Posted: April 27, 2016 at 6:57 pm

By Samantha Clarkson, Kalea Gunderson and Nate Temple

Dogs with missing jaws, broken legs and bloody fur were rescued last June by the Jefferson County Police Department, initiating action from legislators against dog fighting crimes in West Virginia.

After months of negotiating the consequences of those involved in dog fighting, the House Bill 4201 was passed in March, increasing penalties and ensuring justice for dogs in this state.

It wasn’t until she witnessed it herself that Heather Severt, the W.Va. Director of State Affairs at the Humane Society of the United States realized the severity of this situation that still exists today – even in the hills of W.Va.

“I’ve always thought animal fighting was atrocious, but once I saw it first-hand, it triggered something in me,” she said. “I saw the suffering animals and I had to walk away and just cry. Seeing that in person is horrifying. That’s when I became passionate about combating this in W.Va.”

The incident Severt witnessed was part of the efforts of the Jefferson County, W.Va. police department who seized 20 dogs last June.

Steve Jennings was charged with 14 felony counts of animal fighting and will be sentenced on Monday, April 25.

Leading the raid to save these dogs was Jefferson County Sheriff Pete Dougherty.

“It’s not a crime that is reported often because it’s done in secret, so the investigation took a lot of work,” he said. “We got tips and leads, but not enough evidence until we raided his property last year.”

According to Severt, the raid was a “hurry up and wait” situation where they only got bits and pieces of evidence, but not enough to arrest him. Once they got the necessary evidence it was a “whirlwind” and the police department rushed to the scene. The dogs were rescued and Jennings was arrested.

“When we got to [Jennings’s] place, he had the dogs staked out. They were behind the tree line so they were not visible from the road. Some were in a cut-up barrel as a home, and they had a bowl of water out there – that was pretty much it. There was no vegetation on the ground.  About half of the dogs didn’t survive,” Dougherty said.

Once Jennings was arrested and light was shed on animal cruelty in W.Va., legislatures began to reconsider applying stricter penalties criminals.

The House Bill 4201 states that “any person convicted of a second or subsequent violation of subsection (a) of this section is guilty of a felony and, shall be fined not less than $2,500 and not more than $5,000, imprisoned in a state correctional facility not less than one year nor more than five years, or both fined and imprisoned.”

The previous penalty was a misdemeanor, a fine of $100 to $1,000 and jail time of up to a year depending on the severity of the situation.

According to Severt, getting this bill passed to increase these penalties was no easy task.

“It took a lot of hard work and a lot of people came together to make it happen,” she said.

Severt along with sponsors and co-sponsors started preparing about 8 months in advance by analyzing the most important parts of the bill so that it had the best chance of passing. They edited and tweaked it to the strongest language possible, while advocating and reaching out to legislators in the meantime.

West Virginia University student and W.Va. House of Delegates member Saira Blair was among the sponsors who believed animal fighting penalties needed to be amended.

“In my opinion, the most important part of this bill is enhancing the penalties – especially for those bringing minors to an animal fighting event,” she said. “It’s important that the youth of our state remain protected from these heinous acts.”

According to Severt, children were victims to these crimes as well as the animals.

“One of the things that really upset me was that people would bring their kids to these events. I’ve seen pictures where the kids were even involved with the fights. They had blood all over them and were holding dog parts. It was horrific. Its obvious the dogs alone would upset you, but when I found out that people were bringing their children it just blew my mind. I can’t fathom exposing my child to that,” she said.

Although there were – and still are dog fighting events occurring in W.Va., with the passing of the House Bill 4201 and Jennings to be brought to justice, there is hope for the future.

“I’m very hopeful that we can see this industry disappear,” Blair said. “It’s crucial to see a culture change take place and I’m confident that it will.”

To further enact change, the Humane Society offers law enforcement training events for officers to be prepared to spot dog-fighting activity and put it to an end. The next event is in Morgantown this May.