Federal Law Takes Effect Today, Banning Cockfighting Everywhere In The U.S., Including The Territories

More than 100 arenas must be shuttered, but some cockfighters are threatening to defy the rule of law

It’s been an extraordinarily eventful period in the national debate over animal fighting, with the federal law that Animal Wellness Action shepherded to passage taking effect everywhere in the United States today.

Congress gave Guam, Puerto Rico, and other U.S. territories one year to wind down this practice, and that day has come.

Under the federal anti-animal fighting law, it is a crime to:

  • Knowingly sponsor or exhibit in an animal fighting venture;
  • Knowingly attend an animal fighting venture, or knowingly cause an individual who has not attained the age of 16 to attend an animal fighting venture;
  • Knowingly buy, sell, possess, train, transport, deliver, or receive any animal for purposes of having the animal participate in an animal fighting venture;
  • Knowingly use the mail service of the U.S. Postal Service, or any “written, wire, radio televisions or other form of communications in, or use a facility of, interstate commerce,” to advertise an animal for use in an animal fighting venture, or to advertise a knife, gaff, or other sharp instrument designed to be attached to the leg of a bird for us in an animal fighting venture, or to promote or in any other manner further an animal fighting venture except as performed outside the U.S.;
  • Knowingly sell, buy, transport, or deliver in interstate or foreign commerce “a knife, a gaff, or any other sharp instrument” designed or intended to be attached to the leg of a bird for us in an animal fighting venture.


In the run-up to this moment, it came as no surprise that cockfighting interests sued the federal government to unwind the law. So far, it hasn’t gone well for them. This week, a District Court Magistrate Judge on Guam recommended denying a motion for preliminary injunction filed by a local cockfighting enthusiast seeking to enjoin enforcement of the law. That comes two months after a U.S. District Court Judge in Puerto Rico rejected similar legal maneuvers by cockfighting clubs in that U.S. territory.

Now comes more maneuvering — this time from politicians beholden to cockfighters. Puerto Rico’s Governor Wanda Vázquez and state legislators passed a bill late this week to authorize cockfighting, indicating that as long as cockfighters don’t ship birds in or out of Puerto Rico, they can operate.

It’s an absurd legislative action, with zero legal effect. The only route for the cockfighters and their political allies is through the federal judicial system, not the Commonwealth’s legislature in San Juan. The effect of their action, however, is to abet the crimes of cockfighters, who are now saying they are free to continue their animal cruelty ventures, even though the federal government has supremacy on this issue.

Let there be no mistake: Starting today, cockfighting is a felony and the law should be obeyed, regardless of this misdirection by territory politicians. The penalty is up to five years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine for every violation.

“The legislature’s action in Puerto Rico amounts to political grandstanding at its worst,” said Ana María Hernández Martí, an Animal Law attorney based in San Juan.  “The territory, including the cockfighters and the politicians, had a year to sort this out, and then on the eve of the effective date of the law, they pull this stunt. Puerto Ricans should be upset by that lawmakers are giving the signal to cockfighters that they can break the law.”

“The federal government has spoken without any ambiguity on this issue, and the federal courts have upheld its authority to stop cockfighting in the territories and elsewhere,” said Drew Edmondson, former Attorney General of Oklahoma, the top law enforcement official in the state who saw cockfighting banned halfway through his 16-year tenure and fought off all sorts of wild maneuverings by the cockfighters to keep their blood sport alive.  “A state or territory cannot authorize kidnapping or plural marriage if the federal government has forbidden these activities.  It cannot do so with cockfighting either.”

Meanwhile on Guam, there has been some progress in winding down cockfighting activities on the island. The owner of “The Dome” in Dededo — where I watched staged fights between birds with knives strapped on their legs in September —  said that fighting will cease there. The Governor has said villages should not apply for permission to host cockfights at the festival.  She has also said, even though she opposes the federal fighting prohibition, that cockfighters should observe the law. The Guam Cockfighting Licensing Board has disbanded.

Animal Wellness Action (AWA) and the Animal Wellness Foundation (AWF) have obtained hundreds of shipping records from the Guam Department of Agriculture that reveal shipments of birds to the island from known cockfighting operators in the states to Guamanians.

All of this — the shipments of fighting birds into the territories, the shipment of fighting birds from the territories and to other countries, the staged fights at established arenas, the backyard fights, the raising of fighting animals — must end as both a legal and moral imperative. The overwhelming majority of people in the territories oppose staged fights between animals and they believe the federal law should be observed.

Recently, AWA and AWF announced a rewards program to run for an indefinite time that provides a $2,500 reward for any individual who provides critical information that results in a successful federal prosecution of an individual or set of individuals who violate the federal law against animal fighting (7 U.S.C. § 2156). The rewards program is mentioned on the new campaign website, www.endcockfighting.org, which will serve as a comprehensive resource about the issue and call citizens to action to help.

We also will be putting people on the ground to augment the eyes and ears of local citizens and sniff out illegal operators.

Meanwhile, as we reported in yesterday’s Political Animal, the Congress just passed, and the President is poised to sign, a massive spending bill that funds the operations of government in 2020.  That bill includes unambiguous report language urging federal agencies to enforce our federal animal laws, including the one that took effect today.  Here is the report language from the bill:

“Animal fighting. ln lieu of House language on animal fighting, the Department shall make it a priority to investigate and prosecute violations of animal welfare laws, as directed in the Senate report and as previously described in Senate Report 114-239 and codified in Public Law 115-31. The Department shall report to the Committees not later than 120 days after enactment of this Act on the specific steps the Department is taking to enforce such laws, including case development and prosecutions based on referrals from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General, and other Federal agencies.”

In sum, it’s time for cockfighters to lay down the knives and gaffs and stop engaging in this form of malicious cruelty. It is the law, and no amount of showmanship by politicians in Puerto Rico or elsewhere can undo that.