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Isle dogfighting law gains teeth

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Investigators for the Hawaiian Humane Society are on the trail of three suspected dogfighting cases on Oahu and hope a bill signed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie on Tuesday will lead to the first dogfighting prosecution in Hawaii.

To report dogfighting

The Hawaiian Humane Society is offering a $5,000 reward for tips that lead to arrests and convictions of criminal acts related to dogfighting. Animal CrimeStoppers is offering a $1,000 reward for tips that lead to dogfighting arrests and convictions.
Tips can be made to the Hawaiian Humane Society at 356-2250 or to Animal CrimeStoppers at 955-8300.

"The challenge is to convince the community that dogfighting is happening," said Keoni Vaughn, director of operations for the Hawaiian Humane Society. "These are very, very dangerous people, often linked to drugs and organized crime. They’re underground and very clandestine."

Vaughn is investigating a so-called "professional" dogfight last year that occurred in urban Honolulu, along with "hobbyist" dogfights in 2010 in Waianae and the North Shore that involved smaller gambling wages.

Unlike cockfight promoters, dogfight organizers typically restrict attendance to a few, trusted accomplices who report the outcomes of dogfights to bettors, Vaughn said.

"You can find 500 people at a cockfight but you’ll only find a few people at a dogfight because of the stigma," Vaughn said. "The money that’s bet can be huge, in the tens of thousands of dollars. … And unlike cockfights, it’s a macho thing: ‘My dog is the toughest, baddest dog on the island.’"

Abercrombie signed Senate Bill 1069 into law on Tuesday. It makes it a class C felony to bet on — or even attend — a dog fight. The bill increases the penalty for anyone who owns, trains, equips, arranges and sponsors dogfights to a maximum fine of $10,000 and includes imprisonment of up to five years.

"Before, spectators could walk away — unless they were caught gambling," Vaughn said. "This new law makes it a felony just to attend a dog fight. That’s huge."

The bill also increases the prison term from two years to 20 years for sponsoring, arranging and allowing a dogfight on a person’s property — or for owning, training, transporting, possessing, selling or transferring dogs engaged in dogfighting. Fines also can be levied up to $25,000.

The Hawaiian Humane Society is contracted through the city to enforce animal-related laws. Vaughn is among the investigators deputized through the Honolulu Police Department to write search warrants and conduct investigations.

"There’s never been a charge for dogfighting in Hawaii," Vaughn said. "We’ve never even busted a dogfight."

But the Hawaiian Humane Society has been close.

Investigators last year were 30 minutes late in meeting a plane from Maui that was carrying a pit bull to a fight on Oahu, Vaughn said.

Another pit bull owner from Texas prepared for a dogfight on Oahu last year by preparing the dog for Hawaii’s quarantine laws three months in advance, Vaughn said.

And people in Waianae and Kapolei have reported coming upon so-called "bait dogs" that were near death and had their mouths and legs bound with duct tape, Vaughn said. The bait dogs are used to agitate fighting dogs into a rage for their money-generating fights.

But Timothy Ho, chief deputy for the Office of the Public Defender, argued against Senate Bill 1069 during the most recent legislative session and said Hawaii does not have a dogfighting problem.

"Do we have a dogfighting epidemic?" Ho wrote in testimony. "I have been employed with the Office of the Public Defender for 23 years and have not known of a single case prosecuted under the dogfighting statute. The state of Hawaii does not have a dogfighting problem. We need to be focusing our attention and resources elsewhere."

"Of course it goes on," said Joel Fischer, a retired professor from the University of Hawaii’s School of Social Work. "This bill is long overdue."

A younger cousin of Fischer’s wife grew up in Wai­anae and fights both cocks and dogs along the Leeward Coast, Fischer told the Star-Advertiser on Wednesday.

"He’s a small guy, not a bodybuilder or anything," Fischer said. "He’s really nice, really funny. He’s just caught up in it."

Fischer, an animal lover, has been to cockfights with his cousin, but refuses to watch a dogfight.

"I’ll swear at him and he just laughs at me," Fischer said. "It’s similar but worse than cockfighting. It’s beyond culture and beyond gambling. There’s just a little added twist of cruelty with dogfights."

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