Animal protection advocates want the Montana Legislature to make watching dogs or roosters fight for sport a felony.
"I think one of the things that may startle people is to think that there actually is animal fighting," said Sen. Kim Gillan, D-Billings, during last week's committee hearing on Senate Bill 220, which would criminalize being a willing spectator to the blood sport. "There are people who do engage in animal fighting. It's not just something we read about in the news."
It's difficult to gauge the pervasiveness of animal fighting in Montana. The last conviction for facilitating the sport occurred 12 years ago. However, animal advocates say evidence appears in the form of scarred and aggressive dogs showing up in animal shelters.
Dave Pauli, regional director of the Humane Society of the United States, says his Billings office receives reports of dog fighting from local law enforcement agencies, animal shelters and citizen whistleblowers on a semi-regular basis.
"During each of the last three years, I have gotten calls from local sheriff's departments," Pauli says.
When fights occur, dogs are directed to battle until one dies or is severely injured. Prior to a cockfight, gaffs—sharp spikes—are placed over the rooster's natural leg spur.
"It's a very unnatural event," says Pauli, who's been working with Gillan to pass the legislation. "It's a fight to the death."
Montana is one of only two states that hasn't made it a crime to watch animal fighting for sport. Twenty-four states have made it a felony. Others classify the activity as a misdemeanor. Since Wyoming and Idaho in 2008 adopted more stringent penalties, animal advocates like Pauli say Montana's leniency lends it to becoming an animal-fighting destination.
"There is pressure for people to come in where the penalties are nonexistent or greatly reduced," he says.