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Friday, August 15, 2008

Battle on the Bayou, from Cockfights to Congress

Today ends a long, sad chapter in the state of Louisiana—and, in fact, in the entire United States. Massachusetts was the first state to ban cockfighting in 1836, and with Louisiana’s new anti-cockfighting law taking effect today, nearly a century and three-quarters later, all 50 states now prohibit the bloodsport.

Cockfighting_2Just a decade ago, five states still allowed people to pit two roosters against each other, pump them full of drugs to heighten their aggression, strap razor-sharp knives to their legs, and watch them hack each other to death. All for the amusement of spectators who are titillated by the violence and bloodletting, and who can earn tens of thousands of dollars in gambling wagers.

After voters approved statewide ballot initiatives to ban cockfighting in Arizona and Missouri in 1998 and Oklahoma in 2002, and lawmakers passed state legislation last year in New Mexico and Louisiana—with all of the policy reforms primarily driven by The Humane Society of the United States, The Fund for Animals, and the Humane Society Legislative Fund—we finally have made this behavior criminal in every state in the union. But it didn’t come easily. There was aggressive advocacy on both sides of the issue, and the cockfighting groups had their well-heeled lobbying firms and their go-to lawmakers fighting in the pit on their behalf.

One of the cockfighters’ point men, ironically enough, lost the battle to keep animal fighting legal in Louisiana, but is now seeking to win the battle for a congressional seat in Washington. State Senator Donald R. Cravins, Jr. (D-24th) is challenging two-term Congressman Charles Boustany (R-7th) for the House seat in the state’s southwestern district. We hope that Cravins loses this fight, too, and that voters in the 7th District don’t send a cockfighting proponent to the nation’s capital.

Cravins led the cockfighters’ effort in the Louisiana state legislature, seeking to defeat anti-cockfighting bills advanced by former Sen. Art Lentini (R-10th) and others. He spoke on the Senate floor against the cockfighting ban, and offered “poison pill” amendments aiming to delay the effective date of the legislation and give cockfighters additional time to pursue their bloody hobby. Cravins was one of only four senators who voted against Lentini’s bill to ban gambling at cockfights.

Even in a state where the dying sport was on its way out, Cravins wasn’t shy about his utter fealty to the cockfighting industry. He repeatedly opined, “I’m going to protect the tradition of cockfighting,” and he reportedly held a political fundraiser at a cockfighting pit. “It’s a $2 million industry,” he said. “I’m not going to stand here and turn my back on the people who sent me here.”

The last Democrat to hold Louisiana’s 7th District seat, former Rep. Chris John, lost his race for U.S. Senate in 2004 in part because voters couldn’t stomach his support for cockfighting. And just last week, first-term Congressman David Davis of Tennessee was defeated in his Republican primary contest, with his opposition to tougher penalties for dogfighting and cockfighting becoming an election issue in that district, too.

Cracking down on animal fighting is now a consensus issue. Americans know of the rampant cruelty to these living creatures. They know of the other crimes associated with animal fighting in our communities, from gun violence to narcotics trafficking. They know that the illegal transport of cockfighting birds is linked to the spread of bird flu and other deadly diseases that threaten human and animal health.

Last year, when cockfighting was still legal in Louisiana, every single member of that state’s congressional delegation rightly voted in favor of strengthening the federal law to combat animal fighting. And now every statewide elected official in Louisiana supports a strong cockfighting ban. To replace one of those foresighted lawmakers with a cockfighting apologist like Cravins would be a step backwards for Louisiana, and for the entire U.S. Congress.

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