Story by Chris Graham
Let’s say you’re a law-enforcement investigator raiding a cockfight in Virginia.
“You could have 100 people there, and 50 of them have entered roosters in the derby,” said John Goodwin, the manager of animal-fighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States, setting the scene for us.
“When the police go in, it’s hard for them to determine of the 100 people sitting in the stands which of the ones were just there to watch and which were going to be fighting roosters in a couple of minutes or a half-hour or an hour. Because obviously when the police raid one of these places, only two guys are going to be standing there in the pit along with a referee, and that’s assuming they didn’t dart out of there the minute they saw the cops coming,” Goodwin said.
There isn’t a law on the books right now in the Commonwealth that criminalizes cockfighting in and of itself – only gambling that is associated with having roosters fighting to the death is against the law.
So you can be at a cockfight, ahem, watching the goings-on, and you’re not breaking the law.
The problem for you as the investigator raiding the fight is trying to prove who is participating directly in the proceedings and who is at least claiming to just be some sort of innocent bystander.
“A lot of people use this leniency afforded to spectators as a loophole to escape prosecution for the crime they’re committing. Oh, no, those aren’t my chickens, oh, no, that dog in that little air kennel, that’s not mine. I was just here to watch. I don’t know whose animal that is. And then they end up getting off with a slap on the wrist,” Goodwin said.
But they would get a lot more than a slap on the wrist if Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell gets his way. McDonnell joined the Humane Society at a news conference in Richmond yesterday to talk up his legislative initiative aimed at toughening laws related to animal fighting for bloodsport.
A provision making it a Class 1 misdemeanor to attend an animal fight and another bringing other forms of animal fighting on par with dogfighting as Class 6 felonies are two of the key parts of the initiative.
McDonnell said in an interview for “The SportsDominion Show” conducted Tuesday that it was the high-profile case involving a dogfighting ring financed by former NFL star Michael Vick that got his attention on the animal-fighting area of the law.
“Unfortunately, sometimes it takes high-profile cases to bring matters to the forefront,” McDonnell said in the interview. “Obviously, last year we had the Michael Vick case and Virginia Tech shooting that’s helped to focus the spotlight on some deficiencies either in mental-health care or in this case on animal-fighting laws in Virginia. And even though I wasn’t directly involved in the prosecutions in that case, I directed my office to look at the animal-fighting laws in Virginia to see what improvements we might make.
“We started working with the SPCA and Humane Society and others, and decided that there was a need for some fairly significant reform, and that’s what brought this package of bills to light,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell wants to put the spotlight on the aspect of his legislative package making all animal fighting a Class 6 felony.
“Currently only dogfighting is – but cockfighting is not a crime at all unless there’s gambling involved. But neighboring states like North Carolina and Maryland have already made it a felony, and so we’ve got more people interested in cockfighting in Virginia,” McDonnell said.
“Our proposal is to make all animal fighting a felony – because it’s basically a bloodsport. It’s related to gambling, it’s related to other types of crimes in Virginia, and there’s evidence that people who are involved in animal fights, particularly young people, later on go on to other types of crime. So it’s a signficant issue to be addressed,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell feels that the initiative in total “will give Virginia some of the best laws in the country to protect against this barbaric practice of animal-fighting for bloodsport that’s associated with gambling and other crime.”
“We think that it will do that – and the punishments will be higher. You look at some of these cases recently where we had a couple of cockfighting rings with as much as 100, 125 people involved last year that were broken up, and then of course the Michael Vick dogfighting ring. But prosecutors and police across the state have found, particularly in Hampton Roads and Richmond and some of the rural areas, that have indicated that maybe this is a little more wider-spread problem than just isolated cases,” McDonnell said.
“This is important. It is a strong public-policy statement – that animal fighting for bloodsport, particularly if there’s gambling involved, will absolutely not be tolerated in Virginia – because our culture just will not permit that, and we don’t want this to be a forerunner to other types of significant crimes that happen in our state. So we do think that these are important reforms,” McDonnell said.