Dog fighting is big business in Memphis, but the bloody sport rarely happens here in a large-scale organized fashion. Rather, its instances are more underground, with spontaneous street-dog fighting and a barbaric practice known as "trunking."
"Dog fighting is one of the worst things you've ever seen, and a lot of people can't stomach it. So people who want to participate pull up in a parking lot somewhere, place two dogs in the trunk of a car, close the lid, and throw down bets," said Cindy Sanders with the Memphis-based animal advocacy group Community Action for Animals. "When they can't hear dogs fighting anymore, they open the trunk and the dog that's alive is the one that wins."
If a bill working its way through the Tennessee General Assembly passes, the people who show up to place bets and watch those fights would face increased penalties.
The Animal Fighting Enforcement Act of 2014, HB 2120 and SB2366, would make spectating at a dog or cock fight a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $2,500 and a maximum sentence of 11 months and 29 days in jail.
Under current law, a spectator at a dog fight in Tennessee can be fined up to $500 and sentenced to no more than six months in jail. One caught watching a cock fight (more common in rural parts of the state) can get off with as little as $50 in fines and up to 30 days in jail.
"Spectators' admission fees and gambling dollars help finance these illegal dog fights," said John Goodwin, a Memphis native who know works as the Director of Animal Cruelty Policy at the Humane Society for the United States in Washington, D.C. "Sometimes people pay up to $100 to attend dog fights. If we can take away the spectators, that's a lot less money going to the fight organizers. And where there's less money, there are fewer dog fights."
Goodwin said many states charge spectators at dog fights with felonies, but he's glad to see any increase in penalty in Tennessee.
"It's still a pretty moderate bill to compare with where most of the country is," Goodwin said. "But it would be a dramatic improvement and, hopefully, it would make Tennessee less of a destination for those on the dog fighting circuit."
Goodwin said increasing penalties for spectators will also help close a loophole in the law.
"At the first sign of a raid, anyone who has brought a dog to a fight will abandon their dog and act like spectators to avoid a more meaningful penalty. They're using weaker penalties for spectators as a loophole to avoid serious fines or prison time," Goodwin said.
Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich said dog fighting in this region tends to be tied to gang crime, and she supports the proposed increased penalties for spectators.
"We hope the first person who gets caught spectating at an animal fight, gets sent to the penal farm for the weekend, has to write a check for $2,000, and hire a lawyer to get the word out that we're not going to tolerate this in our community," Weirich said.
The bills, both "caption bills," meaning they started off as bills about a totally different issues, are expected to be voted on by the General Assembly by April 10th.