False Claims from Puerto Rico’s Cockfighters
Arguments from proponents of cockfighting are hollow, unfounded, and at odds with Congressional action and American jurisprudence
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Congress has the authority to declare cockfighting illegal, and it has done so. No jurisdiction within the U.S. should be an enclave or a refuge for this kind of intentional cruelty. “Culture” cannot be a defense for inexcusable animal abuse that also poses threats to public health and safety. Staged fights pit animals against each other for the sole purpose of gambling and entertainment. The animals are often drugged to heighten their aggression and forced to keep fighting even after they’ve suffered grievous injuries such as broken bones, deep gashes, punctured lungs and pierced eyes. In cockfighting, birds have metal weapons attached to their legs and typically suffer slow painful deaths.
The reality is, cockfighting probably started 3,000 years ago during the Roman Era, and it spread throughout the world as that empire expanded. It’s been practiced throughout much of the world ever since. Only in the last 150 years, with the rise of the global animal protection movement, has it been in retreat. Like cockfighting, there were plenty of other moral horrors that went global. Dueling. Honor killing. Repression of women. Slavery. Ubiquity and longevity are not markers of culture. They just meant that these practices were widespread and enduring. But civilized societies evolve, in the United States and across the world. That’s precisely why policymaking and enforcement are ongoing enterprises in society. We have achieved a national consensus that staged animal fighting is wrong, with prohibitions in 50 states and a federal prohibitions against all forms of animal fighting.
In late October 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Gustavo Gelpi, a native of Puerto Rico, sided with the U.S. government and rejected the legal claims from cockfighting clubs, declaring that “[n]either the Commonwealth’s political statues, nor the Territorial Clause, impede the United States Government from enacting laws that apply to all citizens of this Nation alike, whether as a state or territory.” Indeed, Congress has upgraded the federal law against animal fighting five times in the 21st century, and the courts have upheld every provision challenged by animal fighting interests.
Claims about the economic impacts of cockfighting are far-fetched, inaccurate, unvalidated, and inconsistent. If there were 25,000 jobs, as some suggest, that amount of employment would generate far more than $100 million in revenue. The 2012 Puerto Rico Census of Agriculture (COA) — the last available document on the website and available to the public — reports 324 “cockfighting farms” reporting 6,667 fighting cocks and sales of $1,187,102. At a single illegal cockfighting stable in Los Angeles County in 2017, there were more than 7,000 fighting birds at a single operation – underscoring that the numbers of birds Puerto Rico officials cite is no larger than the illegal cockfighting that occurs in the mainland U.S. At the Los Angeles stable, there were perhaps just a few people overseeing the operation. Throughout the U.S. very few people are persuaded to accept an immoral and illegal action as legitimate because of a “jobs” argument.
Federal law bans any imports or exports of fighting birds or implements in all states and territories, including Puerto Rico. Those prohibitions place a hard cap on revenues generated from the core “commodities” of the cockfighting trade. Gambling by cockfighting enthusiasts on the outcome of the fights at Puerto Rico’s cockfighting venues generate very little net new revenue that contribute to the Commonwealth’s economic development. The money is mainly passed back and forth between the small number of people drawn to this form of gambling.
As a general matter, any major tourist destination, such as Puerto Rico, incurs a major economic risk by embracing or tolerating animal cruelty in any form. Many tourists will choose vacation destinations that steer clear of animal abuse. In that sense, cockfighting may be a drag on tourism economic development in the Commonwealth.
There is no evidence that this is a closely- or well-regulated industry. The last report by the Commonwealth government about cockfighting came out in 2012.
Unfortunately, a hurricane caused a further suspension in efforts to generate a Census of Agriculture report in 2017. The Commonwealth announced an expected publication date for the next report in February 2020. The regulation of cockfighting in Puerto Rico involves no inspections of cockfighting breeding operations or the fights themselves. There appears to be no animal care regulations or on-the-ground presence to assure any type of humane treatment of animals.
The birds are not only subjected to inhumane deaths in the cockfighting pits, but the tethering of fighting roosters outside is a hazard to the birds when major storms strike. There was no safe place for the roosters when Hurricane Maria closed in on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands devastated the islands in 2019. Most of the birds were undoubtedly killed, with waters drowning them or high winds tossing them around like rag dolls. If the people of Puerto Rico are interested in other forms of gambling and games of chance, there is a wide range of options that do not involve animal cruelty and other animal safety concerns.
Widespread Deception on Guam Import Documents
AWA investigation shows fowl importers attempt to deceive authorities with claims that birds are for breeding, not fighting
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On December 20th, a federal law took effect that closed some loopholes in the Animal Welfare Act, forbidding animal fighting in every part of the United States, including Guam. That fortification of the law against dogfighting and cockfighting was built on a broad set of long-standing prohibitions. Since 2002, it’s been a crime — and a felony offense since 2007 — to transport fighting animals between the states or to the territories.
Cockfighting is not an industry Guamanians support. A poll conducted by Market Research & Development on Guam determined that 62 percent of Guamanians favor the federal ban on cockfighting.
An AWA investigation — which included examination of industry sources, public media, and satellite imagery of shippers’ farms — makes it clear that dozens of shippers knowingly violated the federal law, in collaboration with the importers on Guam.
After sorting through nearly 2,500 pages of shipping records formally obtained from Guam's Department of Agriculture, AWA found that cockfighters from the U.S. mainland made more than 500 illegal transports of fighting birds to customers on Guam. The records reveal the illegal trafficking of over 8,800 male birds to Guam in a 33-month period — an illegal shipment, on average, every other day.
Import documents typically mischaracterized the shipped birds as “brood fowl” or “show fowl” rather than fighting birds in order to try to skirt the federal animal fighting law.
On Guam, there is no commercial poultry industry to speak of, and no competitions for show birds of any consequence on the island. Guam has, on the other hand, cultivated a robust cockfighting industry. These importers are paying hundreds for every rooster, and there’s just no other reason to make these kinds of payments unless you are deep in the industry. It doesn’t take great powers of deduction to figure this one out.
In addition, some shippers are sending more than 100 cocks for every hen, and in nearly every case, the ratios are extraordinarily lopsided to favor the males. In a standard agricultural operation receiving birds for production, the ratios would be inverted, with more females used for breeding and egg production.
Based on the results of the investigation, we believe the people on both ends of these transactions are committing felony offenses. We found that cockfighters were using the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) for the transports, even though the Animal Welfare Act specifically prohibits this illegal use of the mail service.
Here’s the bottom line: federal law bans cockfighting. The courts have upheld the federal exercise of authority as constitutional. Elected and appointed officials should respect the law and see that it’s enforced. It’s no more complicated than that.
Why the Territories Must Comply with the New Federal Law
Cockfighting is barbaric, often associated with other illegal behavior, a threat to avian health, and universally criminalized throughout the U.S. The U.S. Territories are part of the United States and they should observe U.S. law.
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No jurisdiction within the U.S. should be an enclave or refuge for this kind of intentional cruelty.
Staged fights pit animals against each other for the sole purpose of gambling and entertainment. The animals are often drugged to heighten their aggression; they are forced to keep fighting even after they’ve suffered grievous injuries such as broken bones, deep gashes, punctured lungs, and pierced eyes. In cockfighting, birds have metal weapons attached to their legs to slash each other and typically suffer slow painful deaths. “Culture” cannot be a defense for inexcusable abuse that severely harms animals and poses threats to public health and safety.
The presence of an above-ground industry anywhere undermines the prohibitions in other parts of the country.
Tolerance for cockfighting gives animal fighters an unwarranted measure of legitimacy, a market for fighting animals and paraphernalia, and venues for engaging in this cruelty. All 50 states have banned the practice, and Congress has made it illegal everywhere, including the U.S. territories. The rule of law must be enforced, especially when it comes to a destructive and dangerous activity like cockfighting.
There shouldn’t be one set of rules against animal fighting in all 50 states and a different set of rules for the U.S. territories.
The U.S. Congress, even with its diversity and partisan divisions, has repeatedly and overwhelmingly strengthened the federal law against animal fighting, underscoring the broad social consensus against staged animal fighting. In fact, since 2002, Congress has upgraded the federal law against animal fighting five times, including upgrades on each of the last four Farm bills.
Multiple federal investigations have revealed that animal fighting is an intricate and organized criminal enterprise responsible for moving multi-ton quantities of heroin and methamphetamines across the country. There have been numerous violent incidents at cockfights, including the murder of a referee at a fight in Miami in 2018. Gambling at animal fights generates millions in unreported income each year.
Cockfighting is a threat to avian health.
Cockfighting has been identified as the cause of avian flu outbreaks, including a major 2019 outbreak in southern California that led to the state killing 1.2 million birds to slow the spread of the disease. In a 2004 letter to Congress, the USDA noted that cockfighting had been implicated in the introduction and spread of exotic Newcastle disease in California in the prior two years, triggering eradication efforts at a taxpayer cost of nearly $200 million and causing millions of dollars in lost export markets for the U.S. poultry industry. The National Chicken Council wrote in 2004 that “we are concerned that the nationwide traffic in game birds creates a continuing hazard for the dissemination of animal diseases.” Local news reports have linked cockfighting to the deaths of several people in Asia from bird flu, and the World Health Organization noted that human cases of avian influenza in Thailand and Vietnam may have been contracted through cockfighting activity.
Roosters and other animals used for fighting are at risk even when they are not in a fighting pit.
Typically tethered outside, fighting animals are unable to flee or seek protection in an emergency. It is highly likely that recent hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands resulted in the deaths of large numbers of animals by drowning or other miserable means.
Animal welfare advocates have pursued an end to cockfighting in the U.S. territories and the states with equal zeal.
Americans of every background and ethnicity abhor animal fighting. The territories have been a recent focus only because they are now the last parts of the United States where animal fighting is openly conducted. Animal advocates had campaigned actively to ban cockfighting in its last redoubts in the states, even conducting ballot initiatives in Arizona, Missouri, and Oklahoma to ban the practice. Efforts to ban animal fighting in U.S. territories follow efforts to ban the practice on the mainland and to ensure that federal prohibitions against animal fighting apply to the entire U.S. including the U.S. territories.