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The Salt Lake Tribune

Law Doesn't End Cockfighting Flap
2003-1-06


WASHINGTON -- With a fight-to-the-death determination reflective of their controversial pastime, Utah breeders of game fowl say they are not inclined to abandon their hobby in the face of a new federal crackdown on cockfighting.
In May, a provision in the new federal farm bill will make interstate transportation or export of roosters used for cockfighting illegal. The measure closes a loophole in the 1976 Animal Welfare Act that allowed gamecock breeders to ship their birds to states or countries where chicken fighting is legal. Cockfighting has been illegal in Utah since 1888. New Mexico and Louisiana are the only states where it is legal to pit roosters against each other in mortal combat for entertainment or wagering.
After Congress convenes Tuesday, some Western senators plan to introduce legislation that increases the punishment to a felony for transporting or exporting animals for fighting.
Larry Bain of Layton, former president of the Utah Gamefowl Breeders Association, said the estimated 150 to 200 people in Utah who actively raise chickens for fighting competitions are angry about the new federal regulation. Cockfighting is considered one of the world's oldest spectator sports and Bain says its popularity won't be easily erased by what he sees as "ludicrous" laws.
"There is more cockfighting going on now than there ever was, mainly because it is popular with the Hispanic population," Bain said. "This federal law will just guarantee that more cockfighting is done illegally in a breeders' own state, since most of them would rather face a state law than a federal law."
Participating in or watching a cockfight is a misdemeanor offense in Utah, but possessing fighting-breed roosters and cockfighting paraphernalia -- such as the steel spikes or "gaffs" strapped to the legs of the roosters for fighting -- is legal in the state.
National animal rights activists say that with the new federal law prohibiting transport or export of fighting chickens, Utah legislators should now outlaw possession of the fighting chickens.
"There is no compelling rationale for people to possess fighting birds in a state where it is illegal to fight birds against each other," said Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, which led the animal rights effort to lobby Congress for the new law. "Breeders used to be able to say they were just raising these birds to ship them out of state to other jurisdictions, but since that is no longer legal, why would a state tolerate them having the fighting birds in their possession?"
Until Arizona voters outlawed cockfighting in 1998, Utah game fowl breeders had trekked southward to a professional cockfighting arena operated by a Utah County man in Littlefield, Ariz., near St. George. Since that facility closed, the nearest legal pits are in New Mexico, but Bain said few Utah game fowl breeders are willing to travel that far for the competitions.
Even if they do, cockfighting opponents are confident they can get the New Mexico Legislature to outlaw cockfighting or put a ballot measure before voters to do the same this year.
Pacelle said there is little evidence that Latino immigrants bolster cockfighting, pointing to an Arizona Republic newspaper poll taken in 1998 that showed opposition to cockfighting among Latinos in that state was even higher than opposition by Anglos.
"We are confident that we can get legislation introduced in New Mexico this year that will make it the 49th state to ban cockfighting," said Michael Markarian of the Fund For Animals in Maryland. "At the federal level, we hope to go back to Congress this session and try to strengthen the penalties for transportation."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, co-sponsored the gamecock transport prohibition introduced in 2001 by Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., which was inserted into the Senate version of the Farm Bill.
The House version of the bill contained identical language, making interstate transport or export of animals for fighting a felony. But in a show of political muscle, cockfighting advocates convinced members of a congressional conference committee to weaken the penalty to a misdemeanor, despite both houses of Congress agreeing to the felony language. Enforcement of the law also was delayed a year from passage of the Farm Bill.
"It was an outrageous violation of the rules of the conference," said Pacelle. "We had so much support in each chamber but they hired some lobbying firms that created the opposition behind the scenes that weakened the penalty."
Allard and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., are veterinarians and introduced legislation restoring the felony penalty level shortly before Congress recessed for the 2002 November elections. With other members of Congress as co-sponsors, they plan to reintroduce the bill in the Senate and House.
"If we can find a larger agriculture bill to amend on the floor of the House or Senate, I am confident we will run away with it," said Pacelle. "Senator Hatch was a co-sponsor of it before and he is important in this new effort because he is the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee."
Yet many game fowl breeders are skeptical of how the law prohibiting transport of the chickens across state lines will be enforced, Bain said.
"What if I am taking them across a state line to sell them, not to fight them?" he said. "Maybe I'm just taking my chickens for a ride. It's ludicrous."
Felony or misdemeanor, the new federal prohibition on transportation or export of game cocks is touted by supporters as a means for local law enforcement to ferret out illegal cockfighting rings regardless of whether a person is caught transporting the birds.
If police officers searching a house find roosters that are clearly of the breed used for fighting along with cockfighting paraphernalia such as gaffs, stimulants or magazines, "all the person in Utah has to say is 'I don't fight them in this state,' and they wouldn't be charged," said Markarian. "When these new federal provisions go into effect in May, that person would have no legal purpose to have that paraphernalia, so our thought is this will give local law enforcement a major tool to use."
Bain scoffs that local prosecutors could employ such tactics when possession of the birds remains legal in Utah, as it is in 22 other states, including Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico. In Wyoming, possession of game fowl is a misdemeanor while Arizona and Colorado regard possession as a felony.
Bain acknowledges that Utah game fowl breeders are being worn down. "I can come up with arguments all day long, but it doesn't matter because it has gotten to a point where I don't know if there is a way to fight this because ending chicken fighting has become politically correct."