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Cockfighting - Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Challenge to Federal Ban on Blood Sport

ANIMAL WATCH - The death of the brutal and atavistic ‘sport’ of cockfighting--and other blood sports, including dog fighting—in all U.S. states and territories was signaled this week,

when the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition from Puerto Rico political leaders to hear an appeal challenging the federal anti-cockfighting law signed by President Donald Trump in 2018, Animal Wellness Action (AWA) announced on October 13.

Trump signed the U.S. federal anti-animal-fighting law, called the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, which bans blood sports everywhere in the nation, including U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico and Guam.  

Congress gave the territories a year to comply, with the full prohibition effective on December 20, 2019. This latest amendment to the federal animal-fighting law made it a felony to operate any cockfighting venue or engage in any form of participation in animal fights.

 Public cockfighting arenas and clubs are considered a major source of income, gambling and entertainment in both Guam and Puerto Rico.

Other provisions of the federal anti-animal fighting law – such as prohibitions on transporting or receiving fighting birds, trading in fighting implements, or being a spectator at an animal fighting event – had already applied to the territories for years, explained Animal Wellness Action (AWA) President Wayne Pacelle.

 Pacelle, notes that “the presence of an above-ground cockfighting industry anywhere undermines prohibitions elsewhere. Territorial disregard for the federal anti-cockfighting law gives animal fighters an unwarranted patina of legitimacy, a market for fighting animals and paraphernalia, and venues for the conduct.”

 “AWA has served as a “friend of the court” (amicus curiae) in all challenges to the 2018 U.S. ban on blood sports, including a similar challenge from a cockfighting enthusiast on Guam” he states.

Under the federal anti-animal fighting law, it is a crime to: 

  • Knowingly sponsor or exhibit in an animal fighting venture 
  • Knowingly attend an animal fighting venture, or knowingly cause an individual who has not attained the age of 16 to attend an animal fighting venture 
  • Knowingly buy, sell, possess, train, transport, deliver, or receive any animal for purposes of having the animal participate in an animal fighting venture 
  • Knowingly use the mail service of the U.S. Postal Service, or any “written, wire, radio televisions or other form of communications in, or use a facility of, interstate commerce,” to advertise an animal for use in an animal fighting venture, or to advertise a knife, gaff, or other sharp instrument designed to be attached to the leg of a bird for use in an animal fighting venture, or to promote or in any other manner further an animal fighting venture except as performed outside the U.S. 
  • Knowingly sell, buy, transport, or deliver in interstate or foreign commerce “a knife, a gaff, or any other sharp instrument” designed or intended to be attached to the leg of a bird for use in an animal fighting venture.  

 HISTORY OF PUERTO RICO

Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island and an unincorporated territory of the United States, located about a thousand miles southeast of Florida. San Juan is the capital and its largest city. 

Its nearly 3.2 million residents are U.S. citizens. However, while subject to U.S. federal laws, island-based Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections nor do they have voting representation in Congress. As a U.S.territory, it is neither a state nor an independent country. 

History tells us that when Christopher Columbus disembarked on the West Coast of Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493, native Taínos inhabited the land, which they called Borikén. The explorer claimed the island for Spain and renamed it San Juan Bautista.

 COCKFIGHTING INTRODUCED TO PUERTO RICO 

For 400 years, Puerto Rico was under Spanish colonial rule and it is believed this was when cockfighting was introduced and became part of not only the “culture” but also the economy.

 In 1868 hundreds of pro-independence Puerto Ricans attempted an uprising in the mountain town of Lares. The Spanish military suppressed the rebellion, but it marked a turning point where slavery was abolished and national political parties were formed on the island.

 Then, in 1898, the United States declared war on Spain, and U.S. troops invaded Puerto Rico and occupied it during the months of the Spanish-American War.

When the Treaty of Paris was signed in December, ending the war. Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States, and it was designated an “unincorporated territory.”

 Becoming a US Territory 

Pro-independence movements on the island continued to call for autonomy and in 1917, the U.S. passed the Jones-Shafroth Act, which gave most Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship; however, the U.S. president and Congress still had the power to veto Puerto Rican laws.

 In 1950, the United States agreed to Puerto Rico drafting a constitution, as long as it did not alter its territorial status.  This document established a republican form of government and a bill of rights.  Under the new constitution, Puerto Rico was designated as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

In November 2020, Puerto Ricans voted in a non-binding referendum of statehood. About 53 percent indicate they favor statehood, while 47 percent rejected it.  However, only 55 percent of Puerto Ricans voted in the referendum.

 So, decades after adopting the status of Commonwealth, there still remains confusion around what the classification means, according to History.com.

Ponsa-Kraus and other constitutional scholars argue that because the U.S. Congress has power over Puerto Rico’s government, it’s still subordinate to the United States and so effectively remains a colonial territory despite its commonwealth status.

 COCKFIGHTING – CULTURE OR ANIMAL CRUELTY?

 In a December 2019 article, Culture or Cruelty? Puerto Rico Says No to Federal Cockfighting Ban, New York Times reporter Patricia Mazzel discusses legislation implemented by the governor or Puerto Rico to attempt evade the 2018 ban, and the acknowledgement that this “is likely to end up in court.” 

 In signing what she hoped would be a reprieve, Puerto Rico’s Gov. Wanda Vázquez alluded to “families who rely on cockfighting to survive.  She stated, “They don’t have work. They don’t have a livelihood. They can’t pay their bills or sustain their children.”

She denied taking on the federal government but acknowledged that some in the commonwealth see the federal ban as a violation of Puerto Ricans’ right to rule themselves and protect what they consider “their cultural heritage.”

The Governor argued that “the Puerto Rican legislation complied with federal law because it prohibits importing or exporting gamecocks. But in nearly the same breath, Ms. Vázquez acknowledged that the law she signed was likely to be challenged,” according to the NY Times, and conceding that “Obviously, the final decision belongs to the court.”

 Ms. Vázquez said the industry brought more than $9 million into government coffers during the past year, when more than 67,000 matchups were held.

 ANIMAL CRUELTY FOR GAMBLING AND ENTERTAINMENT

But cockfighting is cruelly injurious and intended to be deadly for the birds.  It is also dangerous for the people involved. It has been banned in all states since 2008, but a loophole in federal law kept the prohibition from applying to United States territories and commonwealths until it was closed by the 2018 farm bill, which included a one-year grace period.

"Cockfighting is a multimillion-dollar industry," said Gerardo Mora, the Puerto Rican official who was in charge of regulating the island's cockfighting venues. 

“The ban was lobbied for by the Humane Society of the United States, and, according to the plaintiffs, it was “proposed and passed to appease animal-rights activists without any fear of political backlash, as Puerto Rico has no real representation in Congress and its residents cannot cast a vote in the presidential election.”

Cockfighting generated at least $65 million for Puerto Rico’s economy each year and provided 3,447 direct jobs and another 3,827 indirect jobs, according to a survey sponsored by the plaintiffs, Courthousenews.com reports.

 But Wayne Pacelle of Animal Wellness Action disputed these figures. 

“They are wildly exaggerating the economic value,” he said. “Watching animals slash each other just for human entertainment and gambling is not judged as a legitimate enterprise by mainstream people.”

 

(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a contributor to CityWatch and a former Los Angeles City employee.)