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Program expected to curb dog fighting

• Reward offered for information that leads to conviction.

Posted: April 6, 2008 11:26 p.m.
Updated: June 8, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 
Determined to crack down on illegal dog fighting in the wake of the Michael Vick case, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office has teamed up with the Humane Society of the United States and last week launched a reward program which they hope will encourage people to report the crime.

Tipsters will be able to use the county's 211 information line to report suspected dog fighting activities in their neighborhoods, and will be eligible for a $5,000 cash reward if they provide information that leads to a conviction.

The program also includes efforts to increase training and awareness among law enforcement agencies, which are not always aware of how to look for and handle such crimes, according to Deputy District Attorney Deborah Knaan.

"We hope to raise awareness and increase reporting with this program, which will result in the crime being investigated, filed, and prosecuted," Knaan said. "It is cruel to force animals to fight without any means of escape. Those engaged in dog fighting are using animals for personal gain with no regard for whether the animals are severely injured or killed."

Knaan, who specializes in animal cruelty cases, was instrumental in bringing together the agencies involved in the program. She has created guidelines on prosecuting animal cruelty cases and has trained both D.A.s and police officers on how to investigate and prosecute abuse.

The number of dog fighting arrests and prosecutions is low but rising, with the Humane Society documenting 23 raids nationwide in 2007 and 56 so far in 2008.

Authorities believe these numbers represent only a small fraction of a problem that is significant but underreported, and are hoping that the incentive program will change that.

"We think an increased awareness of this cruel so-called sport will help the Animal Cruelty Task Force investigators in their efforts to uncover what is believed to be a pervasive underground animal fighting business in Los Angeles County," said District Attorney Steve Cooley in a statement.

The task force is comprised of police department and animal services personnel who investigate and prosecute animal cruelty cases. According to Lt. Anthony LoDomenico of the LAPD, a task force member, the reward initiative will foster more community involvement and in turn generate investigative leads.

Though the Humane Society has been offering a $2,500 reward for almost a decade for information about dog fighting, this partnership program represents the first time it has joined with a local prosecutorial agency.

"We are thrilled to have the support of District Attorney Steve Cooley on this important issue," said Eric Sakach, West Coast Regional Office Director for the Humane Society. "Dog fighting destroys communities as well as animals. It's the last thing Los Angeles needs."

The Humane Society bumped up the award amount from $2,500 to $5,000 after the Michael Vick case, thanks to a $200,000 donation from the Holland M. Ware Charitable Foundation.

NBA star Michael Vick pleaded guilty in August 2007 to conspiring to run a dog fighting ring after authorities discovered a large breeding and fighting operation on his Virginia property. He is currently serving an 18 month prison sentence.

The wide publicity surrounding the case brought national attention to illegal dog fighting, and prompted law enforcement officials around the country to take a closer look at the problem in their own communities.

"Dog fighting is finally being acknowledged as a serious problem, the way domestic violence was 20 or 30 years ago," said Knaan. "People are gaining a new appreciation for the issue of animal cruelty. We are all starting to take it a lot more seriously now."

Evidence of dog fighting includes dogs that have injuries, those that are kept on heavy chains or with weights around their necks, dogs that are trained on treadmills, and unusual comings and goings at a particular location where dogs are kept.

Cooley said that just last month a South Los Angeles man was sent to prison for five years after being convicted of involvement in a dog fighting ring. A member of the public tipped off authorities, who confiscated training equipment and 17 pit bull terriers, many of which were underweight and wounded.

Cracking down on dog fighting will also reduce a number of other dangerous activities, according to Cooley.

"Animal fighting not only promotes the mistreatment and killing of animals, it makes communities vulnerable to by-product crimes such as illegal gambling, assault, drugs, and weapons," he said. "It is also widely recognized that those who abuse animals are more likely to engage in violence against humans."

To report a tip, members of the public can call 211.

Services are available in English, Spanish and over 140 other languages through a tele-interpreting service. Cell phone callers dialing 211 will be routed to their local law enforcement agency.

Joe Cardwell contributed to this report.

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