After Vick Case, Dogfighting Bills Flood Va. Session
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
RICHMOND, Jan. 14 -- Animal rights activists say Virginia legislators reacted with skepticism, even jokes, when they tried in past years to advocate for harsher laws against animal fighting.
That changed, they say, last year after Atlanta Falcons football star Michael Vick pleaded guilty to conspiracy in connection with a dogfighting operation on his property in southeastern Virginia, where dogs had been shot, hanged, beaten, drowned and electrocuted.
Now activists are riding that wave of national publicity to try to get tougher laws on the books to increase penalties for those who organize or watch animal fights and to give law enforcement more powers to find and arrest them.
The General Assembly, which began a 60-day legislative session last week, is considering more animal protection bills than in past years, many of them sponsored by Senate and House leaders.
"The members of the General Assembly had a tendency not to take bills regarding animal welfare seriously," said Robin Starr, chief executive officer of the Richmond SPCA, which has worked to get bills passed for years. "There is no question about the fact that the mood has changed this year. I think everybody got quite an education about how horrific dogfighting is. I think it's changed people's understanding entirely."
Legislators, including Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), and Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) will join the Humane Society of the United States at a news conference Tuesday to tout the importance of this year's proposals.
Virginia's animal-fighting laws are less strict than other states', particularly for cockfighting, and law enforcement officials say residents from neighboring states come to watch and gamble thousands of dollars in arenas complete with bleacher seats and concession stands.
McDonnell, who included several animal protection proposals on his legislative agenda this year, said that high-profile cases such as the Virginia Tech shooting often help bring attention to laws that need to be changed. "There hadn't been a lot of focus [on animals] until the Michael Vick case," he said.
Vick pleaded guilty to a single conspiracy count for operating Bad Newz Kennels, a dogfighting operation that started six years ago in Surry County. In December, he was sentenced to a tougher-than-expected, 23-month prison term and recently entered a drug treatment program.
"There's no question the Michael Vick situation was an embarrassment to the state," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), who is also sponsoring a bill.
The Vick case was quickly followed by the unrelated discovery of a suspected puppy mill in Carroll County, where more than 1,000 dogs were found in cages.
The high-profile Virginia cases have prompted a flurry of complaints about suspected animal abuse cases as well as legislative proposals in states across the nation.