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Lawmakers stand up to protect animals
Legislation to strengthen laws against animal fighting advanced yesterday, as one Senate committee endorsed the bill and sent it on to another.

Date published: 1/29/2008



--Legislation to strengthen laws against animal fighting advanced yesterday, as one Senate committee endorsed the bill and sent it on to another.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, and backed by the attorney general, would make cockfighting a felony, the same as dogfighting, and make it a misdemeanor to attend cockfights or dogfights.

It would also make it a misdemeanor to allow a juvenile to attend an animal fight, and the bill includes penalties for having animal fighting paraphernalia.

The measure stems from last year's much-publicized indictment and trial of NFL star Michael Vick on charges of running a dogfighting operation from his property in Surry County. Vick is currently serving a federal prison term in that case.

Proponents of the bill--ranging from police to the Humane Society--said the Vick case raised public awareness of animal fighting as a crime. They said people who operate animal fighting rings are often into other crimes as well, such as drug trafficking and gambling, and that more of them are coming to Virginia because North Carolina and Maryland have stricter laws against animal fighting.

"This is far more than a concern about animal welfare," said Robin Starr, CEO of the Richmond SPCA, supporting the bill in front of the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee. "These animal fighters are organized criminals of the worst sort. This is not a matter of two chickens fighting with each other in a pen. This is a large scale illegal activity. It is an enormous, lucrative endeavor of organized crime consequently a misdemeanor penalty is for them nothing more than the cost of doing business, and it will not deter them."

Henry County Commonwealth's Attorney Bob Bushnell said the state association of commonwealth's attorneys supports the bill, because Virginia's penalties for animal fighting are so low.

"A fair-sized illegal cockfighting operation can result in a million dollars a year of illegal money flowing from hand to hand," Bushnell said. "When you've got that much of an underground economy it invites other crimes, it invites corruption. Especially when we border states that take it more seriously than we do. This is a well-crafted, reasonable and much needed piece of legislation."

Norment amended the bill to clarify that it didn't impact hunting or fishing.

The bill had no opposition, either from the audience or from the committee. But a discussion over how to word an amendment regarding juveniles at animal fights led to a proposal to send the bill to the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, which is where it went.

The House of Delegates has an identical bill in the works as well.

Chelyen Davis: 804/782-9362
Email: cdavis@freelancestar.com