Gamefowl breeders and fighters are opposing a state Senate bill that would increase penalties for participating in or observing a cockfight.
The bill would further criminalize men and women engaged in an age-old tradition of raising gamefowl for fighting, the activity the birds were bred for, opponents told state senators reviewing the proposal Wednesday.
But animal-rights advocates and some lawmakers want to raise the penalties, saying cockfighting is cruel to animals and breeds an underground culture of criminal activity, including drug use and gambling.
“Cockfighting is a horrible, horrible sport – if you can call it that,” said state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington and a sponsor of the bill.
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The Senate panel, chaired by Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, took no action on the proposal, agreeing instead to work on the language to ensure that incidental fights between birds would not lead to a violation of the law.
South Carolina is one of eight states that now treats cockfighting as a misdemeanor, said Kim Kelly, S.C. director for the Humane Society of the United States. Cockfighting already carries felony penalties under federal law, Kelly added.
Under state law, cockfighting, or being present at a cockfight, is punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and a year in prison for a first offense and up to $3,000 and three years in prison for the second and subsequent offenses.
There were 46 charges of cockfighting in S.C. courts last year with 41 leading to convictions, said Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, a member of the panel reviewing the bill.
Under the Senate proposal, penalties would increase to a felony on second offense with a fine of between $1,000 and $3,000 and up to five years in prison. Cockfight spectators would be charged with a felony upon a third offense, facing fines of up to $5,000 and up to five years in prison.
Breeders of the fighting birds say they are being unfairly targeted by people who do not understand the rural tradition of cockfighting.
Jimmy Howard with the S.C. Gamefowl Breeders Association equated cockfighting birds to chicken hawks. “They commit a violent death every day,” said Howard of Georgetown. “We can pass a law saying chicken hawks can’t kill something – they’re still going to do it.”
Gary Dicorte of Little Mountain said opponents are wrong when they say birds are forced into combat. “One of our biggest challenges in raising these birds is to keep them from killing each other when they mature.”
But Lt. Jamie Seales of the Marlboro County Sheriff’s Office said a recent cockfighting bust revealed a highly organized, lucrative underground culture that leads to other criminal activity.
Law enforcement seized illegal drugs, firearms and thousands of dollars in cash in entry fees. Some of the more than two dozen people arrested also had cash in their pockets, allegedly for betting on the fights. The cockfight promoter kept detailed ledgers about what vitamins and steroids were given to the gamecocks.
Hutto, the panel’s chairman, said he and other lawmakers have no desire to outlaw the raising of gamefowl or stop breeders from enjoying the animals. But equipping the animals with gaffs – artificial spurs – or other fighting implements is unacceptable, he said.
“To make it a spectator sport, gamble on it, to make a contest out of it, (with) entry fees and prizes, we’re not going to allow that.”
Cockfighting in South Carolina
Senate bill would increase penalties for participating in or observing a cockfight to a felony from a misdemeanor
Participating in cockfighting
1st offense – Misdemeanor: $500 to $1,000 fine, up to a year in prison
2nd and subsequent offenses – Felony: $1,000 to $3,000 fine, up to five years in prison
Watching a cockfight
1st offense – Misdemeanor: Up to $500 fine and six months in prison
2nd offense – Misdemeanor: Up to $1,000 fine and a year in prison
3rd and subsequent offenses – Felony: Up to $5,000 fine and five years in prison