Solution: Transparency, Zero Tolerance and Laws with Felony Penalties
Over the past decade, I have been part of a team that has spent hundreds of hours working with law enforcement to shut down dogfighting and cockfighting rings across the country. As one of the animal fighting experts for The Humane Society of the United States, I have joined law enforcement on these raids and have been present to see the carnage animal fighters leave behind, both in terms of animal suffering and damage to rural communities.
Following the Michael Vick case, most people became aware of how dogs suffer at the hands of animal fighters. Many have learned that cockfighting is just as nasty. The roosters have sharp blades tied to their heels to increase the bloodletting. Like the pit bulls victimized in dog fights, these roosters fight to the death for the enjoyment of the crowds that gather to bet on who will live and who will die.
Yet there has been very little attention to the impact that large scale animal fighting rings have on rural communities. Enter Cocke County. This ironically named community in east Tennessee was, until 2005, the site of several major cockfighting pits, including the infamous Del Rio pit.
Tennessee banned cockfighting in 1881, yet the Del Rio cockfighting pit was a fixture in Cocke County for over 50 years. The hundreds of people gathering at Del Rio each weekend could not possibly have escaped the notice of local law enforcement. The solution the cockfighters settled on was as ancient as government itself, the old fashioned bribe.
The pay offs continued from one sheriff to another for years. Finally, the FBI took notice. Special Agent Tom Farrow from the Bureau’s Johnson City office led an investigation into corruption in the Cocke County Sheriff’s Department that became public knowledge when deputies started to get indicted in 2005. His efforts shut down the cockfighting pit, got numerous crooked cops off the street and helped clean up the county.
Cocke County suffered from years of systemic corruption. The cock fights that were protected from outside prosecution by local sheriff after local sheriff are just one good example. For years the deputies had been told to turn their heads to this activity and other crimes including prostitution, illegal slot machines or drugs.
The corruption may have started with a protection scheme for a cockfighting pit, but it bred disrespect for the law. It ended with a shattered confidence in local law enforcement. It also ended with Cocke County being known as the place for honest businesses to avoid. And it ended with a significant number of public employees going to prison.
A federal judge asked one disgraced young deputy where he went wrong. His reply was, "Your honor, I saw what the Sheriff got from the chicken fights, what the Chief Deputy got from the illegal liquor and poker machines, what the Lieutenant got from the whore houses; and I wanted some of it."
I saw a similar situation a few years later in rural Virginia. The HSUS was aware of illegal cockfighting in Page County, and we shared that intelligence with the sheriff. It later came to light that this sheriff told federal investigators that no one had ever notified him of cockfighting in his county. Prosecutors suspected he was being paid off, and our testimony helped the United States Attorney put this corrupt sheriff behind bars.
Page County is another example of a quaint, rural county that was contaminated by public corruption. As with Cocke County, organized animal fighting was a centerpiece of the various crimes that local law enforcement were being paid to tolerate.
While cockfighting is illegal in all 50 states, it remains a mere misdemeanor in states like Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. Rural lawmakers in parts of those states have gone to great lengths to stop legislation that would set felony penalties for cockfighting in their states from advancing in the legislature. They are doing their constituents a disservice by interfering with efforts to strengthen animal fighting laws.
Animal fighting, be it with dogs or roosters, is blatant animal cruelty. It is also a blight on the handful of rural communities that tolerate it.
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John Goodwin is director of animal cruelty policy for The Humane Society of the United States.