Senators Introduce Landmark Legislation to Create Animal Cruelty Crimes Unit at U.S. Department of Justice

Bipartisan Group in the U.S. House Introduced Identical Measure Two Weeks Ago

While plenty of perpetrators of cruelty do their deeds in the shadows, others are brazen about the abuse they heap on animals.

In Shelbyville, the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration flaunted show horses earlier this month, with the equines festooned with medieval-looking wear, throwing their legs up high despite the presence of weighted five-inch-high stacks affixed to their feet and chains wrapped around their pasterns like the clumsiest and dullest of bracelets. The only reason the horses thrust their legs toward the sky is because they are hurting. The trainers have blistered their forelimbs or done damage to the lower portion of their feet and induced the gait by putting the chains atop the injury or placing a foreign object on the sensitive tissue around their hooves. Informed observers know that soring is part of every “Big Lick” show even as the trainers attempt to obscure the precise means of delivering injury. Industry inspectors, enlisted ostensibly to enforce the Horse Protection Act of 1970, typically look the other way, with the USDA’s inspectors themselves saddled with a 50-year-old law full of holes and with weak penalty provisions.

In Oklahoma, Alabama, and some other states with major cockfighting operators, the enthusiasts for staged fights maintain farms with thousands of birds, neatly arranged in rows with each bird tethered to an A-frame hut, being trained and readied for shipment around the world. A federal law makes it a felony to possess or ship birds for fighting purposes, yet their contraband is out in the open and crowing up a storm. The cockfighters are so unabashed that dozens of them recently allowed a Philippines-based broadcaster, BNTV, to do promotional videos with them, where they boast of the “cutting” abilities of their birds who may be sold into the World Slasher Derby and other major cockfighting venues in the Asian nation.

One recently shuttered website, BeastForum.com, that connected people with an interest in bestiality had 1.2 million users before being shut down. Bestiality is banned in 46 states and it is now a federal crime under the PACT Act. Other websites have flickered on with the same networking content.

You get the point. Some forms of institutionalized cruelty are barely beneath the surface or right out in the open.

In a major step that seeks to focus especially on those forms of abuse and make anti-cruelty enforcement as a higher national priority, Senators Mike Braun, R-Ind., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., John Kennedy, R-La., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., introduced legislation to created an Animal Cruelty Crimes section at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Two weeks ago, an equally diverse group of House members — Reps. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Buddy Carter, R-Ga. — introduced an identical version of the Animal Cruelty Enforcement (ACE) Act.

“America has recently taken big steps to crack down on animal cruelty with new laws to protect animals from torture and abuse, but we need further action to ensure these laws are being enforced across the country and track our progress in eradicating animal cruelty,” said Senator Mike Braun.

Indeed, the Congress, in a bipartisan fashion, has dramatically fortified our animal protection legal framework. Last year, the Congress passed, and the President signed, the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act. In 2018, Congress tightened the federal Animal Fighting Law for a fifth time in the last 20 years, banning dogfighting and cockfighting everywhere and making the fighting and a range of associated activities felony offenses. The Pet and Women’s Safety Act makes it a federal crime to engage in domestic violence so all-encompassing that it makes victims of the pets in the household. And the Dog and Cat Meat Trade Prohibition Act forbids killing our pets for human consumption. And these laws, all adopted within the last two years, build on other anti-cruelty laws passed previously, such as the Animal Crush Law, which bars selling videos showing illegal acts of cruelty.

The introduction of the ACE Act in both chambers also comes in the wake of seven recent state- and territory-based investigations of illegal trafficking of animals for fighting, exposing syndicates collectively selling tens of thousands of animals across the world for fighting pits.

Our investigation started when we examined live-animal import records from the Guam Department of Agriculture and detailed more than 500 illegal shipments by 71 individuals from more than a dozen states over the last three years.

Taking a closer look at the U.S.-based shippers made plain to us that the United States has become the key breeding grounds for the global cockfighting industry. One shipper, Jerry Adkins of Slick Lizard Farms in Nauvoo, Ala., recently told a Filipino television broadcaster that he sells 6,000 birds a year to Mexico alone. With some birds fetching as much as $2,000 each, that could generate millions in gross sales for Mr. Adkins and the other members of his family involved in trafficking animals.

When you look at dogfighting, bestiality, and other malicious forms of cruelty, you begin to recognize that animal abuse is just one part of a matrix of lawlessness and loss of empathy. There is a significant connection between animal cruelty and violence against humans, including domestic violence, child exploitation, sexual abuse, gang activity, drug trafficking, and other crimes. Dogfighting and cockfighting almost always involve illegal gambling, while the illegal movement of fighting birds has been tied to outbreaks of avian influenza, which is both an animal health threat and a zoonotic disease threat. A recent outbreak in California of Virulent Newcastle Disease, which is suspected of originating in fighting birds, has cost the federal and state government more than $100 million to contain and resulted in the killing of more than 1 million animals as a means of arresting its progress.

AWA and the Animal Wellness Foundation are excited to work with lawmakers and the U.S. Department of Justice to make animal cruelty enforcement a priority and to enable strategic action to combat cruelty. Already, U.S. Attorneys throughout the nation are bringing more cases and investigative agencies, such as USDA’s Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, are paying more attention to these crimes. Should the agency get this new capacity, the Department of Justice can send a signal to the entire federal law enforcement community that animal cruelty is a serious offense that must be met with tenacious action to root it out.

Take action here by urging your senators to support the Animal Cruelty Enforcement Act.

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