District 47 State Representative Barbara Sears is asking the state to sharpen the claws of its cockfighting penalties.
Last week, Sears (R-Monclova Township) introduced House Bill 215, which under certain conditions would increase the state charge for cockfighting from a fourth-degree misdemeanor to a felony. The conditions, which would include working at a cockfight, betting on the event, charging admission, and allowing minors to attend, would result in an unclassified felony with a $10,000 fine.
And although the bill regards cockfighting as an unclassified felony, meaning no mandatory jail time, it leaves open the possibility of incarceration at a judge’s discretion.
At present, Ohio is one of fewer than 10 states, and the only Great Lakes state, in which cockfighting is not a felony offense. The current state penalty for engaging in the sport is a $250 fine.
Sears said her quest for a stricter penalty stems directly from the May 4, 2014, raid by the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office of a cockfight at 9786 County Road N outside Delta. The majority of 52 people deputies cited for participating were from Michigan and Indiana, where cockfighting penalties are harsher. Thirty-six of them pleaded guilty at their arraignments in Eastern District Court, and were fined.
Deputies seized 72 roosters at the scene, which the sheriff’s office was obligated to care for financially over several ensuing months because they were considered evidence.
“There’s really no deterrent involved in cockfighting when it’s evident who was (there),” Sears said, referring to out-of-state participants. She called the $250 fine “a smack on the wrist. It’s barely that.”
By instituting a $10,000 fine “you’re zapping exactly what these folks want–cash,” she added.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has fought for years for tougher legislation against cockfighting. Midwest Legislative Director Vicki Deisner said Sears’ bill would make a significant difference in Ohio.
“The money (cockfighters) win is enough that they consider being fined a cost of doing business when it’s only a misdemeanor. We want to get it into the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said.
Deisner said the misdemeanor status of cockfighting in Ohio is actually attracting the crime. “We need felonies as deterrents for these crimes. It doesn’t totally stop it…but it does cut down on the amount of cockfighting going on,” she said.
Where cockfighting is present, there also has been evidence of other crimes involving weapons, drugs, gambling, prostitution, and murder. The ASPCA recently assisted in seizing 1,200 birds at four cockfighting sites in two counties in Wisconsin. Cockfighting paraphernalia was discovered, and the animals were found in cages, some without food and water.
Holding cockfights and keeping birds for the purpose of fighting are Class I felonies in Wisconsin, punishable by up to 3 1/2 years in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine. However, being a spectator is only a misdemeanor crime.
Deisner said one of the lowlier aspects of the crime is the presence of children at the fights. “It’s a sad thing that it becomes a family affair. They bring their children, (and) you don’t want them to believe this is a social norm,” she said.
And what many people never consider is the horrible injury cockfighting inflicts on the animals. A gaff-a type of knife-is attached to a claw on the back of the bird’s leg. The result can be pierced eyes, punctured lungs, and broken bones as they fight to the death.
“It’s a very violent situation. They cut each other up,” Deisner said. “The sad thing is, there’s no rehabilitation for these animals. They all have to be destroyed, eventually.”
Felony penalties offset the large gambling profits cockfighting provides, and prove effective at discouraging the sport, said Corey Roscoe, spokesperson for the Humane Society of the United States.
“Felony states have far fewer cockfighters than states where the maximum penalty is seen as the cost of doing business,” she said. “Bird owners may win tens of thousands of dollars. When cockfighters stand to win big money, they will not be deterred by a misdemeanor fine.”
Some people have no respect for the law, and clearly no respect for animal life, but under Sears’ bill they would be punished appropriately, Roscoe said.
Fulton County Sheriff Roy Miller said cockfighting will always be a concern, but the proposed bill could discourage the practice.
“It’s not going to stop it completely, but at least it gives (the law) a little more teeth. I think people would definitely take a look at it. Now that we’re educating ourselves about it, I would think they would think twice about it,” he said.
The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation hasn’t yet examined Sears’ bill closely, but supports the effort to stop the animal abuse, said spokesperson Joe Cornely.
“We continue to believe that cockfighting is not a proper activity. In addition to the harmful nature it is for the birds…it goes along with other illegal types of activities,” he said.
Sears gave sponsor testimony before the Ohio House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. She hopes to move the bill quickly onto the House floor for debate, then to the Senate by the end of summer.
She became passionate about eliminating cockfighting because she finds it so abhorrent.
“The idea is just atrocious that people would find sport in watching animals do this,” she said. “They’re coming to Ohio because our penalties are so lax. And it brings in all sorts of elements that are unhealthy to the community.”
But Sears is also concerned that cockfighting could spread the H5N2 avian flu by bringing in affected birds from other states. The virulent strain has yet to reach Ohio but has decimated poultry populations elsewhere.
Deisner said the incident outside Delta drew a lot of attention, and allowed Sears to take a lead role against cockfighting. “We think there’s a good chance of Barbara’s bill getting through. It will be a deterrent,” she said.