Every cockfight or dogfight ends with animal victims. That’s the point of the staged combat. Dogs tear flesh. Roosters stab with blades and curved ice picks strapped to their legs.
But in Hawaii, less than two weeks ago, there was death and mayhem just outside the fighting pit. A cockfighting enthusiast went on a shooting rampage after a fracas as the night of fights was winding down. One victim, Cathy Rabellizsa-Manners, 59, died after being shot in the face. Gary Rabellizsa, 34, died from multiple gunshot wounds. The shooter wounded three others.
It was Hawaii’s biggest mass shooting in decades.
It wasn’t a clandestine fighting pit. It was a well-known fighting venue not far from Hawaii’s capital city, but police long before had elected not to disperse the cockfighting rabble. “The Honolulu Police Department hasn’t conducted a raid or made any arrests for cockfighting in well over a year,” one Honolulu Police Department official told the news outlet Civil Beat.
Only now, after the shooting, is Honolulu’s Police Department promising a crackdown on “illegal gambling.” But few state lawmakers have stepped up to say they want to upgrade Hawaii’s relatively weak anti-cockfighting law, whose maximum penalties are mere misdemeanor offenses.
Gathering Places for the Lawless
Federal authorities in the last two weeks stopped three separate illegal shipments of fighting animals and fighting implements at the Mexico-U.S. border. One animal fighter from Mexico, and operating in California’s Central Valley, was sentenced to 18 months for his own cockfighting crimes. A county sheriff busted a cockfight in early April in Marlboro County, S.C., nabbing four cockfighters. In February, the Cherokee County Sheriff’s office arrested 26 in a cockfighting ring there.
Still though, most animal fighters conduct their bloodletting and gambling without even a glare or a drive by from law enforcement.
In Oklahoma, there have been only 29 state-based enforcement actions related to cockfighting crimes (1.7/year) since voters approved a ballot measure to make cockfighting a felony in 2002, according to the District Attorneys Council there. In most cases, penalties were anemic, or prosecutions dropped. That is despite Animal Wellness Action naming Oklahoma “the cockfighting capital of the United States,” with hundreds of major cockfighting complexes in the state.
In February, Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK) and Animal Wellness Action released a list of 16 cockfighting arenas from Butler to Pike counties that have illegally operated in the state — with names such as Shaker Hill Pit Club in Butler County, the New Pine Mountain Game Club in Harlan County, Charlies Game Club in Martin County, and Honest Abe’s Game Club in McCreary County. Yet, again, despite SHARK providing a roadmap for enforcement, including fighting schedules, Kentucky State Police (KSP) have undertaken scant few state actions, providing not even a warning to the perpetrators to shut down known arenas with their stadium-style seating. SHARK documented children brought to the cockfighters — itself a federal felony crime.
About a year ago, the U.S. Department of Justice, with support from other federal authorities and the KSP, did indict 17 individuals for a range of animal fighting and bribery charges, including pit operators in Clay and Nicholas. In a separate case, the federal government charged a cockfighter with bribery by asking the Mason County Sheriff to provide protection for his fighting venue in return for two payouts of $5,000.
A dismissive approach to these crimes allows the practices to fester and spread.
Busting the whole crowd assembled at a cockfighting, they may not realize, is perhaps the best thing they can do to make their communities safer. The cockfights are meeting places for criminals. Here a law enforcement net would gather up criminals committing a wide range of offenses. Animal cruelty. Illegal gambling. Drug trafficking. Tax evasion. Illegal weapons possession. Human trafficking. Child abuse. Gang and cartel activity. And more.
Americans are even at risk at foreign-based cockfights. In Mexico last year, in a case of gang violence, 20 people were massacred at a cockfighting derby, with one Chicago-based mother and her sister badly wounded at the event.
Regular sweeps of the cockfights and dogfights in the U.S. and Mexico would make the streets and rural areas safer for law-abiding citizens.
Animal Wellness and SHARK Investigations Reveal Criminal Syndicates Operating
Animal Wellness Action and its affiliates conducted a 10 state-based and territory-based investigations and uncovered hundreds of major cockfighting complexes “hiding in plain sight.” In recent weeks, SHARK captured footage using a drone of illegal cockfighting gatherings from Lee County, Miss. to Cullman County, Ala. to Union County, Tenn. to Jaspar County, Texas, in addition to sniffing out cockfights scattered throughout eastern Kentucky.
Tom Pool, D.V.M., who retired last year as Territorial Veterinarian for Guam and now is senior veterinarian for Animal Wellness Action, called out the leaders of the Guam Department of Agriculture for failing to obey our federal anti-animal-fighting law. In an opinion piece, he pointed out that authorities let in more than 11,000 adult illegal shipments of fighting birds to the island from several states. The commerce was conducted for cockfighting, he said, with birds hacked up in illegal fighting pits across the island. Other officials signed the permits and blessed the illegal trade because Dr. Pool refused to do so.
There “is simply no other rationale for the shipment of very expensive adult roosters to our island but for cockfighting,” wrote Dr. Pool, who was a Colonel in the U.S. Army and ran its U.S. Veterinary Command. “We know that the people on both ends of these transactions have been involved in the criminal practice of cockfighting.” Guam’s political leaders — the director of the Department of Agriculture and the governor — have repeatedly given the nod for this live-animal contraband to persist.
While the federal government deserves plaudits for cockfighting busts in Alabama, California, Georgia, and Kentucky, and there are some outstanding county sheriffs who’ve run the animal fighters out of town, there’s too much indifference and inattention in too many places. Cockfighters have operated with impunity not just on Guam and in Puerto Rico, but also in Hawaii, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, Tennessee, and several other jurisdictions that we’ve documented as animal fighting hotbeds.
American cockfighters also contribute to cockfighting all over the world, with U.S.-bred and -raised roosters illegally sent to Mexico, the Philippines, and two dozen other nations to be slashed up at fighting pits. We’ve even uncovered a Philippines-based television network that released 50 videos in 2020 showing on-farm visits in the United States where the American cockfighters tout the bloodlines and fighting prowess of their roosters — advertising the birds for foreign purchasers. One Alabama-based cockfighting operator told the Filipino television broadcaster that he sells 6,000 birds a year to Mexico alone for as much as $2,000 a bird, generating millions in illegal sales and unreported income.
FIGHT Act: A Game-Changing Proposal
The inattention to dogfighting and cockfighting must end, and that’s exactly why we’ve worked with federal lawmakers to introduce the Fighting Inhumane Gambling and High-Risk Trafficking (FIGHT) Act. (H.R. 2742) to halt the transport of mature roosters through the U.S. mail; ban simulcasting and gambling on animal fights in the United States, no matter where the fights and the broadcast signals originate; enhance forfeiture provisions to include real property used in the commission of an animal fighting crime; and create a citizen suit provision to allow private right of action against illegal animal fighters and ease the resource burden on federal agencies.
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., and the lead author of H.R. 2742, says “it’s disgusting and inhumane that people profit off the cruel practice of forcing animals to fight for their lives,” and that the FIGHT Act “will embolden law enforcement to stop this inhumane and cruel animal abuse.” His co-lead is Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Ore, who notes that “every day, countless animals endure horrific violence as people force them to fight for personal gain, and Congress must intervene to protect innocent animals from such abuse.”
In addition to the high stakes at cockfights, gambling on dogs in fights can yield as much as $100,000 for “winners” of a single fight. According to published reports in underground publications, the average fight lasts about 45 minutes, but there are documented cases of fights lasting more than two hours. Dogs suffer grievous wounds, including severe bruising, deep puncture wounds, and broken bones, and often perish in the battles.
By making gambling on animal fighting a crime, the FIGHT Act would address the extraordinary shift toward on-line wagering on animal fights, in an era when legitimate sports are seeing billions spent on their smart phones.
In the Philippines, former President Rodrigo Duterte issued a ban on online betting at cockfights just before he left office after dozens of people involved in cockfights were kidnapped and never heard from again. One woman, who had unpaid gambling debts, reportedly sold her child to pay off her bets. These sites are available to U.S. gamblers, and while it is impossible to track the scale, it’s clear such online gambling on cockfighting is surging. The American Gaming Association, which is trying to stop illegal gambling, has joined our legislative campaign.
Cockfighting has the added feature of threatening viral contagion, as Jim Keen, D.V.M., Ph.D., director of veterinary science at Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy, notes in his extensive report on cockfighting and avian diseases. An outbreak that started in California in May 2018 of virulent Newcastle Disease (vND) — originating from the movement of fighting birds from Mexico, as happened with nine prior outbreaks of vND in the southwest United States — cost the federal and state government more than $100 million to contain and resulted in the killing of more than three million animals to arrest its further spread. Cockfighting has been linked in local news reports to the death of hundreds of people in Asia from bird flu, and the World Health Organization has noted that human cases of avian influenza in Thailand and Vietnam may have been contracted through cockfighting activity.
Most people consider animal fighting a morally settled issue. But it’s far from settled on the ground. Not only do we need strong laws, but we need them enforced. The mayhem will stop only when there’s an active, strategic effort to nab the animal-fighting kingpins, shut down their pits, seize the live contraband, and penalize the whole cast of characters involved. The FIGHT Act offers the prospect of cutting off the pathways for transporting fighting animals, shutting down the gambling that fuels it all, and empowering average citizens to join in the enforcement efforts and run the bad guys out of town.
You can help by contacting your U.S. lawmakers today and joining our “Animal Fighting Is the Pits” campaign.