Nonhuman animal fighting is an ancient form of exploitation, still attracting millions of followers. While 19th-century proscriptions imposed in the U.S. succeeded in stigmatizing it, animal fighters adapted to these cultural and legal taboos and continued to operate, often clandestinely. Cockfighting thrived, operating as a quasi-legal enterprise until an incremental policy-making campaign succeeded in passing a raft of local, state, and federal laws to outlaw it everywhere in the U.S. Between 1998 and 2018, legal cockfighting was banned in the final five states; more than 40 other states reformed their laws; and Congress passed multiple reforms to ban animal fighting, including in the U.S. territories. The process of outlawing animal fighting faced fierce resistance, but these practices are now the most widely and severely criminalized forms of animal mistreatment in the U.S. Adherence to the law and enforcement are continuing challenges.
Practiced by tribes in the Indus Valley before the advent of Christianity, conducted across the Roman Empire, and commonly staged in the far-flung holdings of the British Empire, organized nonhuman animal fighting has been a feature of the human experience for more than 5,000 years (Pacelle, 2011). Today, a third of nations do not prohibit dogfights. In China, there are horse fights, and there are camel fights in the Middle East. Cockfighting is legal in dozens of nations throughout the world, easily making it the world’s most widely practiced form of animal fighting (Pacelle, 2011; Dundes, 1994).
Throughout the U.S., there are tens of thousands of “farms” and backyard operations where roosters are tethered to barrels or A-frame huts, with the birds destined for fighting pits at home and abroad. Until very recently, cockfighting had been openly staged in the U.S. territories, with as many as 100 arenas in Puerto Rico.1 Its geographic range and the diverse ethnic composition of the practitioners suggest it commands some base appeal to the human psyche, and it may be an expression of masculinity by proxy (Geertz, 1972; Hawley, 1989). Watching staged animal combat is both entertainment and enterprise, with billions spent on gambling and on the sale of birds, feed, fighting implements, stimulants, and other tools of the trade (Bilger, 2000; Hawley, 1993).
Fighting persists even though 21st-century laws have made it the most widely and severely criminalized form of animal cruelty in the U.S. Congress restricted some commerce in fighting animals as far back as 1976, but a series of amendments to the federal law starting in 2002 have created felony-level jeopardy for practitioners, with prohibitions on interstate or foreign transport of fighting animals, possession of animals for fighting, or even attendance at a fight (U.S. House of Representatives, 1976a, pp. 2860-2887).
In 2018, Congress passed an amendment to the Agricultural Improvement Act (the “Farm bill”) to codify that all federal prohibitions against animal fighting apply everywhere in the U.S. During the House debate, Delegate Jennifer Gonzalez Colon, R-PR, rose in opposition, claiming that there were 27,000 jobs tied to cockfighting in the Commonwealth (U.S. House of Representatives, 2018, pp. H4222-H4223). Delegate Stacey Plaskett, D-VI, joined her, arguing that cockfighting on her island “is a highly regulated, cultural, and historic activity in the territories” (U.S. House of Representatives, 2018, pp. H4221-H4222). Their framing focused on cockfighting as tradition and as a source of income for the hobbyists.
By contrast, the frame of reference for proponents was animal cruelty and the morally numbing effect of watching staged fights. Rep. Roskam, R-IL, whose amendment mirrored the provision of his Parity in Animal Cruelty Enforcement (PACE) Act, argued that animal fighting “is inappropriate and wrong no matter where it happens.” His co-author, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-OR, called it “a barbaric, inhumane practice” and said the animals “are drugged to make them more ferocious” (U.S. House of Representatives, 2018, p. H4220). In the end, the Delegates stood alone in speaking against the measure. House lawmakers approved the Roskam-Blumenauer amendment with 351 “yes” votes, with the arguments about cultural prerogatives failing to overcome concerns about cruelty.
Recognizing that Congress was serious about reform, territorial politicians turned their attention to the Senate (Tana, 2018). Yet, they were unable to muster any visible support. On the other hand, Senators Cory Booker, D-NJ; Susan Collins, R-ME; and Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, introduced a free-standing bill, the PACE Act, S. 2971, as an intended forerunner to a Senate floor amendment. These lawmakers had recently advocated for substantial federal assistance to the Caribbean territories after Hurricane Maria had lashed the islands, enabling them to easily blunt the argument that they were dismissive of the concerns of the territories. That massive storm, with its 180-mile-per-hour winds and surging seawater, had almost certainly hurled or submerged tens of thousands of roosters tethered and trained for fights in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
As the Senate took up the Farm bill, the chambers’ leaders decided to allow consideration of only three amendments (Boudreau & Crampton, 2018). But key negotiators recognized that Senators overwhelmingly favored the adoption of the anti-animal fighting provision. They acceded to House-approved language on animal fighting, albeit with a change: a one-year delay in implementation, to give the industry a year to wind down.
Guam’s Governor-elect Lou Leon Guerrero, speaking just before President Trump signed the bill into law, promised she’d fight the law: “Cockfighting has historical significance on Guam and continues to be a regulated practice today,” she intoned (Gilbert, 2018). Guam had multiple cockfighting arenas, and the practice had been conducted, with gubernatorial approval, at most annual festivals in the 17 villages on the island.
The challenge of enforcement aside, the PACE Act turned out to be the capstone of 20 years of lawmaking on the subject, featuring actions by voters and state and federal lawmakers, consequential events, compelling framing, and the diligence of policy entrepreneurs (Busch, 2019).
The Framers of the Constitution made it difficult to build coherent public policy and to institute broad change. The zigzagging path to enactment of laws to penalize dog fighting and cockfighting reflects those difficulties. Separation of powers and checks and balances typically require compromise and accommodation, as evinced by the lawmakers’ instinct to delay implementation of the law to ease the effect on the territories.
This article examines the long arc of lawmaking and the commitment of policy entrepreneurs to break deadlocks and forge legislative solutions to curb animal fighting, particularly with birds. The series of increasingly stronger amendments that eventually formed a comprehensive federal statute remind us that social progress is often incremental. Even marginalized political actors, such as the cockfighting industry, have influence in a political process that requires reformers to clear numerous hurdles.
Legislative History: Slogging Progress against Nonhuman Animal Fighting
“A nation-state is a political community, governed by laws that, theoretically, unite a people who share a common ancestry,” Lepore (2018) writes (p. 9). Indeed, one remarkable feature of our history is that people of different ancestries have managed to integrate themselves into the culture and economy while retaining long-practiced traditions. The most recent ethnographic literature on cockfighting, dating back to the 1980s and early 1990s, points to the culture of the sport’s enthusiasts and their ability to operate in a legal and social space where the practice has been widely criminalized and stigmatized (Hawley, 1989, 1993; Darden & Wordan, 1996).2
That said, the United States would not be a single polity if its citizens simply continued all the ways of their forebears, especially practices that lag behind the evolution of mores in society. There are norms of behavior, and we abide by the rule of law to enforce some of them. These norms are not designed to create homogeneity, but to establish and observe baseline conduct and moral codes.
The nation’s difficulties in addressing chattel slavery, child labor, and women’s suffrage are examples of moral and political questions that roiled American society in the 19th and 20th centuries, underscoring that social change has never been linear nor rapidly secured. The South’s surrender ending the Civil War and the subsequent passage of a series of amendments, which forbid discrimination and established voting rights, were hardly enough to ensure equality. Rather, Jim Crow laws emerged after Reconstruction, with segregation, lynching, poll taxes, and other forms of discrimination and violence aimed at African Americans that persisted for decades (Gates, 2019).
Opposition to cruelty to animals has been a flashpoint as Americans have debated right and wrong in a heterodox nation. Animal protection ideals began to appear in literature and other expressions of popular culture, even before the first humane groups formed in the late 1860s. Following the lead of anti-cruelty campaigners in the United Kingdom in the first half of the 19th century, the humane movement in the United States started to take organizational form soon after the end of the Civil War (Shevelow, 2008). Humane advocates positioned themselves within the larger movement to build character and to instill a sense of civic behavior and citizenship (Unti, 2002). Social reformers focused on the effects of cruelty in coarsening social behavior, arguing that cruelty had a dehumanizing effect that weakened the health of society and that undercut “middle class ideals of social purity” (Unti, 2002).
With that broader thinking driving political reforms, many states adopted anti-cruelty and anti-animal fighting statutes even prior to the formation of the first animal protection associations (Lane & Zawistowski, 2007). Massachusetts (1836), Delaware (1852), and Vermont (1854) banned the practice of animal fighting (Pacelle, 2011). Once humane organizations formed after the close of the Civil War, there was new capacity to address animal fighting: “By the end of 1873, the ASPCA [American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] had made 104 arrests for dog or cockfighting,” noted Unti), and “[b]y 1880, the total reached 510, with a fight figure of 119 arrests in 1874 …” (Unti, 2002, p. 126). By 1900, most states had banned animal fighting.
German sociologist Elias (1969, 1982), whose classic work The Civilizing Process tracked the history of manners from the Middle Ages through the 20th century, argued that several factors and forces drove increasing self-control when it came to social behavior. In an examination of contemporary slaughterhouse practices, political scientist Pachirat (2011) credits Elias with keen observations about these trends:
Elias traces this broad movement in Western societies by demonstrating how, concurrent with the centralization of violence in the modern state, physical acts and states of being such as nudity, defecation, urinating, spitting, nose blowing, sexual intercourse, the killing of animals, and a host of others were increasingly identified as repugnant and removed from view. (p. 10)
Animal fighting became a casualty of the civilizing process, degrading in its own right but freighted further by its comingling with gambling, drinking, and bloodletting. Indeed, 19th-century civic leaders viewed animal fighting as a debasing form of social conduct that hindered the emergence of the values of citizenship, community concerns, and even Christianity (Shevelow, 2008).
Whereas Elias argued that the evolution of social behaviors had civilizing effects, the philosopher Appiah (2010) argued that there have been a series of “moral revolutions” over the past two centuries stirred by a fundamental repugnance toward violent behavior. He examined dueling in colonial America, foot binding in China, and Atlantic slavery, arguing that these once-entrenched practices drew increasing condemnation and ultimately came to be viewed as dishonorable. In some cases, this led to eventual legislation to forbid these practices.
In every case where a once-prominent practice became the subject of social and political concern, there were defenders of the status quo who tried to reframe the issue as a matter of cultural traditions, states’ rights, racial or gender superiority, or the preservation of the economic order (Gates, 2019). Many of these arguments would be repeatedly invoked in the contemporary debate about criminalizing cockfighting or maintaining its legality.
Despite the diffuse but powerful cultural trends that frowned on base activities such as animal fighting, concerted movements to eradicate animal fighting were not strong enough, nor sufficiently sustained, to eliminate the enterprises by the end of the 19th century (Pacelle, 2011). In the early 20th century, organized animal advocacy increasingly focused its finite resources on fighting vivisection and the destruction of wildlife (Singer, P., 1975). The two world wars also sapped the strength of the organized movement. As a consequence, animal fighting not only persisted but thrived, albeit in the shadows (Pacelle, 2011).
In the post-World War II era, new organizations formed to press the case for animal protection. But again, combatting animal fighting was not a priority, supplanted by concerns about the euthanasia of companion animals (pets), animal testing, and wildlife exploitation (Amory, 1974). Some animal advocates erroneously treated animal fighting as an issue that had largely been resolved. It was not until the very end of the 20th century that the movement to eliminate animal fighting re-emerged, with a sustained effort to enact state and federal laws to shut down the massive network of organized animal fighting arenas and breeding operations (Pacelle, 2016).
Efforts to restrain dogfighting have, over 200 years, typically attracted more attention than cockfighting reforms, almost certainly because of our keener understanding of their emotions and our closer kinship with them. The differential treatment was, in part, a simple matter of framing. Dogs were pets and chickens were, for the most part, food—an observation not lost on cockfighters. Training the birds and feeding them a healthy diet, especially in the run-up to fights—known as “the keep”—was a far better life, they argued, than confining grossly obese broiler birds in warehouses on factory farms where they never felt a ray of sunlight (Singer, M., 2004). All states had banned dogfighting by the middle of the 20th century, but cockfighting bans were thwarted in nearly a dozen states and territories.
The first major federal law to offer protections to animals at risk from a range of human activities—the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act of 1966, dealing with the use of animals in research, testing, and exhibition—omitted any mention of animal fighting. That changed after a number of journalists exposed the suffering and death of animals in air transport.
Rep. Tom Foley, D-WA, chair of the Agriculture committee, and other lawmakers consciously omitted cockfighting from their legislative design, partly because so many jurisdictions and their politicians tolerated it (U.S. House of Representatives, 1976a, p. 2876). Penalties, even in states with bans, were inadequate. For example, the maximum penalty for cockfighting in Alabama has remained fixed at $50 since the late 1800s. At the time, there were three monthly above-ground national magazines operating, with thousands of subscribers. The Feathered Warrior, Grit & Steel, and The Gamecock ran more than 100 pages per issue and were chock full of advertisements for fighting birds, implements, and performance-enhancing drugs (Pacelle, 2011). The cockfighters even had their own lobbying groups and trade associations, led by the United Gamefowl Breeders Association (UGBA) (Pacelle, 2011).
During a mark-up of Foley’s animal welfare bill in the Agriculture Committee, Rep. John Krebs, D-CA, arguing that there was no moral difference between the use of dogs or birds for fighting, offered an amendment for a comprehensive ban on the transport of animals for fighting. Foley and the committee’s vice chairman, Rep. Bill Poage, D-TX, opposed it to protect the anti-dogfighting language, rather than out of sympathy for cockfighting (U.S. House of Representatives, 1976a, p. H2876). Poage called the addition of the anti-cockfighting legislation “an effort to destroy the legislation.” But Krebs narrowly prevailed by a vote of 20 to 16 in committee, with an unlikely assist from Rep. Steve Symms, R-ID, and a few of his allies.
Unlike Krebs, Symms was actually trying to kill the entire animal welfare bill, gambling that the cockfighting proscription would stir the previously muted but still passionate ranks of pro-cockfighting lawmakers (U.S. House of Representatives, 1976a, p. H2877). But Symms had miscalculated. He failed to understand that while cockfighting was still a major industry and had its Congressional advocates, it was also a practice that had been widely criminalized and condemned.
In the end, the House affirmed the amendment to ban interstate transport of fighting of “dogs or live birds” by a wide margin (289-78), even with Foley and Poage speaking against it and voting “no” (U.S. House of Representatives, 1976a, pp. H2882-2884). When the animal transportation bill came up for final passage in the House, with the interstate ban on fighting animals included, it passed with 335 “yes” votes and only 33 lawmakers joined Symms in voting “no” (U.S. House of Representatives, 1976a, pp. H2884-2885).
The maneuver by Symms to sink the broader bill by loading it with a more sweeping reform was hardly without precedent. Symms might have paid attention to the fight over civil rights just a decade earlier, after newly elected President Lyndon Johnson pushed reform. Previous versions of the Civil Rights Act had either failed or were watered down and passed simply to blunt a more serious measure (Mann, 1996). With Johnson’s legendary maneuvering, a serious-minded bill had the support of Northern Democrats and Midwest Republicans, but continued to face obstruction from lawmakers in the South. An opponent of the Civil Rights Act, Howard Smith, D-VA, decided to add the word “sex” to the bill, ostensibly to expand the protection of the new act to gender as well as race (Graham, 1990, pp. 133-136). He clearly didn’t act to expand equal protection of gays and lesbians, but instead attempted to add a poison pill provision designed to split labor, divide women’s groups, and chase away some of the reluctant supporters of the original bill. While the gambit proved unsuccessful, it did forge unlikely alliances (Graham, 1990, pp. 138-139).
But the House action against animal fighting had not settled the matter. In the 1976 debate, opponents of animal fighting still had cards to play. Senator Lowell Weicker, R-CT, the architect of the Senate companion bill to Foley’s humane transportation measure, omitted any animal fighting provision from his bill, even the anti-dogfighting language. As that bill moved forward, and ultimately passed that chamber, no other Senator worked to add the animal fighting language to it. The cockfighters had won an important battle, and that meant that a conference committee would have to take up the provision and settle it (U.S. House of Representatives, 1976b, pp. 9563-9567).
With pro-cockfighting lawmakers able to maneuver more effectively behind closed doors, negotiators split the difference—keeping the dogfighting language intact but crippling the anti-cockfighting provision. The final language had a loophole that allowed cockfighters to transport fighting birds to any state, territory, or foreign country where the practice was legal. That included about a dozen jurisdictions in the U.S. and dozens of foreign nations with legal cockfighting. The UGBA, which conducted a lobbying campaign against the bill, worked closely with Senator Wendell Ford, D-KY, to weaken the anti-cockfighting portion of the law (U.S. House of Representatives, 1976b, pp. 9563-9567). Though they may not have realized it at the time, the anti-cockfighting forces gained an important toehold in the Animal Welfare Act, even though it would take a generation for the next step to play out.
In the subsequent quarter century (1976-2001) following Congressional enactment of the animal fighting law, there was not a single federal enforcement action against cockfighting or dogfighting (U.S. House of Representatives, 2000, pp. 1-54.1). It was a period when animal fighting was widely criminalized, but only nominally so—with weak provisions and penalties at the state and federal levels. The public did not perceive it as a credible industry, but its adherents had little fear of prosecution. Collectively, there were hundreds of arenas in Arizona, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, and also in states where prohibitions against animal fighting were never enforced, such as Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia (Pacelle, 2011).
The practitioners were connected not only to the robust domestic industry, but also to a larger global enterprise stretching from Mexico to Thailand that allowed them direct participation in fights, trade and commerce opportunities, and even their own publishing ecosystem.
Renewed Focus on Animal Fighting Changes the Equation
The revision of the Animal Welfare Act in 1976, weak as it was, came on the backend of a burst of animal protection lawmaking—with the enactment of the Horse Protection Act and the Airborne Hunting Act in 1971, the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act in 1973. The late 1960s and early 1970s-aligned with the upheavals in society over the Vietnam War—was also a period of broader social awareness and political reforms not seen since Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Era and New Deal. The Nixon presidency was coincident with the first Earth Day and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the fortifying of civil rights laws, a push for the Equal Rights Amendment, the rise of the anti-nuclear movement, and the stirrings of the gay rights movement (Singer, P., 1975).
The concomitant emergence of seemingly disparate social reform efforts was uncommon though not unprecedented. The rise of an issue may create awareness among policy entrepreneurs and other reformers that related areas merit attention. Initial successes generally cause the most powerful spillovers. Entrepreneurs and allies pivot to closely correlated issues, offering familiar strategies and solutions (Crenson, 1971).
Citizens were agitating about animal protection. In addition to new laws to help animals, there were national groups that formed in the 1960s and early 1970s, led by the Fund for Animals. But the movement drew its greatest infusion of energy from a 29-year-old Australian philosopher Peter Singer, who published an essay in The New York Review of Books (1973) and a landmark book Animal Liberation (1975). Singer advocated rethinking our relationship with animals, arguing that oppression of animals sprang from the same sorts of line-drawing that caused men to exploit women or whites to harm blacks. He argued that when it comes to suffering, animals are our equals, and that the relevant moral test was not species type but sentience.
Singer took aim at the institutionalized and legal uses of animals, focusing on industrial agricultural production and animal experimentation. Singer’s book represented what Baumgartner and Jones (2009) call “a punctuated equilibrium,” a shock to the system that accelerates activity. The book inspired the formation of hundreds of local organizations and dozens of national organizations, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Trans-Species Unlimited.
The growing animal welfare movement undoubtedly abhorred animal fighting. But few advocates recognized that animal fighting was being conducted on an agricultural scale. There were occasional raids of fighting operations conducted by local organizations, mainly animal care and control agencies. But this was an era of inattentive and deficient enforcement of most animal laws (Pacelle, 2011). There had been some meaningful changes to existing state laws against animal fighting between the 1970s and the 1990s, but limited progress in enacting bans on cockfighting in states where it had long been legal (Pacelle, 2011). There was progress in Kentucky, but that came only from a judicial decision in 1984 determining that the anti-cruelty law applied to cockfighting (Kentucky Court of Appeals, 1994).
It was not until the late 1990s that The Humane Society of the United States, which had a couple of experienced staff working on the issue previously, decided to focus more energy on the problem (Pacelle, 2011). The year 1998 proved to be an inflection point when voters in Arizona and Missouri convincingly approved anti-cockfighting ballot initiatives, signaling to politicians that cockfighters had little support among the electorate. Opponents could not control framing anymore or even offer reasonable alternatives. They were left to rely on delay and procedure to block, blunt, or limit legislation.
In the wake of those ballot measure wins, there was an anti-cockfighting ballot initiative in Oklahoma, where state officials had estimated that there were 42 cockfighting arenas and as many as 2.5 million fighting birds in the state (Pacelle, 2011). Oklahoma lawmakers had refused to give anti-cockfighting legislation attention for decades, with Rep. John Monks of Muskogee famously declaring that “[I]n every country of the world taken over by communists, the first thing they do is outlaw cockfighting” (Singer, M., 2004, p. 12).
Around the same time—with just three states (Louisiana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, along with the five U.S. territories) hosting legal fights—Senator Wayne Allard, R-CO, a large-animal veterinarian and a western conservative, introduced a bill to ban any interstate transport of fighting birds and to increase penalties (U.S. Senate, 1999, p. S1157). Two months later, another unlikely ally, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-MN, a trophy hunter long disinclined to support animal welfare reforms, introduced a companion measure.
With a trophy hunter and large-animal veterinarian leading the way, momentum favored reform. The Senate Agriculture Committee conducted hearings on Allard’s bill, and it passed the committee unanimously (Lugar, 2000). The House Agriculture Committee conducted hearings on its bill. But key lawmakers in the House and Senate, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-MS, objected, stalling and then killing the legislation (McKenna, 2002). It was a vivid reminder, again, that senior lawmakers could thwart reform behind the scenes.
In 2001, with the start of the new 107th Congress, Senators Allard and Tom Harkin, D-IA, reintroduced the anti-animal-fighting legislation, with Rep. Peterson trying again in the House. The House Committee on Agriculture, led by Chairman Larry Combest, R-TX, refused to take up the bill despite strong support for it. But the Farm bill was up for renewal, and two lawmakers not serving on the committee, Reps. Blumenauer and Tom Tancredo, R-CO, took the lead when Peterson passed on offering an amendment, presumably to avoid irritating his fellow committee leaders (U.S. House of Representatives, 2001, pp. H6274-H6276).
Blumenauer and Tancredo offered a measure to ban interstate transport of fighting animals and lost on a voice vote after Combest and ranking member Charlie Stenholm, D-TX, spoke against it (U.S. House of Representatives, 2001, pp. H6274-6276). Blumenauer requested a roll-call vote. Combest and Stenholm recognized that a recorded vote would expose those who supported cockfighting. The Texas lawmakers engineered an irregular procedure, calling for a redo of the voice vote. On a second try, the House approved the amendment with no objections.
Knowing that he would be tough to beat on a second anti-cockfighting amendment, Blumenauer pressed ahead, offering a second amendment to ban any imports or exports of fighting birds and to make any violations of the federal anti-animal-fighting law a felony (U.S. House of Representatives, 2001, p. H6274). That amendment, arguably far more sweeping than the first one, given the U.S. cockfighters’ connections to the global industry, also passed by a voice vote without dissent.
On the Senate side, Allard and Harkin had an easier time, also using the Farm bill as a vehicle and circumventing Lott’s opposition (U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry, 2001; Agriculture, Conservation and Rural Enhancement Act of 2001). They successfully urged the ranking member of the committee, Richard Lugar, R-IN, to include all the anti-cockfighting provisions in their version of the Farm bill.
According to custom, identical provisions in a bill should not have even come up for discussion (Hoover, 2003). But as it had been for anti-animal-fighting legislation in 1976, a conference committee—this time organized to reconcile differences in hundreds of other provisions—proved a dangerous place for animal fighting legislation. Committee leaders did not alter the interstate and foreign provisions but did strip the felony-level penalty and delayed the effective date of the provision for a year.
President George W. Bush signed the measure into law in May 2002 (Simon, 2002). Even with the weakening action in the conference committee, the legislation represented a dramatic advance that would remedy a quarter century of legislative and enforcement inaction. But it was also a bitter disappointment to advocates to see felony provisions jettisoned.
Congress Decides There’s More to Be Done
There was almost a seamless effort to restore the penalty provisions that the conference committee had inexplicably jettisoned (Humane Society of the United States, 2002). Just weeks after the Farm bill vote, in the same session of Congress, Rep. Rob Andrews, D-NJ, with Blumenauer at his side, introduced new legislation to make violations a felony. They did not have enough time to move their bill, but they had succeeded in signaling that the fight was not over.
That effort got a moral and political boost when the Oklahoma Supreme Court, responding to Edmondson’s arguments, certified the anti-cockfighting ballot initiative for the November 2002 ballot (Singer, M., 2004). Voters then finished the job, passing it despite fierce opposition from the cockfighting community and the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, which argued that raising and selling birds was a form of mainstream agriculture. With Oklahoma making cockfighting a felony, shuttering more than three dozen pits, it remained legal only in Louisiana and New Mexico and the territories (Schafter, 2002).
In early 2003, the Congressional campaign started by Andrews and Blumenauer had other supporters, with Senators John Ensign, R-NV; Allard; Maria Cantwell, D-WA; and Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-MD, introducing bills to establish felony-level penalties and strengthen other elements of the law (DVM 360, 2007). The bill had been rewritten so that it was assigned to the friendlier House Judiciary Committee. The bill would place federal prohibitions against animal fighting in Title 18 of the U.S. criminal code. The Senate approved the animal-fighting bill as an amendment to an unrelated measure, but the provision was struck in a conference committee. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-WI, refused to move the legislation despite broad support among members of his committee. Again, a few well-placed lawmakers exerted disproportionate strength in halting progress.
While that authorizing legislation was bogged down, there was a parallel move to promote enforcement of the new law. In 2004, with authorizing legislation languishing, more than 150 lawmakers signed a letter urging House and Senate Appropriations Committee leaders to request $800,000 for enforcement of the law banning interstate or foreign commerce in fighting animals. The Senate Appropriations Committee included this funding provision in its bill, but the House committee did not. Blumenauer and Tancredo pressed the issue, and the full House passed its amendment by a vote of 222 to 179, with Combest and Stenholm again opposing them (U.S. House of Representatives, 2003, pp. H6635-H6640). The House finally took a roll-call vote on the issue, and there were a surprising number of “no” votes—with many of those lawmakers certain to regret that vote should it come up in their future campaigns. It’s hard to say you do not stand squarely against dogfighting and cockfighting in mainstream American politics in the 21st century—a political axiom that would soon be tested in Louisiana.
Indeed, the issue of animal fighting became a central topic in a high-profile U.S. Senate race in Louisiana in 2004. U.S. Senator John Breaux, D-LA, had announced his retirement, and his protégé, Congressman Chris John, also a Democrat, had likened cockfighting to “a major cultural activity” and a substantial industry in the state (U.S. House of Representatives, 2000, p. 4). His leading opponent, Congressman David Vitter, had been a critic of cockfighting and had supported past legislation to outlaw the activity in the state. Vitter had favored the Blumenauer-Tancredo amendment, while John had opposed it.
Newspaper editorials showed no sympathy for John’s pro-cockfighting stance, treating it as an embarrassment to their state. Television advertising from a new animal welfare political action committee rammed home that point. John realized his pro-cockfighting stance was eroding his political viability, and he tried to stay quiet on the issue even as Vitter turned up the volume. With the cockfighting issue playing a major role—with 32 percent of white Democratic women defecting and supporting the Republican, according to one post-election survey—Vitter handily won (Pacelle, 2011).
In the 109th Congress, emboldened by the Vitter win showing that an anti-cockfighting stance was a political benefit in the sport’s biggest stronghold, Senators Ensign and Cantwell introduced an even stronger bill, S. 382, to establish felony-level penalties and ban the interstate transport of cockfighting implements. Vitter, newly sworn in as Senator, cosponsored that legislation—an action that would have been perceived as political suicide just a year earlier. Senate Judiciary Committee leaders Arlen Specter, R-PA, and Patrick Leahy, D-VT, approved the bill in committee, and then on April 29, 2005, the Senate passed S. 382 without a single objection (AVMA, 2005).
Reps. Mark Green, R-WI; Gallegly; and Blumenauer introduced the companion bill; and the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security held a hearing on H.R. 817 on May 18, 2006 (U.S. House of Representatives, 2006). Gallegly, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, worked with Blumenauer to amass an extraordinary number of cosponsors—in the end, attracting 324 lawmakers to align publicly with the legislation. No serious policy measure had more cosponsors than the animal-fighting bill, but again, Sensenbrenner refused to take up the bill despite fierce pressure on him. Two more years had elapsed, and no felony penalties for violators had been added, even though support for the measure in both chambers was overwhelming.
The Democrats, riding a wave of anti-Iraq War sentiment in the 2006 mid-term elections, flipped control of the House, and the new committee chair, Rep. John Conyers, D-MI, quickly scheduled the newly introduced animal-fighting bill for a mark-up (U.S. House of Representatives, 2007). He conducted a vote in committee just two months into the new session and passed it in committee over Sensenbrenner’s objections. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, and other Democratic leaders put the measure on the floor on March 26, and it passed by a margin of 368 to 39, with Sensenbrenner and a handful of hardcore anti-animal welfare lawmakers opposing (Congress.gov, 2007). The Senate, also under Democratic control, passed the bill, led by Cantwell, by unanimous consent on April 10. President George W. Bush signed the measure in May.
That same year, in 2007, New Mexico outlawed cockfighting, becoming the 49th state to outlaw the activity. Governor Bill Richardson, a Democrat, led the fight and signed it into law. Richardson had announced he was running for President, and he did not want the stigma of overseeing a state that still tolerated that form of cruelty (Pacelle, 2011).
With New Mexico’s action, the Bayou State stood alone among states with legal cockfighting. Eventually, Louisiana lawmakers grudgingly got on board. Democrat Governor Kathleen Blanco signed a cockfighting ban into law in 2007—again, with a one-year delay in implementation. Cockfighting would soon be illegal in all 50 states.
Michael Vick’s Case Thrusts Animal Fighting into the National Spotlight
It’s not uncommon for activities far from the halls of Congress to put issues on the national radar screen and onto the legislative docket. This was the case in April 2007.
Police raided Michael Vick’s home not long after his cousin, Devon Boddie, was pulled over in Virginia and authorities found narcotics in his car (Dohrmann, 2007). It was just days before President George W. Bush signed the Animal Fighting Prohibition Act. Boddie gave his home address as 1915 Moonlight Road in rural Smithfield, Virginia. That was the address of the house Michael Vick purchased in 2001, just after being selected first in the NFL draft and signing with the Atlanta Falcons as the NFL’s highest paid player ever.
Vick and a few of his childhood friends had been using the Moonlight Road property for dogfights. Vick paid one of this friends, Tony Taylor, to locate the property, equip it, and run the operation. With two other boyhood friends, Purnell Peace and Quantis Phillips, they ran Bad Newz Kennels—adapting the nickname that locals had given the sometimes-troubled city of Newport News.
According to papers later released by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia (2007), the complex included:
Sheds and kennels associated with housing fighting dogs and hosting dog fights, approximately 54 American Pit Bull Terriers, some of which had scars and injuries appearing to be related to dog fighting; a “rape stand,” a device in which a female dog who is too aggressive to submit to males for breeding is strapped down with her head held in place by a restraints; a “break” or “parting” stick used to pry open fighting dogs’ mouths during fights; treadmills and “slat mills” used to condition fighting dogs; and other items. (p. 5)
People had long speculated about Vick’s involvement, but did nothing about it until the pressure to conduct more enforcement took hold. When that did happen, it was a national moment, as Vick’s trial and his travails were front-page news for months (Schmidt, 2007). Vick was a public figure and his crime was another instance of punctuated equilibrium. An unfamiliar and ugly world had been thrust into the glare of the national media and into the living rooms of a pet-loving public.
Feeding off the rage of their constituents, lawmakers in dozens of states introduced bills to strengthen penalties for dogfighting and cockfighting (Fox News, 2008). Over the succeeding 18 months, more than 40 states reviewed and revised their laws—an unprecedented surge in political activity on the issue. A catalyst on the football field, Vick turned out to be an unwitting agent for anti-dogfighting and anti-cockfighting laws. With Wyoming and Idaho strengthening their anti-dogfighting laws in 2008, every state had embraced felony-level penalties for the crime.
Even though George W. Bush had just signed a new federal law with felony provisions in May 2007—nearly coincident with the Vick case coming to light—some federal lawmakers had an appetite for more sweeping reform (Jones, 2007). In 2008, Senator John Kerry, D-MA, looked to the Farm bill as a vehicle, and on the House side, Reps. Betty Sutton, D-OH; Gallegly; and Blumenauer took the lead on a companion measure (U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry, 2008). The measure got a major boost from Senator Leahy, who chaired the Judiciary Committee, and again from House Judiciary Chairman Conyers. They all supported the effort to attach the provision to the Farm bill, making it a crime to knowingly possess or train animals for fighting, boosting maximum penalties for violators to a five-year jail sentence and a $250,000 fine, and giving the federal government more authority to class any animal-fighting activity as affecting interstate or foreign commerce.
After that, Congress took a pause, but not a long one. As a result of the Vick case, many states had tightened their laws to make it a crime to be a spectator at animal fights, and Congress took note (U.S. Senate, 2012). In 2011, federal lawmakers took another run—this time, with a bill to bring the entire cast of characters involved in these spectacles to justice (Congress.gov., 2011). During consideration of a bill dealing with the use of animals in movie production, Senator Vitter offered an amendment to crack down on attendees. That amendment passed 88 to 11, but the larger bill did not clear the House, which had swung back to the Republicans after the Tea Party wave election in 2010.
With their efforts thwarted by House Republicans, sponsors of the legislation had a chance for a vote on the issue by attaching their provisions to the Farm bill, as they had done 5 and 10 years earlier. The legislation, S. 666 by Blumenthal; Vitter; and Mark Kirk, R-IL, and H.R. 366 by Reps. Tom Marino, R-PA; and Jim McGovern, D-MA, made it a crime to knowingly attend or bring a child to an organized animal fight (Congress.gov, 2011). The Senate Agriculture Committee inserted the provision into the base bill, influenced by the lopsided vote on the Vitter amendment during the previous Congress. In the House, McGovern introduced an amendment to the Farm bill in committee to add this provision, and it passed 28 to 17 despite opposition from Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas, R-OK, and his allies. President Barack Obama signed the farm bill into law in 2014, with the anti-spectator provision intact. An enterprise that just a few years earlier had been legal in a number of states was now a crime, and so were a host of associated activities, including being present for a fight (Simon, 2014). The confluence of proactive policy entrepreneurs, momentum from similar issues, elections that changed the party in power, and dramatic events had pricked the national conscience and enabled unexpected, sequential reforms.
Enforcement in the U.S. and a Global Effort to Outlaw Animal Fighting Loom
Through the years, cockfighters had challenged the federal animal-fighting law in multiple venues, and in half a dozen cases, the courts sided with the United States and upheld the constitutionality of the law. That principle was affirmed again when a U.S. District Court in San Juan in October 2019 rejected a challenge from cockfighting interests in Puerto Rico (U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, 2019). The judge ruled that “[n]either the Commonwealth’s political statutes, nor the Territorial Clause, impede the United States Government from enacting laws that apply to all citizens of this nation alike, whether as a state or territory” (U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, 2019, p. 1). The District Court ruled that cockfighters could not argue that their conduct was intra-territorial and thereby outside the reach of federal law.
Through the years, cockfighters had feverishly tried to associate themselves with traditional agriculture, arguing that their millions of birds amounted to a form of animal agriculture and that animal advocates would soon try to turn everyone vegetarian if they succeeded in outlawing animal fighting. It was clever framing but unsuccessful as few agriculture organizations embraced their brand of animal care. In fact, some poultry groups—worried by outbreak of Exotic Newcastle Disease that had been spread to commercial poultry flocks by the movement of cockfighting birds—even registered support for stronger legislation (Scott, 2002).
The cockfighters had a more natural adversary in law enforcement agencies. There were one too many raids where cockfighters had been involved in major narcotics trafficking and violence against people (Saal, 2014). In the early 2000s, at two major arenas in Cocke County in east Tennessee, federal authorities linked cockfights to underage gambling, chop shops, and other illegal conduct (Humphrey, 2008).
But their most persistent problem was an ascendant animal protection movement. There had been progress against factory farming, the fur trade, cosmetics testing, and many other forms of animal exploitation. In relative terms, animal fighting looked particularly gratuitous and especially cruel. There was a rising tide of consciousness, aided by a newfound political capacity.
While the surge in lawmaking may make it appear that progress was inevitable, the effort to outlaw animal fighting was long, episodic, and not predetermined. It was serious-minded, strategic, and unrelenting activism that produced the outcomes discussed. Every ballot initiative and federal legislative initiative was contested.
Yet enforcement has been an unsettled issue. Puerto Rico’s legislature, on the eve of the implementation of the anti-cockfighting law there, passed a law declaring it would be legal to stage fights, without any legitimate authority to do so (Sanchez, 2019). Cockfighters treated that political grandstanding as an invitation to stage fights. In Guam, however, there has been grudging compliance with the law.
Despite this political resistance, it’s unlikely that the protests from territorial politicians will have any more weight than past pleadings of a small number of federal lawmakers, who years ago argued that dogfighting and cockfighting were traditions worth protecting in their states. All of them buck a tide of public sentiment, even in their own jurisdictions, that finds such activities barbaric and bound up with crime and disease transmission.
Animal torture is not an issue trumped by an appeal to the sovereign rights of territories or states or nations. Increasingly, we are a global community of nations, united by treaties, economic agreements, and travel and telecommunications. This connectedness has the effect of socializing reform-minded value systems. The global movement against animal fighting seems likely to root out the practice as a legal enterprise even in its current strongholds, but not without setbacks and adherents fiercely defending their prerogative to fight based on cultural and economic grounds.
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