Washington state authorities have been forced to euthanize 300 birds after raiding a breeding compound, just one of several operations this year alone. Why is this barbaric sport still popular in some areas of the United States, and what are we doing about it?
The compound in Rochester, Washington was raided on Monday, April 21, whereby officials seized 240 roosters and 60 hens. Those birds had been pumped full of steroids which made the birds aggressive. Officials deemed the birds could not be rehabilitated and as a result, they were euthanized.
One man, 35 year-old Victor Hugo Gallegos Chavez, was arrested. During the raid a number of small knives and so-called slashers were recovered that could have been tied to the birds before fights. It is believed that Chavez was raising the birds for cockfights in Oregon, Texas and Mexico. While it is legal to engage in cockfighting in Mexico, it is in fact illegal to do so in every state in the Unites States, though under state law the degree of the crime varies.
Chavez has reportedly admitted that he was raising the birds for cockfights. His arrest is the culmination of a two year investigation. This is not the only high-profiled case of a cockfighting operation to have occurred this year, though.
In January, the New York State Attorney General’s Office, the ASPCA, the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office and the New York State Police worked together to remove, transport and rehome up to 4,000 fighting roosters. The operation, which was the largest in New York State history and spanned three different counties, also uncovered a range of paraphernalia like artificial spurs and syringes that had been used to give the birds performance enhancing drugs. There have been a number of smaller cases also reported this year across the United States. This raises the question, if cockfighting is illegal, why is this problem still pervasive?
One reason may be the fact that in many states there is still considerable ambivalence toward, or even support for, cockfighting.
In New York, it is a felony to keep birds for the purpose of cockfighting as well as to be in possession of a bird at a cockfighting location. A jail term of up to four years and a maximum fine of $25,000 can be issued if the law is broken. However, in some American states it is still not illegal to possess, raise, train, advertise, or trade birds for the purpose of cockfighting. Only the actual act of staging a cockfight is illegal.
While there is considerable support for toughening up the law in places like Utah, the state that is believed to have the most lax laws surrounding cockfighting, lawmakers in Utah like state senator Allen Christensen are still leery of the move.
Currently, Utah is considering a bill that, among other things, would take Utah’s misdemeanor charge (class B) and make cockfighting a third degree felony for repeat offenders. Christensen, though, has said he believes that the birds are doing what they naturally want to do and that people should not be going to prison for staging cockfights. There are also a number of groups within Utah, like in other states, that contend cockfighting is a so-called traditional way of life and that to deprive them of this “sport” is to deprive them of their heritage.
They contend that the birds do not suffer unduly and that they are only doing what is natural. They also maintain that the blades that are often attached to the birds’ feet are designed to hasten death and so make the fights “more humane.” They also point out that many birds do not die in the ring and can be kept in conditions that are much better than, say, modern poultry farms.
Animal rights campaigners vehemently disagree with the idea that the fights are “natural,” however. Admittedly, it seems almost preposterous to claim that cockfighting in a ring with various things strapped to their bodies to make the fight more bloody is anywhere close to “natural”, and nor does it account for the fact that the birds are pumped full of drugs that radically up their aggression. Campaigners contend that various state governments are failing to properly address this blood sport, and in particular failing to address the practice among certain immigrant populations that may not know or care that cockfighting is illegal in the United States.
Welfare campaigners contend that a lack of uniformity in the law may be one of the chief problems in tackling cockfighting, because if states adopt tough laws there’s no guarantee their neighboring states will do so. This dramatically undercuts how effectively law enforcement officials can operate to combat the cockfighting menace because breeders may raise birds in one state and then ship them out to states where they will only face a small fine if they are caught. To this end, other ways that states can toughen up their laws in a meaningful way include making it a crime to be a spectator to a cockfight.
Fortunately, when President Obama signed H.R. 2642, the Agricultural Act of 2014 in February, the legislation included language from the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act that makes it illegal to be a spectator to a cockfight. This is a good start, campaigners say, but there is still more work to do. State lawmakers still need to take action to shore up state level legislation, while law enforcement agencies need to have the full cooperation of their state legislatures so they are fully empowered to take action against this blood sport.
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