Oklahoma State Representative Justin Humphrey has authored and proposed House Bill 3283, an amendment seeking to lessen the punishment for cockfighting from a felony to a misdemeanor in the state. In 2002, Oklahomans voted to outlaw cockfighting, however, the practice continues to thrive in underground pits in Oklahoma.
“It’s less about cockfighting and it’s more about what is on the books as far as penalties,” Humphrey said to the members of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee. He added, “If they (sheriffs) wanted to go out and start enforcing these (laws), they could, especially in rural areas. They could do that, but the majority of people would just be up in arms if they do. Here we have a situation where everybody knows it’s going on, nothing’s being done. But if we got one sheriff that just got a notion to go out and do that, then here’s a person that’s out there doing something that nobody’s addressed and they can literally be sent to 10 years’ penitentiary.”
Cockfighting is a practice that is outlawed in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In Oklahoma, cockfighting is a felony offense punishable with up to 10 years in the state penitentiary and a fine of no more than $20,000. It is a crime to hold or encourage a cockfight, to be a spectator at a cockfight, and to keep birds for fighting purposes.
If passed. HB 3283 would drop a cockfighting offense to a misdemeanor with imprisonment “in the custody of the Department of Corrections,” and lower the cap on fines to $2,000. The proposed measure would also alter the definition of cockfighting to specify that fighting birds are fitted with “artificial” spurs, knives, or gaffs. Training fights would be excluded.
Humphrey stated, “Since we dropped the heroin and methamphetamine and all that down to a misdemeanor, I find it just absurd that in Oklahoma you can go to prison 10 years for raising a chicken, so I am filing this bill to drop raising a chicken to a misdemeanor.”
Steve Hindi, the founder of Illinois-based animal advocacy group Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK), posted drone footage of property in Atoka County, Oklahoma on the SHARK YouTube channel in May 2021.
Hindi claimed that SHARK documented a cockfight that was held on the property over the weekend. In the video, Hindi said, “We contacted the Atoka County sheriff’s department and were happy to see officers dispatched in a timely fashion to break up the event. Based on our conversations with sheriff’s deputies, we believe they are serious about dealing with these criminals and that they will join us in monitoring this property for an opportunity to make some arrests.” Atoka County is within Humphrey’s district.
HB 3283 passed out of the committee on a 5-0 vote. In 2013, a similar measure was proposed in the Oklahoma House of Representatives by former Rep. Ed Cannaday, D-Porum, which also failed to make it out of committee. In his proposal, Cannaday argued that Oklahomans were legally raising roosters to ship out of the country. The measure was strongly opposed by the Oklahoma chapter of the Humane Society.
Animal Wellness Action (AWA) and its sister organization, the Animal Wellness Foundation (AWF), released a report describing Oklahoma as the “cockfighting capital of the United States.” In the report published in 2020, AWA analyzed live-animal shipping records obtained from the Guam Department of Agriculture between November 2016 and November 2021.
It was revealed that breeders in Oklahoma shipped around 5,000 fighting birds to Guam over the last five years, more than double the number from any other state. The fighting birds were also shipped to Mexico, the Philippines, and other 20 countries where cockfighting continues.
In recent years, federal laws regarding cockfighting have also changed. In 2018, former President Donald Trump signed the Farm Bill into law, a measure that extends the federal cockfighting ban to include U.S. territories, including Guam and Puerto Rico. Recently, Puerto Rico has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider overturning the ban, insisting that cockfighting is the island’s “national sport” and generates millions in annual revenue. The Supreme Court denied the appeal of Puerto Ricans.
In Oklahoma, cockfighting is a lucrative business as well. An affidavit from a man indicted in 2019 for aiding and abetting cockfighting on his property in Caddo County told law enforcement that he held about a dozen cockfighting derbies, earning thousands of dollars from the events.
AWA, AWF, the Center for a Humane Economy, and other anti-animal cruelty organizations have come together to condemn HB 3283. Wayne Pacelle, president of AWA, called cockfighting “a legally and morally settled matter in Oklahoma” and cited the language of State Question 687 and comments from state officials who supported the ban.
SQ 687 passed in 2002 with 56% of the vote and was supported heavily in the urban areas of Oklahoma and Tulsa. “The first state to outlaw cockfighting did so 190 years ago, and it’s shameful that this matter is set for debate on the floor of the Oklahoma Legislature in 2022,” Pacelle said.