Press Release

Animal Wellness Action, in Federal Court Filing, says Claims from Puerto Rico’s Cockfighters and their Political Allies are Groundless

Washington, D.C. — Today, Animal Wellness Animal (AWA), the Animal Wellness Foundation (AWF), and the Center for a Humane Economy (“the Center) filed an amicus brief before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit supporting the United States in its defense of a federal law that applies all prohibitions against cockfighting to the U.S. territories. That latest fortifying of the federal anti-animal fighting law, building on an existing set of prohibitions against cockfighting in the territories, took effect on December 20, 2019 and is being challenged in the federal courts by Puerto Rico’s cockfighters and the Commonwealth’s politicians.

The cockfighters appealed to the First Circuit after a federal judge rejected their claims in a case brought and decided last year. In late October, U.S. District Court Judge Gustavo A. Gelpí granted the federal government’s motion for summary judgment, declaring that “[n]either the Commonwealth’s political statutes, nor the Territorial Clause, impede the United States Government from enacting laws that apply to all citizens of this Nation alike, whether as a state or territory.” On December 20th, a three-judge panel for the First Circuit denied an emergency stay on the federal law sought by the cockfighting clubs.

On the eve of that law going into effect, Puerto Rico’s Governor Wanda Vázquez signed a bill into law in the Commonwealth that essentially reaffirmed the Commonwealth’s decision not to ban cockfighting, with the governor then declaring that cockfighting is legal on Puerto Rico as long as birds are not imported to the Commonwealth for fighting purposes. But her interpretation of the law is deeply flawed and knowingly inaccurate, according to Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action.

“Governor Vázquez’s action had no rational legal basis, but it did have the practical effect of promoting and inducting an illegal activity,” said Mr. Pacelle. Under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, the Congress has the authority to ban animal fighting because it is, by its nature, bound up with interstate commerce. The federal government’s authority was not only upheld by the U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico, but also in a series of preceding cases in the states brought by cockfighters seeking to invalidate the federal law.

Dozens of citizens of Puerto Rico wrote to Animal Wellness Action (AWA) to alert the organization to illegal cockfighting activities on the island in the wake of the Commonwealth government’s rally in December 2019 celebrating cockfighting and trotting out its groundless legal theory. These citizens signaled their own opposition to the bloody spectacles and underscore their disgust for cockfighters disrespect for animals and the rule of law. The tips have come in response to the release of an AWA rewards program providing up to $2,500 to individuals who provide information that leads to the arrest and conviction of people violating our federal animal fighting laws.  Tipsters identified at least 25 venues at which fighting was occurring, including 15 that operated on a regular basis. (Animal Wellness Action has posted copies of some of these promotional materials here.) 

“So many Puerto Ricans don’t support cockfighting, and that’s why they’ve sharing details about illegal cockfighting,” said Ana Maria Hernández Martí, an Animal Law attorney based in San Juan and one of the attorneys who filed the amicus brief.  “It’s a political myth that the people of Puerto Rico think the federal law against animal fighting is an imposition on our country. Staged animal fighting is not representative of Puerto Rico, it does not reflect our values, nor our culture.”

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.

The animal protection groups dismiss the cockfighters’ exaggerated claims about the economic impact of the industry. “According to the USDA, as of 2018, Puerto Rico was home to 181 cock farms with just over 11,000 birds, yet Appellants claim that the cockfighting industry injects $65 million annually into the Commonwealth’s economy and generates approximately 11,000 ‘direct, indirect, and induced jobs,’” wrote the attorneys for AWA, AWF, and the Center in their amicus brief. It is already illegal under federal law for any birds to be shipped into or out of Puerto Rico for fighting purposes, as even the Governor acknowledged, and it’s only through international sales of the offspring of birds who win major derbies that millions of dollars in economic activity could possibly be generated. 

In 2012, the Puerto Rico Census of Agriculture (the last available document on the website and available to the public), reported 324 “cockfighting farms” reporting 6,667 fighting cocks and sales of $1,187,102.  If the numbers of farms cited by the federal and state agriculture departments are correct, the number of cockfighting farms has declined by half in the last six years, and if they were about the same size, as before, total revenues would barely be above half a million dollars, according to these sources.

The amicus brief from AWA, AWF, and CHE is available here.  Ms. Hernández Martí and Jessica Blome, of Greenfire Law, represent AWA, AFW, and the Center in this case.

Animal Wellness Action is a Washington, D.C.-based 501(c)(4) whose mission is to help animals by promoting laws and regulations at federal, state and local levels that forbid cruelty to all animals. The group also works to enforce existing anti-cruelty and wildlife protection laws. Animal Wellness Action believes helping animals helps us all. Twitter: @AWAction_News

Animal Wellness Foundation is a Los Angeles-based private charitable organization with a mission of helping animals by making veterinary care available to everyone with a pet, regardless of economic ability. We organize rescue efforts and medical services for dogs and cats in need and help homeless pets find a loving caregiver. We are advocates for getting veterinarians to the front lines of the animal welfare movement; promoting responsible pet ownership; and vaccinating animals against infectious diseases such as distemper. We also support policies that prevent animal cruelty and that alleviate suffering. We believe helping animals helps us all.