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March 30, 2010

Cockfighting "Cultural"? Some Hawaii Lawmakers Say So

Organized animal fighting is a federal felony, and it is a crime in every state, including Hawaii. Yet, the House Committee on Tourism, Culture and International Affairs in the Hawaii legislature yesterday took the unbelievable step of voting 4-2 in favor of a resolution recognizing cockfighting as a “cultural activity.” The resolution, introduced by state Rep. Joey Manahan and described as a first salvo in an effort to legalize cockfighting, had 260 public communiqués against it and only 20 in favor, but the committee backed it anyway.

Even while the vast majority of people at the hearing were there to express their opposition to cockfighting, there was a group of cockfighting enthusiasts. Keoni Andrews of Kalihi told the ABC television affiliate that “People of culture should be allowed to have various aspects of their culture recognized. Japanese have bon dancing. Nobody would think of denying Japanese bon dancing." Lloyd Marshall of Waianae said he raises fighting cocks, even though that is a federal felony. “I am sick and tired of them calling us a bunch of hoodlums when we are doing what we enjoy doing," he apparently told the press.

Injured bird at a cockfighting operation
Kathy Milani/The HSUS
An injured bird at a cockfighting operation.

These arguments are as flimsy as they come. There is indeed something wonderful about the preservation of cultural practices. But there are limits. Bon dancing does not leave anyone dead after the song ends. As for Mr. Marshall’s comments about his own pursuit of enjoyment, I’d simply say there are some people who enjoy engaging in criminal behavior. At the same time, enjoyment is not the test for keeping something legal.

A wide array of animal abusers use the smokescreen of culture as a defense for their depravity, whether they are bullfighters, dogfighters, or seal clubbers. It is just amazing that a group of elected officials—albeit a small group of four individuals—would provide a defense for a group of known, professional lawbreakers who enjoy the sight of animals trying to hack each other to death and like to gamble on the outcome.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time that Hawaii’s political leaders have exhibited schizophrenia on cockfighting. The state has year after year rejected upgrades to one of the weakest anti-cockfighting laws in the country. Hawaii is one of just 11 states without felony-level penalties for the crime. And the city council of Honolulu hired a leader in the cockfighting underworld for $60,000 a year to deal with rooster complaints. It is the neighbors of cockfighters who complain most loudly about the practice, partly because of the endless crowing by the roosters. The city council’s personnel choice is astonishing. It is akin to hiring a dogfighter to deal with barking and dangerous dogs—not the sort of person who is going to be proactive and solve the problems. On the contrary, he may see the job as a recruitment opportunity and work to entice new members to join the state gamefowl breeders association.

Rep. Manahan is a native of the Philippines, where cockfighting is openly practiced. But if that nation or any nation sanctioned child abuse or sexual molestation, we would not find the cultural argument the least bit persuasive. We have our own rules and codes of conduct in the United States, and cockfighting like many other forms of abuse does not make the cut. The fact is, cockfighting is opposed by people of all ethnic backgrounds; our polling in state after state shows that overwhelming majorities of Asians, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Caucasians all oppose animal fighting. It's just that a small number of scofflaws from every demographic group are all too happy to strap knives to the heels of roosters and bet on which bird will kill the other.

This resolution in defense of cockfighting now goes to the Hawaii House Judiciary Committee. Surely the members of the Judiciary Committee will have better political instincts, and will not only reject any celebration of this animal cruelty crime, but will also advance legislation to upgrade the anemic penalties. Our Hawaii state director Inga Gibson and our members in Hawaii will be there to make sure that they do.

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