Cockfighting only misdemeanor in Mississippi

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 2, 2006

Cockfighting is illegal in Mississippi, but the consequences don&8217;t come close to outweighing the profits.

Cockfighting &8212; outlawed back in 1880 &8212; is a misdemeanor punishable by just $10 to $100 in fines and only 10 to 100 days in jail.

Martin Montonfano, deputy director of animal cruelty issues for the Humane Society of the United States, said the business is a lucrative one, and misdemeanor fines aren&8217;t a deterrent, he said.

Email newsletter signup

As a result, an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people nationwide still fight cocks, even though 32 states outlaw it. In Adams County, though, there have been no recent cockfighting arrests.

Possessing fighting cocks or the paraphernalia used to fight them &8212; such as razors sometimes attached to their legs &8212; or simply attending a cockfight are still legal in Mississippi.

And even if cockfighting was made a felony participants could take their birds to nearby Louisiana to fight.

There, the pastime is still legal.

&8220;And it&8217;s no accident that you&8217;ll find cockfighting rings just inside the state line all around Louisiana,&8221; Montonfano said.

However, one thing has made a difference &8212; the passing a federal law that makes transporting animals across state lines for the purpose of fighting a crime punishable by up to $5,000 and one year in jail.

And Montonfano said the Humane Society still intends to keep pushing for animal fighting to be made a felony nationwide.

Public awareness of animal fighting is helping the cause, he said.

&8220;There&8217;s a growing awareness that humans have an obligation to treat other animals with respect,&8221; he said.

Mississippi took a step in that direction last week when Gov. Haley Barbour&8217;s signed a bill making the practice of dog-hog fighting a felony.

At the same time, however, they&8217;re looking to push next year for further strengthening of animal cruelty and fighting laws.

Senate Bill 2210, which takes effect July 1, makes hog-dog fighting a felony punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, jail time of up to six months, or both.

The House Judiciary B committee added the language outlawing hog-dog fighting to a bill that added cats to the list of animals protected by the state&8217;s animal cruelty laws.

&8220;That was done after hearing about several such fights in southwest Mississippi,&8221; said Sen. Gray Tollison, who chairs the committee.

As it now stands, the bill would automatically phase out in two years, but Tollison said that repealer will likely be removed.

&8220;It was put in to make (opponents) feel more comfortable with it,&8221; Tollison said, noting that some were unnecessarily concerned the bill might make it more difficult to train dogs for legitimate wild hog hunting.

In hog-dog fighting, dogs trained to fight are put in pens with wild hogs, often ones whose tusks have been removed, to fight, often to the death.

Montonfano said the popularity of hog-dog fighting is fairly new, having just caught on in the last decade.

However, in the last two years, instances of hog-dog fighting &8212; mostly found in Southern states &8212; have gone down by an estimated 90 percent, the Humane Society estimates.

That&8217;s at least partly due to toughening of laws, as when Louisiana in 2004 became the first state to outlaw the fighting, making it a felony, he said.

Mississippi still has the largest number of hog-dog fighting pens of any state, however, he added.

And he noted that TV newsmagazine &8220;Inside Edition&8221; brought public attention to the problem with a lengthy taped segment on the fights last November.

&8220;We&8217;re thrilled,&8221; Debra Boswell, executive director of the Mississippi Animal Rescue League in Jackson, said regarding the passage of the hog-dog law.

Boswell said because she and other animal advocates were busy caring for animal victims of Hurricane Katrina, they didn&8217;t have time to lobby for the law themselves.

So MARL and other animal organizations throughout the state pooled their resources to hire a lobbyist to champion the cause, something Boswell said certainly helped it pass.

It&8217;s not the first victory MARL and its partners have had in the Legislature. In 1987, Mississippi passed a law making dog fighting &8212; and possessing and/or training such dogs &8212; a felony.

&8220;It was even more widespread before that law was passed,&8221; Boswell said of dog fighting, which HSUS estimates 5,000 people participate in each year nationwide.

But animal advocates added the fight&8217;s not over. For example, Montonfano said that glamorizing of dog fighting in videos by Jay-Z and other rap artists has renewed interest in the pastime in some urban areas.

&8220;Animal fighting is an epidemic in Mississippi,&8221; Boswell said. &8220;For one thing, it&8217;s such a clandestine network. It&8217;s harder in some cases to bust a dog ring than a drug ring.&8221;

Although Adams County Sheriff Ronny Brown said he only occasionally gets reports of animal fighting rings, when he does, the evidence is long gone by the time deputies get to the alleged site.

But law enforcement officers have a vested interest in continuing to try to catch such rings, Boswell noted, saying that were animal fighting pens are, drugs and weapons can often also be found.