Most did not respond to a Civil Beat survey on whether it should be made a felony, continuing a tradition of inaction.

When it comes to enforcing the law against cockfighting on Oahu, Honolulu police have apparently determined it’s too much work for too little reward. 

The department hasn’t made any cockfighting arrests since before 2020, according to Maj. Mike Lambert, the commander of the Narcotics/Vice division. Part of the reason is under state law, it’s a low-level offense.

“When you say that it’s a misdemeanor and we bring out all of these resources and all of this stuff and it amounts to about a $100 fine, in our view of it, it’s less than a speeding ticket,” he said in an interview. 

Chickens hang out in the shade near near Kakaako Waterfront Park and the Children's Discovery Center.
Hawaii has some of the weakest cockfighting laws in the nation, according to animal welfare advocates. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

That’s precisely the problem, according to animal welfare advocates. Hawaii is just one of eight states that considers cockfighting a misdemeanor act of animal cruelty instead of a felony. Critics say that gives operators and participants license to continue with business as usual. Punishments for misdemeanors in the islands are limited to up to a year in prison and fines up to $2,000. 

But there appears to be little political will at the Legislature to make changes, according to a survey of lawmakers by Civil Beat. Some lawmakers said they are hesitant to bump the crime up to a felony because the police aren’t enforcing it anyway. Other legislators opposed creating more opportunities for incarceration or were agnostic on the issue of cockfighting. At least one lawmaker outright supports cockfighting and said the state should legalize it. 

Bills to increase the penalty for chicken fighting have been introduced repeatedly over the years but have gone nowhere. 

“It’s really unfortunate that we’re allowing animals to be tortured so a few people can make money,” said Stephanie Kendrick, director of community engagement for the Hawaiian Humane Society.

With cockfighting intertwined with gambling, critics say the bloodsport invites other kinds of crime. While violence among people at cockfights is rare, Lambert said, there is always the potential for confrontations, like the fatal shooting of two people at a Waianae cockfight last month. 

“I’m hopeful that this next year, that we’re going to use this horrible tragedy as the impetus to do what is right for the community,” said Inga Gibson, an animal welfare lobbyist with Pono Advocacy who has pushed Hawaii to elevate cockfighting to felony status. 

“This is really about public safety and ending criminal activity.” 

Cockfighting supporters counter that the practice is cultural, a tradition passed down within families, and say the chickens raised to fight are otherwise treated very well. They say the fights are a source of adrenaline and pride that is no different from horse racing that results in equine deaths.

A rooster that wins a handful of matches will spend the rest of its life breeding, a much better fate than getting its head chopped off and becoming a McDonald’s meal, said Lito Alvarez, a cockfighter and game fowl breeder in Kahaluu.

“Nobody takes better care of roosters than us chicken fighters,” he said. “To see them perform and get their victory, it’s such a beautiful joy.”

But opponents like Gibson don’t buy those arguments. 

“These animals rip each other to shreds, all for the pleasure or bloodlust of people,” she said.

In her view, cockfighting should be viewed no differently from dog fighting, a felony in Hawaii. 

“They will cry telling you how much they love their dogs before they put them in a pit to line their pockets,” she said. “It is the ultimate in exploitation.” 

Survey Says: Legislators Mum On Cockfighting

Chicken fighting is prohibited by federal law, and Congress is currently considering a bill to enhance its enforcement.

But cases generally need a federal “nexus” in order for agencies like the FBI to get involved, Gibson said. That could include federal financial crimes, or transporting of paraphernalia to or from other states or countries.  

For day-to-day enforcement, it’s up to the state. 

As a group, though, Hawaii lawmakers appear to be ambivalent about making cockfighting a felony, Civil Beat’s survey found. Most of the legislators didn’t even respond to the survey and weren’t available for comment when Civil Beat stopped by their offices. 

Only a dozen out of the 76 lawmakers answered yes to the question: “Should Hawaii make cockfighting a felony crime, and should the law be strongly enforced?”

Sen. Kurt Fevella was one of them. He feels cockfighters should face "the harshest penalty possible," the senator’s office manager Kona Purdy said on behalf of the senator. 

Sen. Carol Fukunaga said the law should be strongly enforced. She would support making cockfighting a felony, she said, but noted changes to the law won't matter if police don't make arrests. 

Rep. Richard Onishi had a similar concern. 

“I don't know if it (making it a felony) would make any difference,” he said in an interview in his office. “I think it should be illegal. It is animal cruelty. I wouldn't vote to make it legal. If I get the guarantee from all the police departments that they'll start enforcing it if it becomes a felony, then maybe yes. But if they're not going to enforce it, what's the difference?"

HPD police Training Division Major Mike Lambert at the Honolulu Police Training Academy also known as Ke Kula Maka'i out in Waipahu.
Honolulu Police Major Mike Lambert, commander of Narcotics/Vice, said his division is focused more on game rooms and human trafficking than cockfighting. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Lambert said a felony designation would make a difference.

What that signifies to us is that it's a big deal," he said. "If they bumped it up or made it an enhancement, however they wanted to legislate it, then it would be on par with our priority categories.”

Other lawmakers said they don’t support cockfighting, but making it a felony could increase incarceration at a time when Hawaii’s correctional facilities are already at capacity.  

“I typically don't support increasing penalties for any crime, especially not for issues like this that would disproportionately impact underserved communities and people of color,” Rep. Natalia Hussey-Burdick said in an email. 

The representative pointed to studies and guidance from the National Institute of Justice that show harsher penalties don’t actually deter crime – since offenders are rarely aware of the potential consequences – but may exacerbate recidivism. 

“Misdemeanors are punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $2,000, which is already a fairly hefty penalty,” Hussey-Burdick said. 

One lawmaker, Sen. Brenton Awa, said in an email that Hawaii should legalize and regulate cockfighting “as it has long been part of our island culture.” 

His stance is likely shared by some members of law enforcement, according to former Kauai prosecuting attorney Justin Kollar.  

“It’s something ingrained in the local culture, and the local culture is where the police come from,” he said in an interview. “It would be pretending to suggest they’re not a little bit complacent because of involvement by friends, family or colleagues.” 

‘We Needed More Champions’

The legislative history on cockfighting in Hawaii suggests lawmakers have never really been that interested in cracking down on it. 

Twenty years ago, an anti-cockfighting bill introduced by then-Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland passed the Senate. It overcame no votes from J. Kalani English, Gary Hooser and Lorraine Inouye, among other senators. But it died in the House. 

In an interview, Chun Oakland recalled pro-cockfighting residents filling a Capitol hallway to oppose an effort to ban gaffs, the blades cockfighters attach to the rooster's legs. She remembered spouses of cockfighters telling her that if their husbands didn't blow off steam at the cockfights, they might become violent at home.

“To me, we should not be supporting those kinds of activities that foster more aggression," she said.

Chair Human Services Suzanne Chun Oakland with Vice Chair Gil Riviere questions during carehome bill discussions room 16, Capitol.
For years, former Hawaii Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland tried to pass legislation to crack down on cockfighting in the islands, but the bills never gained traction with her colleagues. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat 2016)

Subsequent bills were dead on arrival, the capitol’s archives show. 

“For years and years and years and years, the cockfighters had a tremendous amount of influence on the state legislative process,” Gibson said. “And they have, year after year after year, ensured that their interests are protected.” 

Civil Beat attempted to reach the former president of the Hawaii Game Breeders Association, a group that supported cockfighting years ago, but the phone was disconnected. The organization is no longer active. 

The last piece of legislation proposed on the issue was in 2015, according to the archives. The bill, which would’ve made cockfighting a felony, stalled after a first reading. Chun Oakland, one of its introducers, left the Legislature the following year. Only one of the lawmakers who introduced it is still in office: Sen. Les Ihara. He did not respond to Civil Beat’s survey. 

“I think a lot of folks didn't support gaffs on the cocks, but that was not their No. 1 priority,” Chun Oakland said. “We needed more champions.” 

In fact, there has been legislation aimed at supporting cockfighting. 

In 1999, lawmakers considered allowing cockfighting within a particular Hawaii island facility. It never passed.

In 2008, a group of House representatives presented a proposal to ask the United Nations to “officially commemorate cockfighting as a global sport.” The introducers of that measure included then-Rep. Joe Souki, who would later become speaker of the House, and Rep. Gene Ward, who remains in office but did not respond to Civil Beat’s survey. 

In 2010, a resolution introduced by then-Reps. Roland Sagum, Joey Manahan and Gil Keith-Agaran aimed to recognize cockfighting as a cultural activity. Amid backlash, the matter was dropped. Keith-Agaran is now a senator. He did not respond to Civil Beat's survey.

Representative Lynn DeCoite gives the invocation before the House floor session.
Sen. Lynn DeCoite supported cockfighting before she took public office. She did not respond to requests to share her stance today. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

While those measures never passed, the number of legislators who signed on as introducers to the bills suggests cockfighters have had allies among Hawaii’s elected leaders. 

Indeed, Maui Sen. Lynn DeCoite previously voiced support for cockfighting. In written testimony on a 2009 bill that would ban gaffs and slashers under state law, Decoite likened the issue to freedom of expression and suggested cracking down on cockfighting would be a violation of people’s civil rights.

“You want to take that away from us,” the Molokai resident wrote before she was a lawmaker. “You just as well start shutting down museums and anyone that chooses to preserve history and historical events forever.” 

Whether she still feels that way is unclear. She did not respond to our survey. 

The history of failed attempts has left advocates discouraged, Kendrick with the Humane Society said. 

“We haven’t let it go necessarily,” she said. “We tend to focus on battles we think we can make progress on, and I don't think we’re there yet with this one.” 

Changes To Law Could Discourage Cockfights

As it is now, the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s office has a record of only 25 cases of gaff possession since 2015, according to department spokesman Brooks Baehr. That includes only cases that resulted in an arrest or a contested citation.

Those found guilty are usually fined around $250, Baehr said, but some have paid only $100 or $200. One person got off with just a $50 fine.

Meanwhile, cockfights are happening every weekend when the birds aren't shedding their feathers, Alvarez said.

There are three key ways Hawaii could strengthen its cockfighting laws, Gibson said. 

Inga Gibson, animal rights and welfare advocate
Inga Gibson, the president of Pono Advocacy, has lobbied Hawaii for years to strengthen its animal cruelty laws. (Hawaii News Now/2016

First, Hawaii needs a “possession with intent” law for cockfighting, she said. Currently, officers have to catch people in the act of cockfighting. Raising birds with the intention of fighting them later is legal in Hawaii. 

Most other states have a possession with intent law for animal fighting, she said, Hawaii has this kind of statute for dog fighting. 

“So it's not just illegal to fight the animals. It's illegal to possess, breed, buy, sell, train with the intent that those animals be engaged (in fighting),” she said. “That gives real teeth to law enforcement.”  

Second, there is no penalty under state law for attending a cockfight in Hawaii. Creating one would be a deterrent for spectators, Gibson said. 

And third, Hawaii’s gambling and drug laws allow for law enforcement to seize possessions used in the course of criminal activity, but that’s not the case for cockfighting, Gibson said.

“That is not clear in statute,” she said. “That’s like doing a drug bust and leaving the drugs behind. The community would be outraged if they heard about a dogfight and it was ‘Oh, we left the dogs behind.’” 

HPD's Lambert added the department is open to working with legislators on nuisance abatement legislation that would help law enforcement pursue the owners of properties where cockfights occur.

Gibson acknowledged these proposals haven’t caught on at the Legislature, but she said she is optimistic change will come. 

“Every year we wait translates to more animals suffering at a larger scale,” she said. 

What stories will you help make possible?

Since 2010, Civil Beat’s reporting has painted a more complete picture of Hawaii — stories that you won’t find anywhere else.

Your donation, however big or small, will ensure that Civil Beat has the resources to provide you with thorough, unbiased reporting on the issues that matter most to Hawaii. We can’t do this without you.

 

About the Author