Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly made an impassioned plea to ban cockfighting in the territory, while other senators worried about making criminals out of spectators of a long established and locally legal practice during a Senate committee hearing. But new federal law criminalizing cockfight spectators probably will not affect V.I. fights so long as local law permits them, according to testimony and legal analysis at the hearing.
O’Reilly said cockfighting was cruel, made people callous and has not been shown to contribute in any meaningful way to the economy. She quoted the famed late labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, saying: "Kindness and compassion towards all living things is a mark of a civilized society. Conversely, cruelty, whether it is directed against human beings or against animals, is not the exclusive province of any one culture or community of people.”
With only a couple of facilities and no data on tax revenues or other economic impact available, O’Reilly said she objected to calling cockfighting a local "industry."
"If you want to call it being put in a cage and beaten, then OK, call it that, if you wouldn’t mind being that chicken, but don’t call it an industry," she said.
St. Croix Animal Welfare Center Animal Control coordinator Moises Carmona also spoke in opposition to cockfighting, saying it was gratuitously cruel. "In 16 years (with the Animal Shelter) I have seen abused animals pretty much every day. And definitely cockfighting to my belief is definitely cruel.”
“There is no reason for anyone to … raise a rooster to fight just to have fun," he said. Carmona said he objected to the idea that cockfighting should be tolerated because it is part of the local culture.
"People used to say it is the culture of the island for a man to beat his wife or children, but things change. Cockfighting is a brutal sport and wrong," Carmona said.
Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said there was a clash of cultures over this issue and people should not assume a person involved in cockfighting is a mean or violent person.
"Don’t assume that children who grow up and see cockfighting and may even like it, or even dog fighting, that makes them mean, because that is a fallacy,” Nelson said. "The more things we make illegal the more criminals we make," he added.
Nelson said he does not go to cockfights and may not want teenagers to attend either, "but to make them criminals? Hell no," he said.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens agreed. “I am not willing to send anyone to jail over this,” he said.
Sen. Diane Capehart asked if it was being taxed and how much money is being produced. No testifiers present Wednesday had information on that.
Capehart and Sen. Myron Jackson said a future hearing on the topic with Internal Revenue Bureau testifiers would be helpful.
Capehart asked if it could be made less cruel with legislation banning practices like attaching spurs to the feet of the birds.
Agriculture Department Director of Veterinary Services Dr. Bethany Bradford said the birds are bred to fight and will do so with or without spurs. Bradford said she took no position on cockfighting and interacts with owners and breeders primarily to help prevent the spread of disease.
In written testimony, Delegate Donna M. Christensen said the initial interpretation from the Congressional Research Service anticipated that cockfighting would be treated similarly to how marijuana is treated in states where it is illegal under federal law but legal under state law. As a result, it could – but probably would not – put participants under risk of arrest.
“Neither the U.S. Department of Justice nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture, under whose jurisdiction cockfighting falls, is willing to give a concrete interpretation of the statute,” said Christensen, “but both say that given more pressing enforcement priorities and staff limitations, as well as the fact that cockfighting is legal in the U.S. Virgin Islands, they are unlikely to apply enforcement measures such as might be employed in states where the sport is illegal.”
“For many reasons, at least in the case of USDA, which has jurisdiction under their Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, cockfighting in the territories does not meet the threshold to trigger legal intervention,” she said.
But this does not mean that cockfighting will never draw the attention of law enforcement, she said. “There is a caveat. Because in many jurisdictions, other criminal activity is associated with cockfighting, activities which by themselves would invite legal intervention and enforcement; wherever there is cockfighting, careful and strict monitoring must take place to ensure illegal activities are not occurring concurrently,” she said. “That is the one condition that both agencies agree could invite law enforcement to come in to the establishment and in enforcing the law against that activity, put cockfighting and its attendees at risk.”
Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Wayne Biggs asserted that cockfighting is legal under V.I. law, citing provisions that tax cockfights and specifically exempts cockfighting from the territory’s felony animal abuse statute. But the question of how the change in federal law affects the territory is more complicated.
"Where the water really gets muddy is in the United States territories where the sport of cockfighting is still legal and conducted by entities that are licensed by the government to do so," Biggs said.
"This is not dissimilar to the federal law prohibiting the sale and use of marijuana, while some states nonetheless have legalized its sale and use. Will the federal government enforce its ban in these states?" he asked. “So far they have not chosen to do so and impede on the states’ rights.”
“Will the federal government enforce its law against knowingly watching cockfighting events? That is exactly why these discussions are pertinent and necessary," he said.
V.I. Legal Counsel Lisa Harris-Moorhead said "an argument could be made both ways" about whether V.I. law permits cockfighting. While the law exempts cockfighting from first-degree felony animal abuse, the statute does not exempt it from lesser animal abuse offenses, so if she were a police officer who wanted to charge someone, she would charge under one of the other offenses. But a court could interpret the legislative intent to have been to exempt cockfighting from the entire statute, or not, leaving it ambiguous. The statute should be clarified one way or the other, she said.
No votes were taken at the information gathering hearing. There will be future hearings on the subject, with testimony from IRB and people in the industry, Jackson said.