A new bill that would help law enforcement take on illegal animal fighting in the U.S. has bipartisan support.

WASHINGTON — Days after a shooting at an illegal cockfight on Oahu left two dead and three others wounded, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced legislation aimed at stopping those involved in animal fights for entertainment and money.

The bill, known as the Fight Inhumane Gambling and High-Risk Animal Trafficking Act, seeks to crack down on illegal dogfighting and cockfighting by enhancing enforcement opportunities, both for law enforcement and private citizens.

If enacted, the legislation would ban the simulcasting of animal fights to target those participating in online gambling. It also would prohibit the shipment of mature roosters through U.S. mail and allow citizens to file their own lawsuits against those pitting animals against each other in deadly blood sport.

The bill also calls for stricter asset forfeiture provisions and would allow the federal government to seize property where animal fights occur.

FILE - Cockfighting takes place in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, on Dec. 18, 2019. Honolulu police have yet to make any arrests in a fatal shooting Saturday, April 15, 2023, that's highlighting the dangers that come with cockfighting, which has long been popular in Hawaii. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti, File)
Cockfighting is illegal in all 50 states and U.S. territories. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti/2019)

“There needs to be accountability and there needs to be a cost,” said U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican who is a main sponsor of the bill. “I come from a long lineage of farmers and I work on the Agriculture Committee. I don’t know anybody who supports animal fighting. We owe them decency even if they are a part of our diet.”

Bacon’s bill comes as Hawaii copes with one of the worst shootings in its history, which occurred as dozens of people were leaving the site of a cockfight shortly after midnight on April 15 in Waianae.

Two people were killed and three others injured when two other people allegedly opened fire as the fight was the crowd was leaving the event. Killed were Gary Rabellizsa, 34, and Cathy Rabellizsa, 59.

Two suspects, including a 16-year-old boy, turned themselves in a few days later.

Jacob Borge, 23, was charged Wednesday with first- and second-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder and firearms charges. Bail was set at $2 million.

Petitions were filed against 16-year-old Shaedan Styles for the same charges.

Cockfighting is illegal in the U.S. and its territories, and while every state has a ban on the practice Hawaii is one of only a few where it is still only punishable as a misdemeanor.

The practice is often associated with organized crime and other criminal activities. Police officials in Hawaii have said that they intend to ramp up their enforcement of illegal gambling in the islands as a result of the recent violence.

Bacon said there was no connection between him introducing the legislation and the shooting in Hawaii. The timing, he said, was pure happenstance.

The Animal Wellness Action, a Washington-based animal rights group, has been pushing the legislation.

Wayne Pacelle, the president of the organization, said the violence that occurred in Hawaii earlier this month is not an outlier. He pointed to the 2018 murder of a cockfighting referee in Miami and a recent shooting at a gamecock training property in Dallas as just two examples.

Pacelle said there are already robust laws on the books to address animal fighting — for instance, it’s a federal felony even to be a spectator at an event — but the issue has long been about enforcement.

The FIGHT Act, he said, will give federal law enforcement officials more avenues to take on illicit activities, and if they don’t it will give citizens the right to pursue justice through their own civil actions.

Hawaii is known as a place that has a “quiet tolerance” for cockfighting, Pacelle said, and the lack of enforcement in recent years has only emboldened that perspective.

Wayne Pacelle is the president of Animal Wellness Action. (Courtesy: Wayne Pacelle)

“To me we don’t need to have this violent spillover to warrant action,” Pacelle said. “The animal cruelty, the gambling and illegality of all of it should be enough to warrant legislative action.”

On occasion, Hawaii lawmakers have openly supported cockfighting, such as in 2010 when then-state Rep. Joey Manahan introduced a resolution recognizing it as a “cultural activity.”

Manahan’s resolution described cockfighting as a “long and cherished tradition,” one that was celebrated around the world, including in the U.S. by the country’s founding fathers, a claim that has been found to be dubious.

His resolution relied on statements from chicken fighters who said their roosters were “neither brutalized nor forced to fight” because fighting was just a part of establishing a natural pecking order.

The resolution further downplayed the violence inherent in chicken fighting by saying that unlike factory farmed fowl raised in cramped cages, gamecocks live in “fresh air and sunshine and are given plenty of room to move around.”

But Manahan is not alone.

In 2018, when Congress voted to amend the federal farm bill to expand the animal fighting ban to all U.S. territories then-Hawaii Rep. Colleen Hanabusa was one of only 51 lawmakers to vote against it. Her fellow Hawaii colleague at the time, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who was born in American Samoa, voted in favor.

Neither Manahan nor Hanabusa responded to a request for comment.

So far, 19 members of the House — 10 Democrats and nine Republicans — have signed on as co-sponsors of the FIGHT Act, including Bacon. Those who have come from a diverse range of states, including California, Louisiana, Texas, Massachusetts, Illinois, Nevada, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Oregon and South Carolina.

Neither of Hawaii’s current U.S. representatives, Ed Case or Jill Tokuda, have co-sponsored the bill.

Spokespeople for both Case and Tokuda said they were not available for interviews Tuesday.

Senator Mazie Hirono speaks to media at the NEX food court after a tour of the Red Hill fuel facility. The tour was closed to the media.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono said she considers cockfighting to be a form of animal cruelty. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

According to Pacelle, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker is expected to introduce companion legislation in the Senate, something that he said could occur as soon as this week. Pacelle said as of yet he has not heard from Hawaii U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz or Mazie Hirono about whether they will be co-sponsoring that bill.

“From my perspective it’s not unusual for offices to take some time to look at legislation and to assess it, but at the same time this is a high profile issue that is now in the spotlight because of the mass shooting,” Pacelle said. “My hope is that Hawaii’s lawmakers will help us get this bill moving and signed into law before the end of the year.”

In an interview with Civil Beat, Hirono said she could not comment on the proposed bill until she has a chance to review it.

In general, she said, she is opposed to any sort of animal cruelty, especially that which has already been deemed illegal, including cockfighting.

While she said she understands there are some in the islands who still defend cockfighting as a matter of tradition, those concerns need to be weighed against those of the greater community.

“It’s a question of animal cruelty versus cultural practices,” Hirono said. “One tries to be as sensitive as possible, but on the other hand, when a cultural issue involves the safety of the community or endangering the community or endangering animals I would say that goes against the practice.”

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz did not respond to a request for an interview.

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