Lis on Law: Cockfighting Crackdown

Lis Wiehl

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There's a thriving underground industry that promotes — and makes a killing on — harming animals. What's worse, a billion-dollar retailer is bolstering animal cruelty by continuing to devote two publications to the “sport” of cockfighting.

Cockfighting is illegal in all but two states, but that's not stopping from selling two publications devoted to the inhumane sport: "Gamecock” and “The Feathered Warrior.” The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) says the Internet giant is violating federal laws and after a year of warnings, HSUS is taking legal action to remove the publications from the website.

The HSUS is suing Amazon for repeated violations of criminal provisions of Title Seven, section 2156, known as the Animal Welfare Act. The Act strictly prohibits any person from “knowingly use[ing] the mail service of the U.S Postal Service or any interstate…for purposes of promoting or in any other manner furthering an animal fighting venture.” In other words, it's against the law in 48 states to sell or distribute these magazines, which essentially encourage this bloodbath.

You might be asking yourself what's so wrong with selling a few magazines? After all, it's our First Amendment right. Well, that's true — sort of. The legal battle between HSUS and is over using U.S. mail to distribute these publications. However, representatives from the Humane Society also say there are limits to our freedom of speech and press, and likened these magazines to child pornography in that it's fundamentally wrong to incite and promote this type of cruelty. Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of HSUS, says the society “respects First Amendment rights and if someone had a magazine on the merits of cockfighting, we wouldn't have a problem, but these magazines actually promote the fights and sell the fighting implements — and it's against state law to move birds for fighting purposes.”

Cockfighting is an old time bloodsport where two or more specially bred birds, known in the industry as gamecocks, are placed in an enclosed arena to fight. Apparently, watching these birds fight each other to the death is considered “entertainment” and is a huge source of gambling revenue. Oftentimes, these birds are drugged to heighten their aggression and forced to keep fighting even after injuries such as a pierced lung or gouged eyes — all for the amusement and illegal wagering of these oglers.

Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith, responded to the lawsuit saying “That's their claim, and we don't agree with their claim, so we're going to continue to make these titles available. It's up to the customer to determine what they feel is appropriate for them to purchase." The retailer's own publisher reiterated that they have “no problem” using these magazines to sell fighting birds in violation of federal animal-fighting laws, or to advertise fighting tools such as specially designed knives with no other purpose beyond cockfighting. Pacelle says that Amazon can “avoid this lawsuit by simply removing the magazine from the website, or if they supply publications with different content that don't actually promote the cockfight.”

If forced to pursue the lawsuit, the Humane Society will initiate legal action under the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Act, which prohibits corporations from selling goods in any manner that is against federal law. But, Amazon might have a hard time pulling these magazines off the shelves since “Gamecock” and “The Feathered Warrior” are ranked as some of the top sellers on the website.

Part of the reason this type of animal cruelty remains viable is because cockfighting is only a misdemeanor in 20 states. Weak penalties in these states do little (or nothing) to dissuade voyeuristic spectators. Light penalties translate into reluctant attorneys who turn a blind eye. Virtually no U.S. attorney will waste time fighting a case just to have a participant get a slap on the wrist. That means in order to ensure cockfighting participants understand the consequences, we need to put some teeth into the law and toughen penalties.

Last year, the Senate passed the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act in order to strengthen the maximum jail time from the one year misdemeanor in current law to felony-level jail time of up to two years for offenders. This would actually give the law some grit — but it still has to move through the House before the bill takes effect. Right now, the legislation has almost 250 co-sponsors. Animal lovers are hoping the House doesn't shunt the bill to the sidelines and actually pass the Act before the August recess.

We're not asking Amazon to push aside our freedom of speech and press, but we are asking them to recognize that it's A) illegal to violate a federal law and B) it's inhumane to promote this type animal fighting, and worse yet and those who profit from the sport.

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• H.R. 817 Animal Fighting Prohibition Act of 2005
• Federal Animal Welfare Act and Regulations
• Article: Return to Sender: The HSUS Asks the Postal Service to Stop Mailing Cockfighting Magazines
• Humane Society of the U.S.: Cockfighting Laws
• AP Article: Draws Fire From Humane Society

Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.