Cockfighters Defy the Law - and on National Television No Less (Video)


I am used to the nattering and claptrap of people who try to justify or excuse their acts of animal cruelty. They may dress it up as some kind of tradition, a personal right or freedom, a sort of social norm, or even an economic necessity. In addition to offering up their particular set of excuses, these folks, almost to a one, inevitably deny that animals have feelings or suffer.

So much of that sociopathy and off-the-cuff legal theorizing was on display in a TV segment on cockfighting in America that I recently saw on “HBO Real Sports.” The piece focused principally on cockfighters and cockfighting in Oklahoma and in Puerto Rico. Cockfighting is illegal in both jurisdictions under federal law, and Oklahoma, like all other states, has its own anti-cockfighting statute. HBO gave viewers a window into cockfighting exhibitionists, who see no problem in putting their vice and blood-loving instincts on display for the world to see. Host Bryant Gumbel was as dumbfounded as any civilized viewer would be that these people were so brazen about violating the law, and he wondered aloud how this is occurring in our day.

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It’s a felony to fight birds, to transport birds for fighting purposes, to possess birds for fighting, to sell cockfighting implements, and to bring a minor to a cockfight. It’s a federal misdemeanor to be a spectator at an animal fight. Photo by Meredith Lee/The HSUS

While the Puerto Rican cockfighters may be unfamiliar with the federal law and believe what they do in their arenas is legally permissible, there’s no such excuse for the Oklahoma cockfighters who appeared on the show. I know a good bit about one of the cockfighters featured, and he was an outspoken opponent of a ballot measure that voters in the state approved in 2002 to outlaw the practice in Oklahoma. He’s traveled the country lecturing to cockfighters and other animal users that they can disregard anti-cruelty laws and live by some sort of non-existent higher law of their own.

He and others made it pretty clear that they are unapologetic about continuing to fight birds and participating in derbies. HBO showed one of the men handling fighting birds on his property, while others bragged about the winnings they’ve claimed at derbies where they’ve done well. One cockfighter said he entered 10 birds in a derby and his birds won nine of their fights, resulting in winnings of $95,000 for him.

In the last 15 years, we’ve worked with allies in Congress to upgrade the federal law four times. It’s now a felony to fight birds, to transport birds for fighting purposes, to possess birds for fighting, to sell cockfighting implements, and to bring a minor to a cockfight. It’s a federal misdemeanor to be a spectator at an animal fight.

Last month, a Virginia man was sentenced to two years in prison for taking a minor to a cockfight in Kentucky. This is a direct result of the passage of the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act, which was strongly backed by The HSUS and the Humane Society Legislative Fund, and included as a provision in the 2014 Farm Bill. Law enforcement officials have arrested dozens under the federal anti-animal fighting statutes.

“Cockfighting is illegal in all 50 states and anyone who participates in this crime, or breeds birds for the purpose of fighting, should be charged and prosecuted,” says John Thompson, deputy executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association. “The NSA recognizes the gravity of this crime because cockfighting is cruel and a criminal underground enterprise associated with illegal drug dealing and gambling. It not only endangers animals but our communities.”

For all of the political divisions we have, the vast majority of Americans possess a common set of values that call on us to adhere to the rule of law. We have perhaps a million men and women who serve in law enforcement at different levels of government, we have tens of thousands of prosecutors who bring charges against people alleged to have violated the law, and we have thousands of judges who adjudicate legal proceedings and issue penalties to the violators. No person is above the law, including people who trot out garbage-can theories on why it’s their right to do as they please.

We’ve never treated the law as an endpoint in our work. Once a law is on the books, it must be enforced, and that’s where we rely on local, state, and federal law enforcement officials to act on anti-cruelty laws. Every year, we work to train thousands of dedicated people in law enforcement to investigate and prosecute crimes of animal cruelty. We help the USDA obtain necessary resources from Congress to oversee the federal animal fighting law. And we do our own investigations to bring information to light that law enforcement officials can act upon.

The brazen and brash preening of the cockfighters on the HBO show cannot be tolerated. By their own admission, they think they have special rights. In reality, they are criminals in the waiting. You can be sure that we won’t rest until justice is done and states and other jurisdictions involved take action to stop these malicious acts of cruelty and disregard for the rule of law.

This story was originally published on Wayne Pacelle's blog.

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