It’s hard for any enthusiast of an immoral practice or hobby to cope with the idea that their favored activity is soon to be illegal. The enthusiast typically has a well-scripted rationale to justify the practice, often makes money on the activity, and considers it a way of life. A hobby or business that they’ve loved is soon going to be on the wrong side of the law, coming with consequences if they choose to persist and defy the law. They crow in protest of an overreaching government.
That’s been the emotional reaction from tens of thousands of U.S. cockfighters who’ve failed to stop the march of states outlawing staged battles between animals — most recently in Oklahoma in 2002, New Mexico in 2007, and Louisiana in 2008. We’re now on the cusp of the biggest criminalization of cockfighting in decades, rivaled by the ballot initiative bans imposed by voters in November 1998 in Arizona and Missouri — with dozens of pits forced to close in each state.
When the Congress passes the Farm bill, as it seems on track to do in December now that a tentative agreement has been struck between key leaders in the House and Senate, it may very well include a provision stipulating that federal restrictions against dogfighting and cockfighting should be evenly applied across the United States, including in U.S. territories.
The House adopted the provision, pushed by Reps. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, by a lopsided margin of 359 to 51 in May; an identical amendment, led by Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore. and Susan Collins, R-Maine, was poised for a similarly lopsided vote until an unrelated procedural spat prevented that amendment and dozens of other floor amendments from being offered to the Senate version of the Farm bill. A Senate bill, S. 2967, led by Cory Booker, D-N.J., that replicates the anti-animal fighting provisions in the House bill has more than a quarter of all U.S. Senators as cosponsors.
Delegates from some of the five U.S. territories are claiming that this amendment to the Animal Welfare Act would strip their jurisdictions of the right to conduct these activities. Dogfighting is not prohibited in American Samoa or the Northern Marianas Islands and cockfighting openly occurs in those two territories and also in Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
Most people in these jurisdictions welcome the new restrictions and will celebrate the end of an ugly era of mistreating animals as a spectator sport. Animal fighting is a cruel activity that pits animals against each other, with animals 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. But others, especially the practitioners, view the sport differently and will treat the policy changes as an attack on their rights.
“A nation-state is a political community, governed by laws that, theoretically, unites a people who share a common ancestry,” Jill Lepore writes in her critically acclaimed bestseller, These Truths: A History of the United States. Indeed, one remarkable feature of the history of our country is that people of different ancestries have managed to integrate themselves into the culture and economy while also retaining their many distinctive traditions they hold dear.
But preserving regional or cultural traditions is not an absolute right. Indeed, we wouldn’t be a single nation if its citizens simply continued all the ways of their forebears, especially practices that don’t measure up in the evolution of societies and civilizations. There are norms of behavior that define us as Americans, and we abide by the rule of law to enforce those standards. It’s not about creating homogeneity, but about establishing and observing baseline standards.
Part of our greatness as a nation is that we’ve had citizens prepared to continually confront immoral traditions and enterprises. Yet, at every time that they’ve raised objections to terrible moral problems, there have been scores of politicians and common citizens who rose in angry and passionate defense of the conduct or policies in question — from dueling to lynching to child labor to the denial of voting rights for women. The apologists have cloaked their arguments in the blanket of state’s rights, the preservation of jobs and economic activity, or the celebration of tradition or culture or community. It took decades and, in some cases, the blood of our predecessors, to resolve these major questions. But in the rear-view mirror of history, we wonder how such shameful practices could have persisted for so long, and today recognize that the end of cruelty, exploitation, and discrimination ultimately binds us together as people in a single nation.
We’re in the midst of an ongoing struggle to excise animal cruelty in our nation, and politicians and citizens are squaring off over a number of manifestations of human exploitation of animals. We’ve settled some big matters, from halting market hunting of wildlife to criminalizing bull baiting or bullfighting, to beating elephants to train them for a circus performance. In each case, the apologists for their activities howled at the idea of reform. But abusing animals is not some regional or cultural prerogative but a remnant of a prior era of insensitivity and even barbarism. It’s part of our moral progress to eliminate the worst human instincts and behaviors and to unite our nation-state around these principles of respect for other creatures.
Today, dogfighting and cockfighting are the most widely and severely criminalized forms of animal cruelty in our nation. As a matter of moral concern, it’s largely a settled question. As a legal matter, that means that no jurisdiction within the U.S. should be an enclave or refuge for this kind of intentional cruelty. “Culture” cannot be a defense for inexcusable abuse, no matter how long it’s gone on or who benefits from it.
We wouldn’t allow the territories to set up their own rules when it comes to child exploitation or elder abuse or poisoning the drinking water. There are some fundamental values in our society, and opposition to the most extreme forms of animal cruelty is one of them. The political protests of territorial lawmakers should have no more weight than the past pleadings of a small number of federal lawmakers who years ago argued that dogfighting and cockfighting were traditions worth protecting in their states.
Animal torture is not an issue trumped by an appeal to the sovereign rights of territories or states. We are one nation. The federal courts have affirmed that the United States Constitution grants Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce associated with dogfighting and cockfighting. Our federal lawmakers should exercise that authority and make it tougher for these animal fighting spectacles to occur anywhere and everywhere in our nation.
When it comes to animal cruelty, no outliers permitted.