West Virginia’s legislative session wrapped up this weekend, with some good outcomes on animal issues that are more challenging than they might appear at first glance.
Our allies in the legislature did a great job. They ran out the clock and blocked an effort to add a vague and overreaching “right to farm” provision to the West Virginia constitution. As with ag-gag proposals in a number of states, right to farm provisions are sprouting up in rural states as a way to block citizens from imposing any restrictions on agricultural production – from extreme confinement to the use of antibiotics to manure discharge. It’s an attempt to wall off an entire industry from any regulatory or legislative oversight.
The state’s active cockfighting lobby believed a “right to farm” provision would even protect them from any legislative maneuvers to criminalize their rearing of cockfighting birds. Somehow these folks believe that raising birds amounts to an agricultural activity – even as they subject the animals they raise to being slashed and killed, just for human amusement.
But not only did the right to farm measure stall, lawmakers actually did pass legislation to crack down on animal fighting, dealing a two-fisted blow to a criminal subculture of cockfighters with the temerity to openly lobby in support of their blood sport. In fact, one veteran state lawmaker, Don Perdue, has long been an outspoken advocate of cockfighting, and has been identified as a participant in the activity in the past.
This week, just minutes before the legislative session closed, lawmakers gave final approval to a bill, sponsored by Delegate John Overington, to strengthen the state’s existing law, and make it a crime to gamble at or take a minor to a fight. Fighting animals is illegal in West Virginia, but the state’s weak law has hardly proved a deterrent to the state’s animal fighting enthusiasts.
The bill now heads to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s desk for his signature.
Cockfighters protested in large numbers to stop the bill from advancing, flooding lawmakers’ offices with calls and emails. If lawmakers didn’t know before how weak the law was, they surely must have realized it after hearing from these self-identified scofflaws and criminals begging them to keep penalties low.
Lawmakers had the good sense to see through both of these lobbying campaigns – in one case, hearing from organized criminals that the state should keep anemic laws against animal fighting, and in another case, hearing from the farm lobby that they don’t want anyone telling them how to do anything, as if their industry is beyond reproach or reform.
We’ve got other big battles on right to farm, including in Nebraska right now, and on the ballot in Oklahoma this November. And in neighboring Ohio, a bill to crack down on cockfighting has major momentum coming out of the House. The question there is this: will Ohio senators side with The HSUS, the poultry industry, and the law enforcement community, or will they again align with the cockfighting community and allow Ohio to remain an outlier on the cockfighting issue?