May is prime cockfighting season.
Rooster fighting tournaments that kick off around Thanksgiving culminate in big-money derbies this month before the roosters start molting in the summer heat, officials say.
Although the practice was banned as a cruel blood sport in Tennessee in 1881, investigators say cockfighting is alive and well, with fights in the region almost every weekend.
Last summer, more than 100 people — most from out of state — were arrested at a cockfighting raid in Polk County.
Authorities said the bloody sport’s fans flock to Tennessee because, unlike in neighboring Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, getting caught fighting roosters isn’t a serious crime.
Tennessee is one of only 12 states that don’t classify cockfighting as a felony. Though all other forms of animal fighting are felonies in the state, cockfighting is a misdemeanor, usually punished with a $50 fine.
For the past four years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to increase the penalty for cockfighting and, for the past four years, the bills have been blocked before they reached the House floor.
“It is one of those anomalies in code. Fighting any other animal in the state is a felony, except for fighting roosters,” said Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, who sponsored a recent bill, along with Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, to make cockfighting a felony.
This time around, sponsors amended the bill to lessen the penalty from a felony to a $2,500 fine. It unanimously passed a Senate judiciary panel, but was unanimously voted down in a House agriculture subcommittee April 13.
Subcommittee member Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Knoxville, argues that cockfighting should not be a felony because there’s not the jail space — and because it’s a cultural tradition.
“Many people who buy these roosters, well, their fathers and their grandfathers have done it, and they don’t see anything wrong it with it,” Niceley said. “I don’t go to rooster fights and I don’t have fighting roosters but I have friends that do. They pay their taxes. They’re not bothering anybody. ... It’s been going on for centuries; I don’t know what the big deal is.”
Agriculture subcommittee Chairman Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, reasons that keeping fines low will make the fights more accessible, meaning law enforcement can bust them more frequently.
“If we jump [the fine] to $2,500 it’ll go underground, and we’ll never be able to catch them,” Ford said.
Tom Farrow, a former FBI agent and now private animal-fighting investigator, doesn’t buy that argument.
“With that reasoning, let’s go ahead and make using cocaine a misdemeanor, so it’ll be easier to catch the drug dealers,” he said.
Farrow maintains that the state’s weaker code makes it a magnet for cockfights and affiliated crimes: gambling, money laundering and increasingly, drug use and dealing.
Niceley considers people coming from other states for the fights as a form of tourism.
“They buy food, they stay in hotels, they buy gas,” he said.
BURIED ON PURPOSE
Countless bills meet their demise in subcommittees. But Lundberg alleges the cockfighting bills are deliberately killed by being put in the wrong subcommittee from the start.
Traditionally, bills proposing change to criminal statutes are assigned to the judiciary committees, but cockfighting bills keep ending up in the agriculture committees.
“It’s been assigned to agriculture for a long time, and that committee just has a history of killing those bills,” Lundberg said. “It shouldn’t be there.”
Last year, legislation to increase penalties for being a spectator at a cockfight was assigned to the agriculture committee and never was brought up for a vote. The bill passed unanimously in a Senate judiciary subcommittee.
“It’s like there’s an anti-cockfighting Senate and a small cabal of legislators who keep the House from ever being able to vote on it,” said John Goodwin, director of Animal Cruelty Policy for the Humane Society of the United States.
A supporter of cockfighting voiced vehement opposition to the bill on an online forum.
On Gamerooster.com, Butch Taylor, head of the Eastern Tennessee Gamefowl Breeders Association, wrote in February: “As usual, these two same morons are introducing felony bills into the law here in Tennessee. ... Talk to [our representatives] and let them know how much they are destroying rural America through these actions.
“I talked to two legislators and they are working hard for us,” he also wrote.
Taylor could not be reached for comment.
Goodwin said the Humane Society will not let up in its quest to tighten animal-fighting laws in the state.
“We’re not going to stop until we make cockfighting a felony in all 50 states,” he said.
Lundberg said he plans to sponsor another cockfighting bill next January.
“I inherently have problems when I think there are things that are logical that can’t be passed,” he said.
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