published Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

Anti-cockfighting activists say battle not over

The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.
The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

COCKFIGHTING IN THE SOUTHEAST

Cockfighting is a crime in all 50 states. It is a felony in 40 states, a misdemeanor in 10. Here is how Southeastern states classify the crime.

FELONY

• Virginia

• North Carolina

• Georgia

• Florida

MISDEMEANOR

• Tennessee

• South Carolina

• Mississippi

• Kentucky

• Alabama

• Louisiana

Poll
Should cockfighting be a felony?

After its fifth round in the Tennessee General Assembly, a bill to make cockfighting a felony in Tennessee once again is lying limp in the ring.

For the advocates battling cockfighting, the bill's failure to pass was yet another letdown in their attempts to clamp down on the practice in Tennessee -- one of only 10 states where cockfighting is not a felony.

For the bill's critics, it was another victory against what they say is a threat to Tennessee agriculture and cultural heritage.

"This bill is not about chickens. It's about killing agriculture in America," said Sen. Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains, who has said in previous interviews with the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he has friends who fight roosters.

He then requested his colleagues to "pass" if they couldn't vote no, saying: "We've killed this bill for a long time."

Nine senators did just that: Declining to vote one way or another. The bill needed 17 votes to pass, and the final tally was 15-8.

But it was not necessarily voted down, which gives John Goodwin -- the Humane Society's director of animal cruelty policy -- some hope.

Next year, the bill's sponsors and Goodwin anticipate, the proposal could have a chance of being brought straight back to the calendar, potentially bypassing the committee process.

"We know if all the senators had voted, this would have passed," said Goodwin. "We're going to hold their feet to the fire. We're going to continue to bring this issue. It's not going to go away."

One of the nonvoters was Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who said he thinks increasing the penalty is a good idea, but didn't feel comfortable voting for it because of how the Humane Society pushed it.

"I'm not for animal fighting at all," said Gardenhire. "There's no sense in all those people coming over to Tennessee because it's a lesser charge here."

But Gardenhire said he was turned off by the Humane Society's lobbying for this and other legislation.

"The emails we got were so discourteous. I don't take well to that," Gardenhire said, adding that he would consider the bill if it came up again next year -- but that "the cat needs to be skinned in the proper way."

Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, also opted not to vote, but warned lawmakers that there are people "who are trying to stop us farmers from raising animals like we've always raised them."

Burks said she knew there are "little huts everywhere" in her district where game fowl were being raised, but said she didn't know what they are used for.

One of the larger cockfighting raids in recent Tennessee history was in Burks' district in 2008, when 11 people were indicted on federal gambling, drug conspiracy and money laundering charges.

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, voted against the cockfighting measure. He did not return requests for comment.

Cockfighting has been outlawed in Tennessee since it was deemed a cruel blood sport in 1881. But because Tennessee is one of only a handful of states with a misdemeanor penalty and a $50 fine, activists and law enforcement say it is a magnet for cockfights and the gambling that comes with them.

There are dozens of cockfighting pits in Tennessee with fights every weekend, drawing 15 to 500 people, Goodwin estimates. Farms where game fowl are raised dot East Tennessee -- even in the Hamilton County area, cockfighting and game fowl magazines show.

"When Tennessee becomes known as a state where you get a higher fine for running a stop sign than for organized criminal activity like cockfighting, you can guarantee that Tennessee will become a destination of choice for people organized in this criminal activity," Goodwin said.

Several large-scale cockfighting raids have uncovered drug trafficking and money laundering at fights.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, called himself a hunter and supporter of outdoor sports, but he said cockfighting was no sport.

"It's not just about fights," he said, describing "intricate" gambling operations and multiton drug shipments moving through Middle Tennessee cockfights. "It's about drugs. It's illegal."

Under the proposed law, the first offense for cockfighting would have remained a misdemeanor. But additional offenses would be felony charges, punishable by jail time and fines up to $3,000. Fight spectators, meanwhile, would get $500 fines.

The bill's critics claimed the bill could allow law enforcement to penalize farmers for raising roosters that could be used for cockfighting.

Ketron argued the law was not so broad and that investigators would have discretion.

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