Will dogfighting bill pass Legislature?

Published 11:11 pm Saturday, December 9, 2017

 

NATCHEZ — As the next Mississippi Legislature’s session nears, proponents of stronger animal welfare laws are busy perfecting and rallying support for a bill to harshen punishments for dogfighting.

The question hanging over their work is this: Will the bill pass?

Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, said he believes it will.

Dearing, a longtime advocate for animal rights, said his bill to raise fines and prison sentences for ringleaders in dogfights is nearing completion.

Dearing plans to pass out copies of the proposed bill at a Dec. 18 public forum in Natchez.

The forum, organized by Mayor Darryl Grennell, will offer residents the opportunity to tell legislators what they would like to see in new dogfighting laws.

Current Mississippi dogfighting laws allow up to a $5,000 fine and no more than three years in the state penitentiary.

Dearing said his plan, which an attorney is finalizing now, includes a $1,000 fine per dog found on the property and one year in a state penitentiary per dog found with an upper cap of 25 years.

“I want this to be the strongest bill in the country,” Dearing said.

Dearing’s bill also includes a restitution segment that charges the convicted person for upkeep and medical care for the dogs confiscated off of his or her property for the duration of the legal process.

Dearing said he has already received much public input for his bill, including recommendations from the Adams County Sheriff’s Office and various police departments.

Dearing said other state senators have already reached out to him about the bill.

Sen. Billy Hudson, R-Forrest, Perry, reached out to Dearing after the dogfighting busts in Natchez and Canton in early November.

Hudson said he is interested in co-sponsoring the dogfighting bill when it comes to the senate floor.

Dearing said Hudson, who is chair of the Agriculture Committee, is a great friend to have when trying to pass laws on animal welfare.

All bills concerning agriculture and animals are assigned to Hudson’s committee.

Hudson said he had recently seen coverage of November’s dogfighting bust in Adams County, where approximately 56 animals were found injured and neglected in a suspected fighting ring.

“When I saw that report about the dogfight arrests I told my wife I wanted to introduce a bill that is a lot stronger,” Hudson said. “I told her, ‘I want to have a $1,000 fine per dog.’ Then I watched Bob Dearing on the evening news say the very same thing.”

Hudson said he is not certain he will cosponsor the bill, but said he likely would.

“I called Sen. Dearing and said, ‘It’s your county, but if you’d like me to, I’d like to cosponsor it,’” Hudson said. “I told him to write it and let me look. I’m about 99-percent sure we’ll sponsor it.”

Hudson said he hopes the dogfighting legislation would not only deter people living in Mississippi who might run dogfighting rings, but also ward off people out of state who might think twice before traveling to fights if laws were tougher.

“Anybody who wants to fight dogs needs to know they can’t in Mississippi,” Hudson said. “That’s what I want.”

The support of the chair of the agriculture committee is a great boon to the bill, Dearing said, but is no guarantee of passage.

The lobbyist’s influence

To pass any animal rights bill, Mississippi legislators have an old foe to face.

In a meeting of community leaders on Nov. 13, former Natchez Mayor Tony Byrne said the biggest threat to an animal cruelty bill is Farm Bureau, citing their concerns any legislation may affect agricultural interests. “If you don’t think Farm Bureau is powerful, you’re wrong,” Byrne said in the meeting. If you don’t think they have enough money up there to kill anything with animal cruelty, you’re wrong. The enemy right now is Farm Bureau.”

Farm Bureau representatives declined to be interviewed but gave the following written statement:

“The Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation is adamantly opposed to the cruelty, abuse, or mistreatment of any animal. Mississippi’s current law provides for both misdemeanor and felony charges, up to five years imprisonment, and up to a $5,000 fine for people who are convicted of these terrible acts.  Those people can also be ordered by the court to obtain psychiatric/psychological treatment, perform community service, and be prohibited from working with dogs and cats.  Farm Bureau would like to see the current law enforced to its fullest extent before adding additional laws.”

Hudson said he does not think Farm Bureau will pose any opposition to a dogfighting bill.

“Farm Bureau wouldn’t oppose this,” Hudson said. “It’s totally different than animal cruelty.”

Byrne, too, said he believed Farm Bureau is less likely to oppose a dogfighting bill.

Tony Byrne’s wife, Annette, in 2011 partnered with Dearing to pass a dog and cat animal cruelty bill after a Natchez man was found to be boiling cats on a kitchen stove.

That bill, Tony Byrne said, took three years to pass because Farm Bureau fought the legislation so adamantly.

“I don’t know what their objection is with animal cruelty laws,” Byrne said, “but I think the dog fighting bill will probably pass.”

Dearing said he has spoken with several senators who support the proposed bill, but he is still wary.

“I don’t know whether they’ll be against it,” Dearing said.

Hudson said he is more sure.

“I don’t know any senator that’s for dogfighting,” Hudson said. “If we both sponsor it, it’ll pass.”

The 2018 Mississippi Legislature convenes at noon on Jan. 2.