In our opinion: Cockfighting should be a felony in Utah

Published: Thursday, Feb. 6 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Utahns typically don’t stand for sports in which living things fight to the death, and they certainly don’t support gambling, illegal narcotics or violence. There are no excuses not to pass SB112.

Sergey Ponomarev, Associated Press

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A map produced by officials from The Humane Society paints a curious picture. All the states in which cockfighting is a felony are colored in red, with the few that consider it a misdemeanor in blue. In the West, Utah is alone in a sea of red, with South Dakota the closest other state with minimal penalties for the barbaric “sport.”

It’s time that changed. State Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, has introduced SB112, which would make participation in game fowl fighting events a felony, and just being present at such events a misdemeanor. These are important enhancements that would bring the proper attention to a practice that typically is accompanied by many other crimes.

Most importantly, it would end Utah’s apparent role as a cockfighting hub because it is the only state in the region that treats the bouts so lightly.

Arguments against tougher penalties usually rely on a lack of knowledge or on vague notions of private property. Some people wonder why a person shouldn’t be allowed to do as he or she wishes with a privately owned bird. Others scoff at concerns by calling the events mere chicken fights and noting that people eat similar birds, anyway.

There are some obvious logical counters to these arguments. People eat chickens for nourishment. Cockfighting, on the other hand, offers nothing of redeeming value to society. In fact, it offers plenty that is harmful.

The bouts themselves are cruel. Birds fight with razorblades attached to their legs, often suffering serious injury or death. But this is only part of the picture.

Cockfighting virtually always is accompanied by wagering, and illegal gambling brings with it a host of societal ills. Violent crimes and the illegal drug trade are never far away.

Less than two years ago near Welasco, Texas, several armed men wearing masks raided a cockfighting operation at a ranch and opened fire, killing three and wounding 11. Officials said the event was being operated similar to any other sporting event, with concession stands and bleachers.

Just last month, police in upstate New York arrested members of a drug ring who also were involved in illegal cockfights on an Indian reservation. Forty people were charged with a combined 160 counts of criminal activity. Prescription pills, guns and large quantities of cash were confiscated.

Cockfighting events are commonly used to collect money for the drug trade or as a place where such items are distributed. Organizers collect entrance fees, wagers and admissions and reward the owners of winning birds, but many side bets take place as well. Unfortunately, juveniles often attend such events.

In Utah, cockfights take place mostly in rural areas. Humane Society officials say the state became a popular center for such fights after Idaho made cockfighting a felony in 2012 and Nevada did the same in 2013, leaving Utah as the only Western state where it is a misdemeanor.

Unless they have strong evidence of other crimes being committed, authorities currently have little reason to crack down on these events. Making it a felony, however, would allow them to dedicate resources in ways likely to uncover other crimes, as well.

Last year a similar bill fell only few votes short at the Utah Legislature. Frankly, this is a measure that ought to be simple for state lawmakers to support. Utahns typically don’t stand for sports in which living things fight to the death, and they certainly don’t support gambling, illegal narcotics or violence. There are no excuses not to pass SB112.

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