The sad ending for the roosters rescued from a Super Bowl day gamecock gala was reported in the July 12 article "Fighting birds saved in raid euthanized." Because these roosters had been trained to fight, it was felt they could not be placed in someone's back yard. An equally sad part of the story is that the people who were arrested at the bloody ring containing a dead rooster will not face criminal charges because their animals were not caught in the act of fighting.
Florida's former law actually protected cockfighters, people who engage in illegal activities and who watch birds wearing steel blades slice each other to death. Thanks to a law signed by Gov. Bush a few weeks ago, these criminals now can be charged with a felony. Animal cruelty is against the law, and people who commit that crime should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Published statistics, however, would seem to indicate another outlet: The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports that breeding gamecocks for fighting purposes is an $18 million-a-year industry in the state, making it the 10th largest in terms of gamefowl production. Likewise, the Hawaii Game Breeders Association claims that 1,400 members spend more than $9 million annually on feed, cages, incidentals and shipping charges to raise and export thousands of birds to the U.S. mainland, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Guam, Saipan, the Philippines and other places where cockfights are regularly staged.
But the "show bird" justification is more important than ever for gamefowl breeders, now that a new federal law makes it illegal "to knowingly sell, buy, transport, deliver, or receive a bird in interstate commerce for purposes of participation in a fighting venture, regardless of the law in the destination state." The key phrase here is "for the purposes of participation in a fighting venture."
Breeders will, more than ever, claim their fowl are raised for bird shows, not for the bloody spectacles of cockfighting. "It's all a big ruse to circumvent the law," says Wayne Pacelle, The HSUS senior vice-president who leads legislative efforts in Congress and in the states to toughen laws against animal fighting. "The show industry is tiny. Cockfighting is huge. It persists because prohibitions are too porous, penalties too weak, and enforcement too lax."
Pacelle notes that raising roosters for what are essentially knife fights, staged before hundreds of yelling spectators, is a big and profitable business, despite the fact that these avian battles are banned in every state but Louisiana and parts of New Mexico. The business remains viable in part because cockfighting is only a misdemeanor in 20 states. The weak penalties in some of those states do little or nothing to dissuade participants.
Arkansas and Georgia, for example, don't specifically outlaw the contests, but fighters can be prosecuted under animal cruelty laws. In Alabama, the fine ranges from $20 to $50; in Ohio, the fine is $100 and up to 30 days in jail; in Mississippi, from $10 to $100 and from 10 days to 100 days in jail. In Virginia, another nod-and-wink state, cock fights are illegal only if it can be proven that winners receive money or prizes, making them technically legal.
A new federal law, which took effect May 14, could seriously crimp—if not permanently cripple—this cockfighting underground and those who provide its victims. The statute triples the fine to $15,000 with up to one year in jail for anyone shipping gamefowl across state lines for fighting purposes, or exporting them to countries where it is legal. Legislation recently introduced in Congress (S. 736 and H.R. 1532) would increase the penalty for cockfighting—and dogfighting—to a two-year felony. It would also ban the interstate shipment of gaffs and other cockfight weapons.
Some states are also moving to ratchet-up the pressure and to increase penalties. Florida just made felony charges an option for the sale and possession of fighting birds, or for attending a cockfight. Oregon also added felony provisions for violations, with fines up to $100,000 and jail terms of up to five years.
These tougher penalties are the key to shutting down cockfighting operations. Limp penalties leave police, sheriffs and prosecutors reluctant to invest the time and personnel to enforce cockfighting laws. The new federal law, however, gives local authorities the incentive to crack down on illegal operations instead of looking the other way; they can then pass on evidence to the feds who will take the lead on promising prosecutions.
In Louisiana, where rooster battles are legal statewide, Pinckney Wood of the Coalition of Louisiana Animal Advocates believes the state's flourishing gamefowl export trade will be quickly curbed because the shipments are relatively controllable. A crackdown on the scores of local fighting pits, however, is another matter. "I hope our officials will co-operate with the feds like they've done with dogfighting," he says
The federal law takes effect as the cockfighting underground finds creative new ways to circumvent the new statute; among the more recent schemes is one to hide behind Indian trade treaties. The self-styled Kiowa Association for the Preservation of Culture and Rural Lifestyles claims cockfighters who sign papers leasing their birds to the association are free to fight them because the lease constitutes commerce with Native Americans that cannot be restricted by state or federal authorities.
The HSUS disagrees. Says Pacelle: "It's a scam run by a well known Texas
cockfighter and it won't work."