A criminal network built on animal cruelty and gambling should no longer be tolerated by state authorities
Montogomery, Ala. — Animal Wellness Action (AWA) and the Center for a Humane Economy (CHE) — two non-profit animal welfare groups that bring a science-based approach to fighting animal cruelty — released two reports today detailing 1) rampant cockfighting in Alabama (report available to journalists upon request) and 2) cockfighting and its role in spreading Avian Influenza and other infectious diseases (available here).
The organizations wrote today to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and alerted her to the dangerous overlap between widespread illegal cockfighting operations and the state’s massive commercial poultry operations, urging her to initiate in this session a priority legislative effort to upgrade the state’s anemic anti-cockfighting law, which has gone unchanged since 1896. That law is the nation’s weakest of its type, stipulating that “any person who keeps a cockpit or who in any public place fights cocks shall, upon conviction, be fined no less than $20 but no more than $50,” the letter stated.
“While dogfighting is a felony, cockfighting warrants less in the way of penalties than a parking ticket,” said Wayne Pacelle, president at the Center for a Humane Economy. “It’s clear that this weak law has provided an invitation for enthusiasts to flock to Alabama and grow major cockfighting operations, especially as other states adopted felony-level penalties for these crimes.”
According to the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association and the USDA, the state produces about 1.17 billion broiler chickens and 10.7 million egg laying hens annually worth $3.1 billion. Commercial poultry operations generate $15 billion in total economic impact in Alabama and employ 86,000 workers on farms, processing plants, and in allied industries. Broilers and layer farmers generate 65% of Alabama farm revenue and comprise one-eighth of the state economy.
“There’s no question that the illegal cockfighting industry puts our nation’s multibillion-dollar legitimate poultry industry at risk from severe avian infectious diseases, especially potentially zoonotic highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) and virulent Newcastle disease (vND),” stated Dr. Jim Keen, director of veterinary sciences for the Center for a Humane Economy and the primary author of a comprehensive 63-page report on the links between cockfighting and avian influenza and virulent Newcastle Disease. “By allowing a massive cockfighting industry to flourish in Alabama, the state is putting its enormous agriculture industry at risk.”
The HPAI (H5N1 strain) bird flu epidemic that began in February 2022 in Indiana has already killed nearly 60 million commercial and backyard poultry and unknown thousands, perhaps millions, of wild birds in 48 states over the past 12 months. There have been 309 commercial poultry flocks (mostly layer flocks and meat turkeys) and 427 backyard flocks in 47 states infected and euthanized as of January 2023. It is unknown if any infected backyard flocks are game fowl because USDA does not report this data. This epidemic is the largest and will be the costliest animal disease outbreak in our nation’s history.
Virulent Newcastle disease can cause commercial and backyard poultry devastation similar to that of HPAI if not contained. There have been 15 introductions of vND into the United States since 1950, 10 of which occurred via the illegal smuggling of game cocks across our southern border from Mexico. (Virulent Newcastle disease is endemic in Mexico and all of Latin America). Just three of those outbreaks cost the federal government more than $1 billion.
Coincident with the infectious disease report, Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy also released a report revealing some of the major cockfighting kingpins in the state.
In the absence of state action, federal authorities are exercising the provisions of the federal anti-animal fighting law. In December, Brent Easterling, the most visible member of a Verbena-based family enmeshed in the business of cockfighting, was sentenced by Federal District Court Judge Myron H. Thompson to 24 months in federal prison for a host of illegal animal fighting activities, including maintaining two fighting pits on properties owned by the family. The court also sentenced Billy Easterling to 22 months and Tyler Easterling to 20 months. Other family members are on probation or home confinement. See the press release on the sentencing here.
Animal Wellness Action provided important information on the Easterlings’ criminal activities in 2020, and the next year the federal government brought indictments against the Easterlings.
In recent weeks, we have credible information to indicate that Crystal and Claude Vaughn of Hanceville have exited the industry. Our report reveals past operations that indicate they were major players in the cockfighting industry. “If the Vaughns have exited the industry, this is a significant development, and it is a smart move on their part to get out while they have their freedoms.” added Pacelle
Animal Wellness Action’s updated report suggests that other key players in Alabama cockfighting, including Jerry Adkins and Royce Flores of Nauvoo, are still involved. The report also has identified new players, including Cyndel and Anthony Robinson of Courtland, Alabama. This report provides varying resources that point to significant involvement in animal fighting ventures.
Animal Wellness had previously reported that Adkins and Flores had shipped birds through the U.S. Postal Service to Guam for later use in fights. Tom Pool, D.V.M., and the former territorial veterinarian with the Guam Department of Agriculture and now the senior veterinarian with the Center for a Humane Economy, attested that all of the adult rooster shipments to Guam were for the purpose of cockfighting. Adkins claimed in videos produced by the Philippines-based cockfighting broadcaster BNTV in April 2020 that he ships 6,000 birds a year from his Nauvoo farm to destinations for fighting purposes, including 700 birds to a single buyer in Mexico.
Many of the cockfighting enthusiasts, whose operations dot many parts of the state, appear to be affiliated with the Alabama Gamefowl Breeders Association, and the operations are so numerous and extensive that AWA has dubbed Alabama as “the cockfighting capital of the Southeast.”
“It is a federal felony to buy, sell, deliver or possess any bird with the intent to engage the bird in a cockfight, and that’s clearly what we’re seeing,” said Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action and a native of Mobile. “Alabama has become a launching point for global trafficking of fighting animals, and it’s time for the state to enact a new law and for state and federal authorities to pull up cockfighting operations at the roots.”
Right now, AWA and CHE have formulated new federal legislation to strengthen the existing statute against animal fighting and enhance enforcement by:
- banning simulcasting and gambling of an animal fight, no matter where it originates;
- halting the shipment of mature roosters (chickens only) shipped through the U.S. mail;
- creating a citizen suit provision to allow private right of action against illegal animal fighters and ease the resource burden on federal agencies; and
- enhancing forfeiture provisions to include real property used in the commission of an animal fighting crime.
Cockfighting enterprises are not just hotspots of cruelty, but a multi-billion-dollar, above-and-below-ground enterprises entwined with illicit drug possession, illegal gambling, prostitution, violence, gang activity, unlawful guns, and money laundering.