Two recent incidents in Youngstown, Ohio, provide more evidence of how rampant cockfighting is in the state. Despite an agreement reached between The HSUS, the Ohio Farm Bureau, and the Ohio Poultry Association in 2010 to strengthen the state’s anti-cockfighting law, a handful of lawmakers have thwarted progress on legislation, leaving Ohio with one of the three most anemic anti-cockfighting laws in the nation. This toothless law has made Ohio a magnet for fighting enthusiasts, with lawbreakers from West Virginia, Indiana, and elsewhere scrambling into the Buckeye State because they know law enforcement has little incentive to act.
Last month, when U.S. marshals launched a manhunt for a suspect who escaped while being arrested for a domestic violence incident, they found plenty of evidence, debris, and death that made it plain that his residence doubled as a den for cockfighting: 20 live birds and around 25 dead birds were inside the home. According to news reports, the bones of many more birds were in a fire pit behind the house, and the bodies of still more were in trash bags strewn about the property.
A day later, neighbors alerted Mahoning County law enforcement officials to another possible ring, and humane agents seized 30 more birds after the investigation revealed a fighting pit and steroids. The 50 birds are now in the custody of Happy Trails Farm Animal Sanctuary in Ravenna, a group well familiar with the responsibility of caring for the victims of cockfighting in Ohio.
But by the time cockfights are in progress or breeding and fighting operations established, much of the abuse and cruelty has already occurred. We need laws to prevent this kind of depravity from happening in the first place. Ohio is aligned with Alabama and Mississippi as having the most flaccid anti-cockfighting laws. In Ohio, the maximum fine for cockfighting is $250.
There has been some progress on a bill that would strengthen Ohio’s cockfighting law, making it a felony under certain circumstances. In June 2015, with the support of committee chairman Jim Butler, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed HB 215. This bill, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Sears and Rep. Heather Bishoff, would create a felony if certain aggravating factors are present at the cockfighting site, such as illegal gambling, using devices like razor-sharp knives attached to roosters’ legs to increase bloodletting, or bringing a child to the fight. In addition to the support of agriculture and humane groups, law enforcement and religious groups, including the Southern Baptist Convention, back the measure.
The Ohio legislature has had years to pass this sensible and long overdue measure. I can see a groundswell developing in the state: if there’s no decisive and favorable action in the legislature this year, there’ll be a strong push to launch a comprehensive ballot campaign. Any such ballot measure would inevitably be broader, designed to remedy a range of defects in the state’s anti-cruelty laws. It’s an embarrassment that cockfighting, puppy mills, and other forms of cruelty persist in the state. The time for making excuses is over, and something must be done.
Ending cruel practices like cockfighting is not just about putting a stop to animal abuse; there is plenty of evidence that shows these kinds of operations often serve as fronts for hardened and even organized criminals. A U.S. Department of Agriculture agent who brought down a large cockfighting operation in Kentucky this last year stated in an affidavit that Mexican organized crime figures had frequented the cockfights there, and had even brought in a hit man to kill a cockfighter who had laundered money. Federal investigations continue to reveal cockfights can be intricate illegal gambling enterprises, often associated with the distribution of large quantities of cocaine, heroin, and meth.
We look forward to a favorable vote on HB 215 when the Ohio legislature convenes next week. And we look forward to action in the Ohio senate on this issue. It’s time for Governor John Kasich to use his great influence in the state to call on lawmakers to upgrade the state’s law.