Proposal to reduce penalties for cockfighting sparks outcry

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Illegal cockfighting in eastern Oklahoma. (Courtesy of Photo/Animal Wellness Action)

OKLAHOMA CITY — State Rep. Justin Humphrey said he knows he’s “gonna get some trouble” for drafting Bill 3283, which lowers the penalties for cockfighting.

“It’s less about cockfighting than what’s expected in terms of penalties,” Humphrey told members of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee on Feb. 10.

The practice of cockfighting and the breeding of fighting birds, considered by many an embarrassment to the state, continued in Oklahoma despite its prohibition by State Question 687 two years ago. decades. What has changed recently, prompting Humphrey to introduce HB 3283, is that now some sheriffs can start enforcing the law.

“If they wanted to go out and start enforcing these (laws), they could, especially in rural areas,” Humphrey, R-Lane, said. “They could do it, but the majority of people would just be mad if they did. Here we have a situation where everyone knows it is happening, nothing is done.

“But if we have a sheriff who just had the idea to come out and do this, then here is a person who is out there doing something that nobody has talked about and they can literally be sent in a 10-year penitentiary,” Humphrey said.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, cockfighting is a “blood sport” in which two roosters specially bred for aggression are placed beak to beak in a small ring and encouraged to fight until the death. The macabre confrontation is often accompanied by dozens of spectators betting on the outcome of the match. “In organized cockfighting, the natural fighting instincts of roosters are exaggerated by breeding, feeding, training, steroids and vitamins,” according to the ASPCA website.

The practice is banned in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

In accordance with language voters approved in 2002 with the passage of SQ 687, cockfighting is a criminal offense punishable by up to 10 years in state penitentiary and a maximum fine of 20,000 $. It is a crime to organize or encourage a cockfight, to be a spectator at a cockfight and to keep birds for fighting purposes.

HB 3283 would make a cockfighting offense a misdemeanor, with jail time “in the custody of the Department of Corrections” and lower the fine cap to $2,000. The measure would also change the definition of cockfighting to specify that fighting birds are equipped with “artificial” spurs, knives or gaffs. Practice bouts would be excluded from the definition of cockfighting.

“Since we gave up heroin and meth and all that down to a misdemeanor, I find it just absurd that in Oklahoma you can go to jail for 10 years for raising a chicken, so I’m filing this bill. law to make raising a chicken a misdemeanor,” Humphrey said.

Steve Hindi, founder of Illinois-based animal rights group Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK), posted a video to the group’s YouTube channel in May 2021, showing drone footage of a property in the county of Atoka, Oklahoma. Hindi claimed the group had documented a cockfight the previous weekend.

“We contacted the Atoka County Sheriff’s Department and were pleased to see officers dispatched in a timely manner to break up the event,” Hindi said in the video. “Based on our conversations with the Sheriff’s Deputies, we believe they are serious about dealing with these criminals and will join us in policing this property so they can make arrests.”

Atoka County is part of the Humphrey District.

HB 3283 walked out of the committee on a 5-0 vote. A similar measure proposed in the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 2013 by former Rep. Ed Cannaday, D-Porum, failed to make it out of committee. Cannaday had argued that Oklahomans were legally raising roosters to be shipped out of the country, but the measure was strongly opposed by the Oklahoma Chapter of the Humane Society.

Since 2007, federal law also prohibits the transport of combat animals between states or to territories, and animal rights groups have focused their efforts on individuals and companies who ship combat birds.

In 2020, Washington, D.C.-based Animal Wellness Action and its sister organization, the Animal Wellness Foundation, released a report describing Oklahoma as the “cockfighting capital of the United States.”

The AWA report, which analyzed live animal shipping records obtained from the Guam Department of Agriculture between November 2016 and November 2021, found that Oklahoma ranchers shipped nearly 5,000 fighting birds in Guam over the past five years, more than double the number of any other state. Only five exporters, including three from Oklahoma, accounted for more than 50% of the 8,800 birds sent to Guam.

Fighting birds have also been shipped to Mexico, the Philippines and about 20 other countries around the world where cockfighting continues.

“Rooster fighters make money by watching their birds win fights, breeding these animals, and selling their offspring to other rooster fighters,” reads a statement from AWA. “In that sense, it’s like horse racing – if you have a winning horse, you breed the animal and sell the offspring.”

Although the shipments are generally labeled as birds sold for agricultural purposes or for show, the fact that the ratios are heavily skewed to favor males – in some shipments as much as 100 to 1 – indicates that the birds are not used for breeding and egg-laying. production, according to AWA.

Federal laws regarding cockfighting have also changed in recent years. Former President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, which expanded the federal ban on cockfighting to include U.S. territories, including Guam and Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has asked the US Supreme Court to consider overturning the ban this year, insisting cockfighting is the island’s ‘national sport’, generating $65 million in annual income.

Cockfighting is also a lucrative business in Oklahoma, according to an affidavit from a man charged in 2019 with aiding and abetting cockfighting on his property on Indian land in Caddo County. Douglas Wayne Butler – a former Caddo County deputy sheriff – told law enforcement he staged a dozen cockfighting derbies at his residence and made thousands of dollars from the fights of roosters.

Butler’s affidavit explains that he staged cockfighting in a large red barn with an enclosed pit surrounded by bleachers, charging spectators $20 per person and making additional profit from sales at an on-site concession stand. . According to the affidavit, Butler said a cockfight could bring together up to 200 people, including some from Nebraska, Arkansas, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.

Butler reportedly told a Bureau of Indian Affairs special agent that he believed he had the right to stage cockfights on allotted Indian land. Federal law also prohibits cockfighting on Indian lands.

AWA, AWF, the Center for a Humane Economy and other anti-cruelty organizations have come together to denounce Humphrey’s HB 3283. In a letter to House lawmakers, Wayne Pacelle, president of AWA, called Oklahoma’s cockfighting “citing language from SQ 687 and comments from state officials who later backed the ban. .

“The first state to ban cockfighting did so 190 years ago, and it is shameful that this issue will be debated on the floor of the Oklahoma Legislative Assembly in 2022” , Pacelle said.

Oklahoma animal advocates also view the current legislation as an embarrassment to the state. Louisa McCune, treasurer of the Kirkpatrick Policy Group, noted that Oklahomans “of all political stripes” came together to join the rest of the nation in banning the sport of death 20 years ago.

“What we’re seeing in the state House of Representatives is an ugly rollback, and it embarrasses those of us who tout Oklahoma as a fantastic place for businesses and families to plant their flag in the ground,” McCune said.

SQ 687 passed in 2002 with 56% of the vote, supported most strongly in urban areas of Oklahoma City and Tulsa. After the measure passed, former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson had to defend the law against a series of legal challenges until the measure was finally upheld by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. .

“This pro-cockfighting bill is an affront to all law-abiding Oklahomans and an embarrassment to our state,” Edmondson said in a statement. “People who organize and promote knife fights between animals deserve handcuffs, significant fines and jail time, not signals from lawmakers that their favorite form of animal cruelty is fine.”

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