PRINCETON, W.Va. – West Virginia is now one of only 11 states that doesn't consider cockfighting a felony offense.
That's something that former Miss West Virginia Summer Wyatt is hoping to change. Wyatt has traded in her crown for a new assignment that is dear to her heart. The PikeView High School and Concord University graduate has now assumed the role of state director in West Virginia for the Humane Society of the United States of America.
"I've always been very interested in animal-related issues," Wyatt, whose public service platform during the 2008 Miss America Pageant dealt with animal cruelty and family violence, said. "It's a dream come true. I'm just thrilled to have a job like this out of college."
As the state's first Humane Society director, Wyatt will be a crusader for animals across the Mountain State. Her first mission will be to work with lawmakers in Charleston during the 2010 legislative session to make cockfighting a felony offense in the Mountain State.
Cockfighting is currently only a misdemeanor violation in West Virginia. However, it a felony offense in 39 other states, including the District of Columbia.
"One of the key issues is to make cockfighting a felony in West Virginia," Wyatt, who will continue to reside in Mercer County, said. "People from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina — where it is a felony — have an easy ride into West Virginia. If they are charged in West Virginia, it is only a misdemeanor fine."
Wyatt said cockfighters admit they aren't deterred by misdemeanor penalties. The Humane Society has found that those who participate in the illegal activity are drawn to states like West Virginia where cockfighting is only a misdemeanor offense.
Wyatt said authorities in McDowell County broke up a large cockfighting ring just a little over a year ago. She the problem is further complicated by other illegal activities that occur at cockfighting rings, including drugs and firearms.
"This is more than just a criminal and barbaric act," Wyatt said. "There are just so many other illegal activities that go along with it."
Wyatt said Sen. Jeffrey V. Kessler, D-Marshall, has agreed to introduce legislation on behalf of the Humane Society that would make cockfighting a felony offense in the Mountain State.
While some will argue that fighting is a natural habit for chickens. However, Wyatt said this isn't the case — citing cockfighting rings where the birds are equipped with a "long knifes" on their claws.
"Those birds suffer fatal injuries," Wyatt said. "If they are not fatal, most of them aren't treated (for their injuries). These animals are bred to have levels of aggressions."
Wyatt said the Humane Society isn't attempting to discourage those who raise chickens for professional shows, such as a county fair or poultry shows. It is instead simply interested in putting an end to the practice of illegal cockfighting.
"Sen. Kessler is our sponsor for this legislation," Wyatt said. The session starts Jan. 13.
Wyatt said she is hopeful that the legislation will be passed by the West Virginia Legislature — particularly given the media attention in recent months that has focused on the fact that cockfighting isn't a felony offense in West Virginia.
In addition to advocating for the tougher cockfighting laws, Wyatt plans to be an active visitor to the Legislature where she hopes to fight for a variety of animal-related issues. She also is hoping to one day soon to county supported animal shelter in every county in West Virginia.