U.S. Appellate Court Affirms Ban on Animal Fighting in Puerto Rico and Throughout the U.S.

Court Ruling Recognizes Animal Wellness Action and Invokes Language and Facts from our Pleadings in the Case

It’s just about the end of the line for America’s cockfighting industry in the states and territories.

Yesterday, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the constitutionality of the federal law against animal fighting that took effect a little more than a year ago. That newly minted law has mainly applied to Puerto Rico, Guam, and other U.S. territories, essentially closing off these off-shore havens for cockfighters and their political allies to maintain any patina of legal legitimacy.

“We affirm the district court’s decision and hold that Section 12615 [of the 2018 Farm bill] is a valid exercise of Congress’s Commerce Clause power and does not violate plaintiffs’ individual rights,” wrote Judge Sandra L. Lynch for the court.

That prior decision, in October 2020, came from U.S. District Court Gustavo Gelpi, based in San Juan, who swatted down the series of overblown and groundless arguments from the cockfighting clubs and Puerto Rico’s political leaders that the United States did not have the right to halt an enterprise that, they claimed, was central to their culture and economy.

A Guam cockfighting enthusiast, Mr. Sedfrey M. Linsangan, filed his own challenge to allow animal fighting to continue in the territory, but he’s found no favor in the courts, either. A U.S. District Court there turned back his claims in an October ruling, and now Mr. Linsangan has brought his case to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He’s representing himself before the court and his likelihood of prevailing seems an unimaginable long shot, especially given that he’s not come to the fight with any legal resources and the courts have been emphatic that U.S. law is solidly grounded on established Commerce Clause principles.

This, then, is a moment to celebrate a sequential effort in the Congress and in the federal courts to finish off an animal-abuse enterprise in the United States. Animal Wellness Action shepherded that provision into law, working with our allies in Congress, and we’ve been involved in the court proceedings from the start. In fact, yesterday’s appellate court rulings punctuates a two-decades-long Congressional campaign to incrementally build a comprehensive federal statute to ban any interstate transport of dogs or birds for fighting purposes and to engage the federal government in an effort to halt the U.S. role in the national and global trade in fighting animals.

But the law is not enough. There must be enforcement, precisely because cockfighters seem to feel they are above the law, brazenly conducting their business and hobby throughout the United States and thumbing their noses at U.S. law enforcement.

That’s why Animal Wellness Action (AWA) and the Animal Wellness Foundation (AWF) yesterday asked North Carolina’s three U.S. Attorneys to launch an investigation into a substantial network of individuals throughout the state who appear to be illegally trafficking fighting animals and brazenly marketing their birds for sale through social media platforms. These individuals may be reaping hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales of fighting birds — a source of income that they would be required to report to the Internal Revenue Service.

North Carolina is one of 10 or so states serving as the breeding grounds for the global cockfighting trade, raising and training hundreds of thousands of birds for fighting and shipping them to Mexico, Guam, the Philippines, Vietnam, Honduras, and other far-flung destinations for combat. Yesterday’s report on North Carolina’s industry was our seventh statewide investigation, collectively identifying about 100 kingpins of the industry in the United States who maintain major cockfighting farms and sell animal contraband throughout the nation and the world.

The series of investigation we conducted was triggered by data AWA and its sister organization, the Animal Wellness Foundation, obtained through the Guam Department of Agriculture. We secured more than 2,500 pages of avian shipping records from that agency, with records dated between November 2017 to September 2020, that detail more than 500 shipments of birds by 60 individuals from more than a dozen states to Guam.

Cockfighters in Oklahoma, California, Hawaii, Alabama, and North Carolina were the top sellers of fighting birds, and there is no legitimate explanation for this volume of transports, especially given that Guam does not have a significant animal agriculture industry or a show-bird circuit.

The remaining question, unresolved by the Congress or the federal courts, is will the rule of law prevail?

In the field of animal protection, we have rightly called out a lack of proper enforcement of anti-cruelty laws. But random acts of cruelty are, by their nature, not organized, and enforcement requires both opportunism as well as resolve and resources.

Here we have a circumstance where we know of the precise locations of cockfighting arenas in Puerto Rico, Guam, Kentucky, and a few other states. And more importantly, we know exactly where there are 1-acre to 100-acre breeding farms for cockfighting.

Animal Wellness Action has given law enforcement authorities a roadmap to these illegal animal fighting locations and reminded them of the strong prohibitions against animal fighting ventures in statute. Federal authorities are starting to act, interdicting illegal trafficking of fighting animals in California and Georgia. These are, we hope, just the first stirrings of methodical enforcement of the law.

Cockfighters somehow believe that their devotion to so-called sport and the longevity of it all establishes some sort of fundamental right. But the federal courts are having none of that. “Plaintiffs have not shown that they have any cognizable liberty interest which is being infringed by these prohibitions,” Judge Lynch stated.

Earth to these people: The world has changed, and this violent and perverse form of animal exploitation is no longer permitted in the United States. The ban may also curtail “the spread of avian flus, a concern of particular importance given the present ongoing Covid-19 pandemic,” the judges observed, underscoring that the cockfighting may have its own set of especially dangerous collateral effects.

In the United States, and in so many parts of the world, civilized societies evolve. That’s precisely why policymaking and enforcement are ongoing matters for society.

Our message to the cockfighting community, in the wake of the court’s ruling is simple: Stop raising fighting birds. Stop shipping them to fighting derbies across the world. Stop manufacturing cockfighting blades and gaffs. Stop fighting birds in pits and gambling on the outcome.

And our message to politicians — especially relevant after last week’s riots in D.C. — is also simple: Stop abetting and encouraging criminal actors. Lawmakers, including those in Puerto Rico and Guam, are sworn to uphold the laws of the United States. Please abide by your oath of office.

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