There are not many places in the United States where one can stroll into a cockfighting arena seating 1,000 people. Yet that’s what I did last fall at “The Dome” on Guam, the U.S. territory in the eastern Pacific Ocean. At a two-cock derby that started at 9 p.m. in the village of Dededo, I paid a $5 admission fee and took my seat in the bleachers. I then proceeded to watch roosters, confined in a plexiglass-enclosed pit, slash each other with enhanced effect because of knives strapped to their legs, as men stood on their seats and hollered and settled side bets.
The first victim I saw was gasping just a minute into the fight, a heaving clump of brightly and beautifully colored feathers, a downed animal unable to defend himself as a knife attack persisted. The referee called the fight, and one handler scooped up the survivor. The other handler picked up his dying bird by the neck. He was destined for the trash heap out back.
Two months later, just before we entered 2020, a federal law took effect that bans cockfighting everywhere in the United States. The law applies to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where cockfighting has flourished, as on Guam and in other territories that took no legislative action on their own to stop the practice. The Dome is now closed, and other fighting pits throughout U.S. territories and states, as a matter of law, should be shuttered as well.
Congress’s strengthening of the federal law against dogfighting and cockfighting was just its latest expression of disgust with the practices. In fact, Congress has upgraded the law five times in the 21st century. Federal law bans fighting animals; being a spectator at a fight; transporting fighting animals across territorial or state lines; possessing or transporting cockfighting knives or gaffs; and even possessing animals for fighting. Most of these offenses are felonies.
Puerto Rico’s major cockfighting clubs sued the federal government to suspend the new provision of law. In a case decided in October, a U.S. District Court Judge in San Juan settled two lingering questions: 1) does the federal law against animal fighting apply to the five U.S. territories, and 2) does the federal law ban all cockfighting activities or just those activities where a rooster has been transported across state lines for a fight?
The Court’s answer to both questions was an emphatic “Yes.”
But the intent of Congress, even as affirmed by the courts, hasn’t produced perfect fidelity to the law. In this case, there are still plenty of cockfighting enthusiasts who treat their hobby as a “cultural right.”
But this is a smokescreen, and it’s always been one.
Cockfighters in Louisiana and New Mexico – the last states to adopt prohibitions on the activity — said the practice was part of their culture before legislators put an end to it. Guamanian cockfighters say it’s part of their Pacific Island ethos. Filipinos say so, too. Vietnamese say it’s in their blood. Latino cockfighters say it’s their tradition.
You get the point.
When people of every ethnic heritage lay claim to cockfighting as a cultural right, there is a dilution effect, giving the argument no taste or substance. Little relevance.
The reality is, cockfighting probably started 3,000 years ago during the Roman era and spread as the empire expanded. It’s been practiced throughout much of the world ever since.
There were plenty of other moral horrors that were long a part of the human experience. Dogfighting. Bull or bear-baiting.
In other words, cockfighting isn’t the only form of exploitation that was enduring and global in reach.
Civilization triumphs over savagery because responsible people call out shameful practices. That’s precisely why government policymaking is an ongoing enterprise.
Animal Wellness Action announced rewards of $2,500 for people who deliver information that results in the arrest and prosecution of illegal cockfighters, whether in the Virgin Islands or any other part of the United States.
It’s hard to believe that anyone would risk five years of imprisonment and a $250,000 fine to watch animals hack each other to death. We urge all Americans to report cruelty when they see it and to show no tolerance for any form of animal cruelty, including cockfighting.
Editor’s note: Wayne Pacelle, founder of Animal Wellness Action, is author of two New York Times best-selling books, “The Bond” and “The Humane Economy.”