Not long ago enjoying a free pass—essentially, with lawmakers and law enforcement looking the other way—cockfighters in America are now on the run and in desperate trouble. Over just the last two weeks, law enforcement, often working with The HSUS, raided eight cockfighting pits and four farms that bred roosters. These actions resulted in the arrest of 171 suspected cockfighters, with more than 720 birds seized from people whose primary intention was to place these animals in a pit to fight to the death.
© The HSUS
A rooster at a Jan. 23 raid in Mississippi.
These were just the latest law enforcement crackdowns on this despicable and barbaric practice. It was a dozen years ago—when I was heading government affairs and communications at The HSUS—that I resolved that we would wage a national fight to take on cockfighting in America. At the time, there were five states where cockfighting was legal, and a host of others with anemic penalties and no enforcement at all. To me, that was unacceptable and an embarrassment to the nation, as well as the organized humane movement. We had to change the landscape, and that's exactly what we've done.
We started with successful ballot initiatives in Arizona and Missouri in 1998 to ban the activity. Then, we did a ballot measure in Oklahoma in 2002, and closed a loophole in federal law that had allowed interstate and foreign transport of birds for cockfighting. In 2007, we passed bills in Louisiana and New Mexico to outlaw cockfighting—with the Louisiana anti-cockfighting law taking effect in August 2008. We have gone from 17 states punishing cockfighting as a felony to 37, with that number likely to go even higher this year. In that time span, we upgraded the federal law against animal fighting three times, and it is now a federal felony to fight, train, or possess fighting birds, or to traffic in cockfighting implements, bringing stiff fines and jail time of up to five years.
We still need stronger laws in several states, particularly those in the cockfighting corridor: Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and some surrounding states. We have troops on the ground in these states, lobbying hard to pass felony cockfighting laws.
With strong laws comes the need for enforcement. The HSUS has trained more than 2,000 law enforcement officers for animal fighting investigations in the past year. We have paid out more than $100,000 in reward money to informants who provided tips to police that led to the arrest and conviction of both dog and cockfighters. We have taken intelligence directly to sheriff’s departments and federal agents, prompting investigations that led to major raids.
Cockfighting was one of the first animal-related activities that lawmakers in the United States criminalized, with a majority of states outlawing the practice in the 19th century. But it was, for the most part, a token legal objection and a modest moral taboo, since the cockfighting industry continued to flourish decade by decade. Now, its growth has been arrested, and so have thousands of its practitioners in the last decade. Today, there are more people charged with cockfighting crimes than any other form of illegal animal-related activity. We won't relent until every cockfighting pit and every operation raising birds for fighting is left vacant.