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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

A Taste for Cruelty

This past weekend in Texas, the Parker County Sheriff’s Office, the USDA’s Office of Inspector General, and The Humane Society of the United States kicked off 2010 with a major cockfighting raid. This latest law enforcement crackdown on the vicious bloodsport netted 176 arrests, along with the confiscation of 118 birds, and has been making news in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area and beyond.

Law enforcement confiscated 118 birds during a cockfighting
raid in Texas this past weekend.

Cockfighting is banned in all 50 states, and Texas is one of 39 that punish cockfighting as a felony. But the Lone Star State has significant loopholes that allow cockfighting to flourish. It’s still legal in Texas to attend a cockfight, to raise fighting birds, and to possess cockfighting paraphernalia such as the razor-sharp knives that are strapped to birds’ legs to increase the bloodletting. In fact, of the 39 felony cockfighting states, Texas and Georgia are the only two that fail to penalize people in all three areas of associated activities: the spectators who finance cockfights with their admission fees and gambling wagers, the farms that raise birds for fighting, and the weapon-makers who sell cockfighting implements.

In the 2009 legislative session, Texas state lawmakers came very close to eliminating those loopholes. Thanks to the lobbying efforts of HSUS, HSLF, and the Texas Humane Legislative Network, both chambers of the Texas legislature had passed H.B. 1320, a bill that in its original form would have become a model state anti-cockfighting statute, making it a class A misdemeanor to attend a cockfight, and a felony to possess birds with the intent to fight, to provide a facility for a cockfight, or to possess cockfighting weapons.

But shockingly, the bill was derailed at the eleventh hour by state Rep. Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, a controversial politician who goes on federal trial in March for allegations of bribery and public corruption. After both the Texas House and Senate had passed H.B. 1320, a conference committee met to iron out the differences between the versions of the bill. On the last day of the session, the House was set to accept the conference committee’s report, and send the bill to the governor for his signature. Rep. Hodge blocked consideration of the bill as time expired in the session, along with any hopes of strengthening the cockfighting law before 2011. (The Texas legislature convenes every other year.)

It was, unfortunately, no surprise to animal advocates that Rep. Hodge would do the bidding of criminal cockfighters. In a meeting of the Subcommittee on Violent Crimes this past March, Rep. Hodge opined that “cockfighting is a way of life” and “we all have different tastes and should respect that.” Apparently she believes that “taste” is an excuse to engage in a form of animal cruelty that is a felony offense in her state.

In the Parker County raid, deputies found methamphetamines and cocaine. About 15 to 20 children were present, some of whom were abandoned when their fathers ran away as law enforcement arrived on the scene. A man wanted for murder was among those arrested. Tens of thousands of gambling dollars were seized. Roosters had been fought with one-inch to one-and-a-half-inch knives tied to their left legs, and eviscerated carcasses were scattered along the fence line along with empty beer cans and whiskey bottles. In short, it looked like the awful crime scene that typifies a cockfight.

Because of Rep. Hodge and her actions, the Parker County justice of the peace could only give most of the 176 arrested a $300 fine for illegal gambling, and only a few will face more serious charges. My friend Skip Trimble, chair of the legislative committee for THLN, put it succinctly when he said, “It is tragic that one representative blocked the will of the rest of the legislature, and prevented law enforcement from having a more meaningful cockfighting law with which to restrain this cruel and lawless conduct.”

Rep. Hodge was the cockfighters’ point-woman in Austin, and I’m sure the cockfighters thank her for her hard work on their behalf. But the Parker County raid in Rep. Hodge’s backyard illustrated once again that cockfighting is animal cruelty at its worst, and is inextricably linked with violent crime, drug trafficking, and other social ills that drag down communities. We will be back at work in Texas in 2011, as we are now in other state legislatures and in Congress, and we won’t let up until we have strong laws that crack down on the entire cast of characters involved in cockfighting.


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