Expert Voices

Dogfighting Bust, 3 Years in the Making, Marks Transformational Change (Op-Ed)

Wayne Pacelle is the president and chief executive officer of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). This Op-Ed is adapted from two posts on the blog A Humane Nation, where the content ran before appearing in LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

In Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Texas, there are now 367 dogs whose lives have turned around so fast they may have whiplash. Last Thursday night, those animals were staked to heavy chains in small hamlets and had passed another sweltering day — many without protection from the sun — with not enough food and too much fetid water available to them. Older dogs had been scarred from fights. One dog had been vomiting and then scrounging on the remains to get enough energy to stand.

Yet by the next night, all of them were in a well-ventilated building, free of their chains and living in kennels, with sawdust beneath their feet, plenty of clean water and healthy food, and Kong toys to play with. Veterinarians had treated the dogs' wounds and cleared away their fleas, and they were with people who would remove their waste so they could be comfortable and breathe the air. Most importantly, they were with people who would rather die than see dogs in a fighting pit. [The 10 Most Popular Dog Breeds]

Such is the power of ideas, the acceptance of ideas and the rule of law.

I regularly see the best and worst of humanity. That was never more true than last week when I participated in this rescue of dogs, on site at a property owned by an alleged dogfighter in southern Alabama. Federal and state law enforcement, along with The HSUS, the ASPCA, and other local and national animal welfare groups, had assembled for a major, multi-state operation to crack down on a network of alleged dog-fighting operations in the South. Ultimately, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested alleged dogfighters in all four states.

Dog-fighting has been a curse for a long time, but it was either considered a low-level concern that rarely warranted intentional action in a world brimming with problems, or it was just a sight unseen. The victims couldn't speak out, and if the public can't see the problem or mistakenly believe the matter has already been settled, then who can hear and who will care?

We at The HSUS care, and over the last quarter century, we've changed the legal framework in this country, working to make dog-fighting a felony in all 50 states. In the mid-1980s, fewer than half a dozen states had felony-level penalties for dog fighting. By 2008, all 50 states were onboard. By the end of the prior year, dog fighting had become a federal felony.

And year after year, we've worked to train thousands of law enforcement personnel on investigating this criminal behavior and to remind law enforcement and prosecutors that when you see dog-fighting in action, you see people who typically have no quarrel with breaking the law. Turn over the rock, and you'll find drugs, guns and violence. [Like Dog, Like Owner: See What Your Dog Says About You]

On Friday, after rising at 3 a.m. to ready ourselves for the raids and seizure, it was sure nice to have the FBI, county SWAT teams and the U.S. Attorney for central Alabama on the same schedule and on the same team as I was. With our colleagues at the ASPCA and local animal-welfare agencies, the team seized dogs from 13 locations.

The law is on our side.

We are also working to build the legal framework to stop other despicable, unacceptable acts, whether it's cockfighting, shark-finning , seal-clubbing or captive hunts. These are all forms of cruelty. Yesterday, they were sanctioned and accepted. Tomorrow, in an enlightened society, they will be illegal and considered morally bankrupt. They will be the markers of selfishness, greed and the old, archaic ways of the world.

Many of the alleged dogfighters targeted in the anti-dog-fighting operation had been known to each other from fights throughout the Southeast. The arrests did not occur at fighting pits, but at those individuals' homes, where they maintained "dog yards," with pit-bull type dogs on short, heavy, metal chains staked into the ground, with minimal protection from the searing heat.

At the yard where I was assigned, our HSUS team pulled 20 dogs, while five other HSUS teams fanned out to cover yards in that state and in two others. Despite being neglected and kept in substandard conditions, these dogs were friendly and very happy to see us. They welcomed the food, water, veterinary care and love that we provided. Many of them were emaciated. Several had scars on their faces and forelimbs. Our teams also discovered supplements and other standard dog-fighting paraphernalia.

The dogs now are recovering at undisclosed locations. You, along with other caring people, have made that possible. It's through those who support The HSUS that we can conduct long-term investigations like this one, deploy dozens of key personnel for rescues, and then handle and care for dogs for weeks or months on end.

A three-year investigation of these alleged dogfighters led to last week's interventions. Police in Auburn, Ala., started the investigation, with HSUS experts participating every step of the way, though the case was ultimately led by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney. All told, the rescue of these 367 dogs is thought to be the second-largest dog-fighting raid in U.S. history (the biggest one was an eight-state operation in July, 2009, centered in Missouri — which HSUS also participated in — that resulted in the seizure of more than 500 dogs).

Ten suspects were arrested and indicted on felony dog-fighting charges. Federal and local officials also seized firearms and drugs, as well as more than $500,000 in cash from dog-fighting gambling activities that took place over the course of the investigation. Remains of dead animals were also discovered on some properties where dogs were housed and allegedly fought.

If convicted, defendants could face up to five years in prison, as well as fines and restitution, under the provisions of the federal anti-animal fighting law that The HSUS worked with federal lawmakers to upgrade in 2002, 2007 and 2008. We are working with lawmakers on an additional upgrade this year, to penalize spectators at animal fights, and both the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill contain the reforms we're seeking to secure.

I vowed that when we upgraded the federal law, we would do everything in our power to ensure its enforcement — and that's exactly what we did. We are grateful to the committed men and women in federal and state law-enforcement who helped make this happen. And we are grateful for the labors of our peer organizations in animal protection for providing such meaningful help in a complex, multi-state, multi-jurisdictional enterprise.

If dogfighters think they'll evade the attention of law-enforcement personnel, they are mistaken. The U.S. attorney in Montgomery, with these actions, has indicated that he won't tolerate this crime and cruelty, and neither will the FBI.

We are committed to eradicating dog-fighting in every dark corner where it festers. This series of raids should remind dogfighters everywhere that they are not beyond the reach of law and their day of reckoning will come.

And just as the dogs' lives changed overnight, so did the lives of the alleged dogfighters. They had been living in comfortable homes. Now they are in prison, waiting for their cases to be heard, without freedom and all that comes with it.

That's the consequence of cruelty today. And it's as it should be.

Pacelle's most recent Op-Ed was "Lead in Discarded Bullets a Hazard for People and Wildlife". This article was adapted from "HSUS Helps Lead 2nd Largest Ever Dogfighting Raid" and "Dogfighting Bust a Marker of Transformational Change", which both first appeared as on the HSUS blog A Humane Nation. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.