Lawmakers try to toughen dog-fighting restrictions

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ATLANTA - Paw prints embedded in treadmills. Logs documenting pit bulls' weight. Thousands of dollars in cash stacked like bricks.

Although scenes such as these aren't illegal, some point to them as indicators that dogs are being trained to fight.

But it wouldn't matter if that were the case, because training a dog to fight isn't illegal in Georgia.

Frustrated by what they see as red tape in cracking down on dog fighting, prosecutors and law enforcement officials urged legislators to craft bills this year to help them catch trainers before they ever take their dogs to fighting pits.

Passed and adopted by the Senate this month, Senate Bill 16 would make it a felony to own or train dogs to fight, advertise or hold fights or bet on such events.

Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, the bill's sponsor, said he began his campaign against dog fighting after a 3-year-old boy in his district was mauled by a pit bull that had been trained to fight. The boy had to undergo eight facial surgeries.

Mr. Rogers said the state lags behind the rest of the nation in restricting the practice. As of now, it is one of only three states, along with Idaho and Nevada, where breeding dogs to fight is not a punishable offense.

"Unfortunately, Georgia has gained a reputation as a place to come and fight dogs and get away with it," Mr. Rogers said.

Richmond County sheriff's Sgt. Richard Roundtree said there is little dog fighting in Augusta.

Most recently, three youths, including the son of former Richmond County school Superintendent Charles Larke, were accused of organizing a November dog fight at Regency Mall on Gordon Highway. At least one dog was severely injured.

Sgt. Roundtree pointed to Aiken County, where several dog-fighting rings have been shut down in recent years.

Despite occasional arrests around Georgia, it is the underground nature of dog fighting that makes it extremely hard to track, said Richard Rice, the state program manager for the Humane Society of the United States.

"It's a tight-knit group of folks who handle these operations," he said. "They are very good at keeping the fights secret, and on top of that, we have one of the weakest laws in the nation."

Even if police are unable to catch breeders training the dogs to fight, Mr. Rogers said stiffer penalties could reduce the crowds at dog fights.

Under his bill, the practice would be punishable by as much as five years in prison and a fine of at least $5,000. A second violation would carry a maximum 10 year jail sentence and a minimum fine of $15,000.

A breeder's take

Tom Garner has been breeding pit bulls for 28 years and is recognized by canine-sporting publications as one of the largest in the business.

The owner of Tom Garner Kennels in Hillsborough, N.C., said he has fielded plenty of requests from customers looking for fighting dogs.

However, he said he only sells puppies because most people looking for dogs to fight prefer a more developed animal.

He acknowledged that some of his customers probably use the animals for illegal activity, but he also ripped some for what he felt was a misperception of dog breeders.

"There are a lot of legitimate reasons for dog trainers to use treadmills and similar equipment," he said.

"That is a fallacy (that they are used solely for fighting) promoted by the liberal, animal-control activists."

He said such equipment is used to help with weight pulling and conformation, which is the way a dog's appearance conforms to the standards of its breed in dog shows.

Mr. Rogers said authorities would look at the "totality of circumstances" and that workout equipment alone isn't enough to warrant legal action.

Even with stricter legislation, Mr. Garner said, it would still be easy for breeders to buy pit bulls specifically with the intent of using them for fights.

Keeping the crowds away

Personal-injury attorney Claudia Wilkins said the lack of convictions hides the extent of the dog fighting in the state.

"It's a huge problem," she said. "Georgia is one of, if not the worst, breeding grounds for dog fighters in the nation."

She said people are drawn from as far as the northernmost states by six-figure pay days and little risk because of what she said were lax penalties.

"They know if they come to Georgia and get caught, they'll just get a slap on the wrist," she said.

Georgia is the only state other than Hawaii where attending a dog fight is not illegal.

There is a bill similar to Mr. Rogers' making its way through the House. Sponsored by Rep. Bobby Reese, R-Sugar Hill, House Bill 301 would give spectators of dog fights a less severe punishment: a misdemeanor for first time offenders and a misdemeanor of high and aggravated nature for subsequent violations.

Mr. Reese said he originally sought felony status for spectators but was told by House Judiciary-Non Civil committee members that the violation wasn't extreme enough to take away some rights, such as voting, that are restricted from felons.

If Mr. Rogers' bill is assigned to the same House committee, Mr. Reese said the penalty would be downgraded to misdemeanor status or fail to make it out of committee.

House Bill 301 is yet to go before the chamber for a vote.

Reach Brian Hughes at (404) 681-1701 or

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