SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would make cockfighting a felony in Utah was positively received by a Senate committee but put on hold while lawmakers smooth out details in the proposed legislation's language. 

While it isn't clear whether cockfighting is on the rise in Utah, Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, fears the state could become a magnet for raising game fowl and staging such events. Cockfighting currently is a misdemeanor in Utah, while surrounding states classify it as a felony.

Davis hopes to reconcile that with SB52, which he presented Thursday to the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. The bill proposes that raising or fighting the animals be a third-degree felony, and attending a cockfight would become a class B misdemeanor.

"We look pretty lonesome there in the middle," Davis said, displaying a large map that shows Utah as the only state in the West not charging cockfighting as a felony.

The nearest state to classify the crime as a misdemeanor is South Dakota, he explained.

Davis also passed around a "spur," a curved blade that is attached to birds in a cockfight. 

"It's a slashing, brutal fight to the end between those birds," Davis explained, in response to questions from Minority Assistant Whip Pat Jones, D-Salt Lake City.

"I didn't understand why anyone would want to do this," Jones said.

Gene Baierschmidt, director of the Humane Society of Utah, said cockfights are often accompanied by drug use and trade, gambling, prostitution and violence. Additionally, Baierschmidt said the bill would limit the psychological harm done to children who are sometimes taken to the fights.

The only opposition came from Steve Burton, who spoke on behalf of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Burton's objection was with the bill's language, specifically regarding allowing law enforcement to arrest everyone present at a cockfight and seize property. 

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Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, raised several concerns and proposed amendments to language in the bill with the intent of making the new law enforceable. Ultimately, it was decided a substitute bill will be drafted and reintroduced to the committee.

"I absolutely agree that cockfighting should be a third-degree felony in the state of Utah," Thatcher said, prefacing his qualms with the bill. "In fact, I think it's very important we get it done this year."

Baierschmidt and Davis said they left the meeting pleased with the committee's support and confident the proposal will advance.

McKenzie Romero

Twitter: McKenzieRomero