By commanding votes, of 90–2 in the House and 24–1 in the Senate, Tennessee lawmakers last night placed a bill on Governor Bill Haslam’s desk to crack down on the horrid practice of animal fighting, by making it a class A misdemeanor to attend a fight or to bring a child to one. Those lopsided votes, along with the barbaric and indefensible nature of the criminal activity, might leave the impression that this was an easy fight – but it’s been anything but that.
I spoke this morning with our Tennessee state director, Leighann Lassiter, to congratulate her. She reminded me that we told her in her job interview seven years ago that upgrading the anemic penalties for cockfighting in the state was a top legislative priority. But for these past seven years, a small group of powerful legislators has thwarted the efforts of Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol – our indefatigable and skilled champions – to upgrade laws so weak that some of the biggest cockfighting pits in the nation operate there.
More than a decade ago, cockfighting was a felony in Tennessee, but lawmakers repealed the strong penalties. The weakened law left state and local law enforcement with mere $50 penalties for people who attend the fights, and no penalties at all for people who bring kids to these spectacles of violence and illegal gambling.
In The Bond, I wrote about an FBI raid on a cockfight in 2005 in Cocke County, where a cooperating witness for the federal government noted that there were “approximately 182 cock fights at the Del Rio cockfighting pit in a single evening,” and in each fight “between $2,000 and $20,000 was gambled by the spectators.” Another cooperating witness “observed a girl approximately 10 years old with a stack of $100 bills gambling on several different cock fights.”
We saw plenty of other large-scale fights throughout the state, and if the federal government didn’t intervene in such instances, there was a good chance the cockfighters would ply their hobby and business without a serious concern. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency broke up a cockfight in Cumberland County in 2008 that was run by the Gulf Cartel, a drug trafficking operation in Mexico, underscoring the link between animal cruelty and other forms of very serious illegal behavior.
Finally, we’ve now broken through the logjam in the state legislature and we expect Gov. Haslam to sign the legislation. This is the same governor who two years ago very courageously and decisively vetoed an ag-gag bill designed to suppress and criminalize exposure of horse soring, puppy mills, and factory farming practices. Special interests pushed the bill after The HSUS’s undercover investigation exposed vicious cruelty by walking-horse trainer Jackie McConnell to Tennessee Walking horses. McConnell had been injuring the feet of the horses – a practice known as soring – in order to win ribbons at events. The state rallied around the idea of killing the ag-gag bill, and it was a great example of what The HSUS and other animal welfare groups, family farmers, newspaper editorial boards, and others can do when we unite.
This year, we received an enormous assist from Dr. Russell Moore, the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberties Commission, and the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association. It was crucial to have the support of faith leaders and law enforcement, and we would not have prevailed but for their sincere and good-hearted efforts. They argued what we argued: that cruelty is a moral crime against animals but also an act that undermines the health and vitality and virtues of every community
As I’ve written about before, we have methodically worked to upgrade penalties for malicious acts of cruelty throughout the nation, including for dogfighting and cockfighting crimes. That work happens brick by brick, and with last night’s House vote on HB 962, we fortified the legal foundation against animal cruelty.