The Animal Wellness Action (AWA), the Animal Wellness Foundation (AWF), and Tennessee state Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, have asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the state’s eastern and middle districts to investigate allegations that nine Tennesseans appear to be deeply involved in illegal trafficking of fighting animals, with most of them sending birds to far-flung destinations across the world, including transporting fighting birds in violation of federal law to the U.S. territory of Guam, Mexico and the Philippines.
Mailing birds to Guam
The animal rights groups said the shippers who sold to Guam typically use the U.S. Postal Service to transport the birds, packing the live animals into boxes and sending them 8,000 miles from Tennessee to Guam in the cargo holds with multiple stops and without food or water.
Through public records requests to the Guam Department of Agriculture, AWF and AWA obtained nearly 2,500 pages of avian shipping records dated November 2016 to September 2019. These records detail approximately 750 shipments of birds by 71 individuals from more than a dozen states to Guam. Tennessee cockfighters shipped the sixth largest number of birds, with Oklahoma having the distinction of being the top shipper despite a voter-approved ballot initiative there in 2002 that makes possession of fighting animals a felony.
As a supplement to the Guam records request, AWA and AWF obtained information on six other suspected traffickers of fighting birds based in Tennessee.
One of eight
Tennessee is only one of eight states without felony-level penalties for cockfighting, despite a long history of illegal animal fighting. The FBI shut down two major cockfighting complexes in Cocke County in 2005, asserting that local law enforcement there had been corrupted and cockfighting was tied to prostitution, narcotics, chop shops, and gambling by children.
Banned by federal law
Possessing and shipping birds for cockfighting has been banned under federal law since 2002 and has been a felony since 2007, when President George W. Bush signed the enhanced penalty provisions into law and also criminalized the sale of cockfighting implements.
“These cockfighters are openly raising birds where their neighbors and passing drivers can see their complexes, they are appearing on cockfighting magazine covers and in cockfighting videos, they are touting their fighting records on social media, and they are fraudulently signing shipping records that say they are chicken breeders only,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of AWA. “Law enforcement should put a stop to their lawbreaking and animal cruelty without delay.”
Said Lundberg: “Staged animal fighting is animal cruelty, and it’s bound up with other crimes and with threats to our agriculture industry. I urge my colleagues to upgrade our anti-cockfighting law and for state and federal law enforcement to take action against perpetrators flouting our laws.”
Strengthening the law
Lundberg, when he was in the state House, helped lead, with former state Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, an upgrade of the Tennessee law, making cockfighting a Class A misdemeanor in 2015. He has continued to advocate for strengthening of the law, aligning the penalties with the state’s anti-dogfighting law and with the federal penalties for illegal animal fighting activities.
“It’s just not customary for a conventional animal agriculture enterprise to require more males than females,” observed Marty Irby, the executive director of AWA and a former Tennessean who has spent the past decade trying to end animal abuse in the Volunteer State.
“Standard breeding protocols would have the ratio of male to female birds to be inverted, but male birds are used in cockfighting. Any reasonable person would conclude that these shipments were primarily for cockfighting, which was long practiced on the island.”
Dogfighting, said, Pacelle, is a felony in all 50 states while cockfighting is a felony in 42 states.