The word that a provision in the massive U.S. farm bill, passed and signed recently by President Trump would ban cockfighting in the U.S. territories effective later this year hit hard with many on Guam and in the CNMI who have been committed to this activity, whether it’s actually raising and fighting the roosters, selling chicken feed or plunking down thousands of dollars betting on the fight outcomes at local, legal cockpits.
Only minutes after her swearing in, Guam Legislature Speaker Tina Muna Barnes found a constituent in her office clearly looking for a commitment to fight the ban. After hearing that voter and others out, Barnes sat in at a University of Guam teach-in, during which Professor Michael Bevacqua traced the history and cultural significance of cockfighting on Guam. That aside, she says she’s more concerned about how such an action, dictated from far away Washington, D.C., affects Guam’s right of self-governance and is working with fellow officials in the CNMI to figure out how to lift the ban.
Comments on the Pacific Island Times website and the social media in general questioned that this should be a priority issue for the new Guam administration, but none of them came from elected officials, all well aware of the determination by local cockfighters to retain the practice.
And it’s bi-partisan. New Legislative Minority Leader Sen. Wil Castro echoed the same analysis and arguments
Before she was even sworn in, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero committed herself to seeing the ban repealed, though she conceded it would be “an uphill fight.”
Even though he no longer faces the pressure of seeking re-election, former Lt. Gov. Ray Tenorio said he opposed the cockfighting ban, but once introduced a bill banning dog fighting, which was occurring in the local community. "The dog fighting was too much for me, because it's not part of our tradition. Cockfighting is, it's been so for centuries,” Tenorio said.
Cockfighting, dog fighting and even pitting two bears against each other to fight to the death were once fairly common in parts of the 50 states, but are now illegal, leaving the territories as the outlier in this area.
Cockfighting proponents also suggest there’s a peculiar kind of inter-species discrimination here. Many who oppose or are somewhat indifferent to this activity happily throw pieces of chicken or any other kinds of meat producing critter on the barbecue without a thought to the cruelty required to produce their meal. So does the chicken suffer more dying during a fight in the cockpit or being killed to make a pot of kadu? Obviously a committed vegetarian or a practicing Buddhist would object to either option.
Personally, I’m a committed carnivore and have been since childhood. I grew up eating venison and those deer were mostly butchered in our basement by my dad, so I am pretty aware of meat not packaged under cellophane. On Saipan, we once raised a pig and enlisted some friends to help kill and slaughter it. I enjoyed the resulting fritada. The ASPCA isn’t likely to change my opinion that this is acceptable or even reasonably humane.
This is to say that when I started to write this column, my thought was that I did not have a rooster in the fight over the ban, but I am beginning to think that all of us, cockfighters or not do. It’s that as we send new representatives to the nation’s capital, we should think long and hard about how to prioritize what we demand and what we can expect to get. The basis for describing the cockfighting ban as an instance of Washington tyranny was laid long ago in the so-called insular cases, in which the U.S. Supreme Court in a number of opinions found that the U.S. Constitution did not automatically apply to the U.S. territories.
Guam and the CNMI’s lack of a full Congressional vote, our remote locations and general public ignorance about how and where we live on the mainland have worked against reforms to this antiquated interpretation which denies normal American legal protections to its citizens resident in the islands. There are plenty of other matters driven by this that Washington could and should change, such as giving our citizens a presidential vote. Saddling the local governments with the cost of the earned income tax credit (EITC) which in the states is fully covered by the U.S. Treasury also comes to mind as do various discriminatory policies, e.g.: the caps on Medicaid and other federal programs.
Does an all out fight over a cockfighting ban really rise to the level of these interests?
Years ago as a TV reporter on Saipan I watched an all of 11-12 year-old-boy toss down a $20 bill at a fiesta gambling booth. Noting my discomfort, my cameraman explained that was just normal. I don’t see children active in gambling places these days, leading me to suspect the rules have changed over time to more accurately reflect stateside norms.
In the same way, it seems to me that our concerns in Washington might be better served by doing away with a distraction over a practice that is fading into history in the mainland.
However, I would not bet the chicken farm that our public officials will abandon this fight any time soon.
Bruce Lloyd is the associate editor of the Pacific Island Times