Collin C. Peterson, a pro-hunting, pro-trapping Democratic congressman from rural Minnesota, may seem a strange ally for the Humane Society of the United States, but the two have joined forces against one target: cockfighting.
“I don’t think anyone would label me an animal rights person,” said Peterson, co-chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen Caucus. “I have a zero record from PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] and these groups. I’m for trapping; we have mink farming in my district.”
But, he added, “I wouldn’t want to see dogs fighting to the death, and this [cockfighting] isn’t something we should be doing either.”
Peterson is sponsoring legislation that would ban the interstate transport of birds for cockfighting. In the matches, birds wear razor-sharp implements and often spar to the death. Onlookers often place bets on which bird will win.
Federal law allows fighting roosters to be shipped from any of the 47 states where cockfighting is illegal to one of the three where it isn’t: New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana.
Law enforcement officials in states where the sport is illegal say that is a loophole that makes their job more difficult.
About 40 senators and 170 House members have signed on as co-sponsors to the legislation. The Senate version--sponsored by Colorado Republican Wayne Allard, Congress’ only veterinarian-- passed the Agriculture Committee last month.
But Peterson has been unable to get a hearing in the House Agriculture Committee’s livestock and horticulture subcommittee, due at least in part to a lobbying effort by opponents, led by the American Animal Husbandry Coalition, the trade organization for game fowl breeders.
The coalition hired two former senators to lobby against the bill: Steve Symms (R-Idaho) and J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.). They claim passage will lead to more restrictions involving animals.
“The people that are pushing the bill--PETA and the Humane Society--next they’ll outlaw rodeos and horse racing,” Symms said.
In addition to sportsmen like Peterson, the Humane Society has collected the endorsements of dozens of law enforcement groups to try to counter arguments that it has a broader agenda with the bill.
“Cockfights are cruel and inhumane,” James L. Vermeersch, executive director of the Missouri Sheriffs’ Assn., wrote in a letter seeking support from Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.). “Roosters are drugged with stimulants to increase their aggressiveness, fitted with razor-sharp implements on their legs and placed in a pit where they are forced to fight to the death.”
Symms said chickens raised for food don’t fare much better.
“We hatch a bird and grow it in a cage where it never walks outside for four or five months,” he said.
Symms also said fighting roosters are raised primarily for export to other countries.
“Most of the people who grow these birds are farmers,” he said. “The big bulk of these birds are shipped to Hawaii and then to Southeast Asia. If this bill passes, it would stop hundreds of millions of dollars of exports and put honest farmers out of business.
“It’s one thing to say we’re against this, it’s inhumane, and another to be holier-than-thou and say we shouldn’t allow them to fight in other countries.”
Allard said the legislation would not ban exports.
“It may have an impact on a few growers, but it will have a minimal impact,” he said.
Regardless of the outcome of the bill, cockfighting may soon be legal in one less state. Oklahomans will vote this fall on a referendum to ban cockfighting, and a recent poll showed overwhelming support for the measure.