleasure?” Now four-and-a-quarter centuries later, we have an opportunity to spare animals from bear baiting and fox and coyote penning, by enacting these humane policy reforms in South Carolina and Indiana.

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