WASHINGTON -- President Bush on Thursday signed a bill strengthening penalties against animal fighting.
The new law makes it a felony to transport animals across state lines to engage in fighting events, carrying a prison sentence of up to three years and a $250,000 fine.
The violation previously was a misdemeanor, which animal rights groups said did little to discourage what they call brutal practices.
The House approved the bill 368-39 on March 26, and it passed by unanimous consent in the Senate on April 10.
Dog fighting is illegal in all 50 states, and Louisiana is the only state that allows cockfighting.
Opponents argued the measure could allow felony charges to be brought against game fowl enthusiasts who raise birds for their meat and feathers or enter them in exhibitions like horse or dog shows but never use them for fights.
Larry Matthews, director emeritus of the United Gamefowl Breeders Association, said the law will be difficult to enforce.
"How do you tell a fighting rooster from one that's going to go to a livestock show?" Matthews said. "You can't tell one from the other."
Supporters say stronger federal penalties will help authorities crack down on animal fighting and other illegal activities associated with it, such as gun and drug trafficking.
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., a sponsor of the bill and a veterinarian, applauded the new law.
"I know animal fighting is a cruel form of entertainment, and this bill will take a great step toward stopping it," Ensign said in a statement. "Animals associated with these fights can spread disease to other animals and even humans."
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said, "Animal fighting is a barbaric and inhumane practice, and it is fitting and appropriate that we now have a national policy condemning and criminalizing this form of organized animal cruelty."