Appeals court upholds cockfight ban



The long-shot case of a Guam cockfighting enthusiast to challenge the federal ban on cockfighting sustained a lethal blow today when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit rejected similar claims from Puerto Rico’s cockfighters.


A three-judge panel affirmed the constitutionality of the federal law against animal fighting as applied to Puerto Rico, removing any thread of an argument that cockfighters in the Commonwealth can continue to legally stage animal fights there.


“We affirm the district court’s decision and hold that Section 12615 is a valid exercise of Congress’s Commerce Clause power and does not violate plaintiffs’ individual rights,” wrote the three-judge panel in a ruling handed down today.


The decision came after cockfighting interests appealed las year's ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Gustavo Gelpi, who granted the motion for summary judgment from the United States.


Gelpi declared that “[n]either the Commonwealth’s political statues, nor the territorial clause, impede the United States government from enacting laws that apply to all citizens of this nation alike, whether as a state or territory.”


Club Gallistico and other cockfighting clubs, supported by politicians across Puerto Rico, challenged the law. Animal Wellness Action, the Animal Wellness Foundation, and the Center for a Humane Economy filed amicus briefs in support of the United States, and the appeals court thanked the organizations for their involvement.


A similar case brought in the U.S. District Court in Guam was rejected in early October 2020. Animal Wellness Action, the Animal Wellness Foundation, and the Center for a Humane Economy filed an amicus brief in that case as well.


“The United States has the authority to outlaw staged animal fights in the U.S. Territories, and it has done so,” said Wayne Pacelle, founder of Animal Wellness Action, which led the fight for the upgraded anti-animal fighting law.


“The Congress, the federal courts, and the U.S. Department of Justice have been crystal clear on the matter: engage in animal fighting activities and risk going to prison. It’s time for cockfighters in Puerto Rico and Guam to obey the law and shut down dozens of cockfighting pits operating in the Commonwealth.”


In December 2018, Congress passed and President Trump signed the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 into law, and that major legislative package applied all prohibitions against animal fighting to all parts of the United States, including the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and Guam. The animal fighting provision had a one-year delay in implementation, taking effect on December 20, 2019. Reps. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, and Senators Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., led the fight to pass the law.


According to the U.S. Department of Justice in its pleadings, the 2018 upgrade in the law stipulated that cockfighters “may not sponsor or exhibit cockfights, just as prior to §12616 they were prohibited from attending cockfights, possessing game cocks, or engaging in other animal fighting practices that were prohibited both in Puerto Rico and nationwide.”


“Cockfighting is a settled matter, as a question of moral conduct and law,” said Drew Edmondson, who served as Oklahoma Attorney General for 16 years. “This latest ruling by a panel of federal judges reinforces the legal principle that the United States has the power to forbid staged fighting everywhere in the U.S.” General Edmondson is the co-chairman of the National Law Enforcement Council of Animal Wellness Action.


Two U.S. district courts in the territories and now a federal appellate court on the mainland have determined that the United States has the authority to outlaw staged animal fights on every inch of U.S. soil,” Pacelle said. “It is time for cockfighters to lay down the knives and gaffs that they affix to the birds’ legs, stop placing them in a pit to fight, and move on to other forms of entertainment that do not involve maiming animals.”


Puerto Rico and Guam were the last two jurisdictions where cockfighting has been openly conducted, and Animal Wellness Action calls on political leaders there to urge adherence to the law.


Under the federal anti-animal fighting law, it is a crime to:

  • Knowingly sponsor or exhibit in an animal fighting venture;

  • Knowingly attend an animal fighting venture, or knowingly cause an individual who has not attained the age of 16 to attend an animal fighting venture;

  • Knowingly buy, sell, possess, train, transport, deliver, or receive any animal for purposes of having the animal participate in an animal fighting venture;

  • Knowingly use the mail service of the U.S. Postal Service, or any “written, wire, radio televisions or other form of communications in, or use a facility of, interstate commerce,” to advertise an animal for use in an animal fighting venture, or to advertise a knife, gaff, or other sharp instrument designed to be attached to the leg of a bird for use in an animal fighting venture, or to promote or in any other manner further an animal fighting venture except as performed outside the U.S.;

  • Knowingly sell, buy, transport, or deliver in interstate or foreign commerce “a knife, a gaff, or any other sharp instrument” designed or intended to be attached to the leg of a bird for use in an animal fighting venture.


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