WASHINGTON — When authorities raided a cockfight in Stockton earlier this year, they found 95 birds — and a 9-year-old boy. The child had been left behind by his father, who was among a crowd of spectators who fled when sheriff’s deputies arrived.
Under legislation headed for congressional approval, it would not only be a federal offense for an adult to attend an animal fight, but if the spectator brings a child along, he or she could face a possibly stiffer punishment.
Specifically, the law would apply to fights in which there is evidence of interstate activity, such as when animals or fighting implements are brought across state lines.
A provision of the farm bill, expected to clear the Senate on Monday, calls for a maximum penalty of up to a year in prison and $100,000 fine for knowingly attending an animal fight and up to three years in prison and $250,000 fine for “knowingly causing” a minor to attend. The proposed House bill goes further, calling for a maximum five years in prison and $250,000 fine for attending a fight or bringing a child.
Congressional negotiators still need to work out an agreement on the penalties, but the new offense is virtually certain to be in the final bill.
Proponents of the measures, including animal-welfare groups, say it would allow law enforcement to pursue spectators who drive the market for animal fighting.
“Spectators are more than mere observers at animal fights,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) told colleagues at a recent House Agricultural Committee meeting. “They are an integral part of supporting this illegal activity.”
“While most animal fighting cases are prosecuted at the state level, the largest operations are multi-jurisdictional and warrant a federal response,’’ McGovern added.
The presence of children has been of particular concern. In two 2005 incidents cited by McGovern, a 10-year-old girl was found running money back and forth between the gamblers at a Tennessee cockfight, and an infant was seen being nursed in the front row “while animals fought to the death just a few feet away’’ at a Texas cockfight.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies breaking up a backyard cockfight in 2011 found spectators as young as 13 and 14 along with about 45 live fighting birds and 11 dead ones.
California banned cockfighting in 1905. But just last month, Los Angeles County authorities busted two cockfighting operations in the Antelope Valley, one with 150 birds and the other with 208 birds
In cockfighting, roosters with razor-sharp knives or needle-sharp gaffs strapped to their legs are pumped full of stimulants, put into a pit and made to stab at each other until one is dead.
The Humane Society of the United States tracked more than 100 cockfighting busts involving more than 20,000 birds in California between January 2008 and late February 2011.
A number of states have laws prohibiting attendance at animal fights. California law subjects anyone who attends a cockfight to a maximum of six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. Anyone who admits a minor to a cockfight faces up to 25 days in jail and a $500 fine under California law.
Last year, when the Senate approved the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act, its chief sponsor, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said that federal legislation was necessary “because these crimes often involve actors from a number of different states.” The bill died, however, when Congress adjourned without completing action.
Congress in recent years has taken other steps to crack down on animal fighting, including voting in 2007 to make it a felony to move animals for fighting or cockfighting implements across state lines and in 2008 to increase penalties and make possession of animals for fighting a federal crime.