Animal abuse stories, sadly, are not uncommon in Louisiana, but what happened last week in eastern New Orleans was a shocker. More than 600 roosters were seized in a raid in what appears to have been a long-term, sophisticated cockfighting operation. Representatives of the LA-SPCA said it was the largest seizure of animals in the group's 125-year history.
The site held barrels that housed the fighting roosters, as well as drug paraphernalia, spurs and other implements associated with cockfighting. This wasn't some clandestine rooster farm out in the swamps, either. It was on a well-traveled block of Chef Menteur Highway, just east of Michoud Boulevard. Like many brazen crimes, this one left people wondering how someone thought he or she could get away with it. For the answer to that, look to Baton Rouge.
Louisiana was the last state in the union to outlaw the practice of cockfighting (it's still legal in some U.S. territories, including Guam and Puerto Rico). As late as 2006, animal rights advocates couldn't garner enough votes in the Legislature to ban cockfighting, but the tide was turning. Some Louisianans, particularly in the southwestern parishes, argued that fighting roosters were part of our state's heritage and a multi-million-dollar plank in Louisiana's economy. But that didn't wash; supporters of a ban pointed to polls showing more than 80 percent of Louisianans wanted the practice stopped, and lawmakers of both parties began to fall in line.
In 2007, New Mexico became the 49th state to ban cockfighting. The federal government passed tough new laws banning the interstate transfer of animals for the purposes of fighting. The die was cast. That year, the Louisiana Legislature finally did the right thing — the inevitable thing — and banned cockfighting, effective in 2008 (giving existing breeders time to liquidate their stocks). The ban was passed with bipartisan support.
The penalties for cockfighting-related offenses, however, are far too weak.
For a first conviction on charges of organizing cockfights or breeding birds to be fought, a violator "shall be fined not more than one thousand dollars, or imprisoned for no more than six months, or both."
Let's put this in perspective: $1,000 is less than the price of a thoroughbred gamecock. Even in Puerto Rico, where cockfighting is sanctioned by local government, fines for clandestine or underground cockfights can by law run as much as $5,000.
"It's light — incredibly light," Jeffrey Elizardi, a spokesman for the LA-SPCA, said of the fine. "One thousand dollars is not going to be a deterrent to anyone."
Elizardi told Gambit that the cost of keeping the 600-plus birds will cost the nonprofit organization $3.33 per day, per bird — money the LA-SPCA must divert from its regular caseload of dogs, cats, rabbits and other animals. In other words, the potential fine against the birds' alleged owner, Trinh Tran, is less than the LA-SPCA is spending in one day to care for the seized birds.
Because of a city ban on roosters, the males cannot be placed locally, and many bird sanctuaries and farms are full and cannot accept more birds. "We are trying to figure out what to do with the roosters," Elizardi said, "and euthanasia is a definite possibility."
How can you help? The LA-SPCA has received dozens of queries about the seized hens and chicks and can't return all the calls and emails. Elizardi recommends checking the organization's Facebook page (www.facebook.com/thelaspca) for the latest information if you're interested in taking some backyard poultry. Meanwhile, the LA-SPCA, which can always use more money, could also use some help getting through this crisis.
As for fighting animal abuse in the future, state legislators should take note: The penalties for cockfighting activities are far too light. The maximum fine for a second offense is only $2,000, with possible (but not mandatory) prison time. It's only after a third offense that jail time becomes mandatory without the possibility of parole, probation or suspension of sentence. That needs to change. Until change comes, groups like the LA-SPCA will have to clean up the mess — literally, figuratively and financially.
Putting an end to cockfighting isn't just the right thing to do from a humane perspective. Louisiana is at the bottom of far too many "best" lists and the top of far too many "worst" lists. In 2007, lawmakers realized that being the last state in the union to allow cockfighting was a black eye on our state. Increasing the penalties for this inhumane practice is the next logical step.