Legislation to make cockfighting a felony in Tennessee has been revised to instead declare it a Class A misdemeanor on first offense with a minimum $2,500 fine.
As things stand now, the typical fine for spectators at a cockfight is $50. That provides little deterrent, proponents of the bill say, and in fact makes Tennessee an increasingly popular place to hold events since cockfighting is a felony in most neighboring states.
“It seems to make us a mecca,” said Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, sponsor of SB785.
As originally introduced, Ketron’s bill called for making the crime a felony in Tennessee as well. That led to legislative staff estimating that it would cost the state $618,000 per year to lock up those convicted of a felony. An amendment makes those organizing a cockfight, participating in one or simply being spectators all subject to a $2,500 minimum fine — but no jail time. Those convicted of a second offense, however, would be subject to a felony conviction.
The revision lowers the estimated cost to the state to just $55,000 for housing the projected felony convicts, which supporters hope will improve prospects for passage.
An amendment incorporating the change was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week before a 6-0 vote in favor of the measure.
Legislation to increase penalties for cockfighting was approved by the same panel in the last legislative session, but the bill subsequently died in the House Agriculture Committee.
Leighann McCollum, state director of the Humane Society of the United States and an advocate of stronger penalties, said Monday there is concern that history could repeat itself. The House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, is scheduled for a vote in the Agriculture Committee Wednesday, though McCollum said it likely will be delayed until the following week to line up testimony in behalf of the bill.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, has in the past opposed increasing cockfighting penalties.
McCollum said the citations of 37 people Sunday at a Hamblen County cockfighting operation once again show the need for increased penalties for an activity that couples cruelty to animals and, often, ties into illegal gambling and drug trafficking.
Last year, she said, more than 300 people got misdemeanor citations for cockfighting in Tennessee, most simply paying a $50 fine.
Tom Farrow, a former FBI agent from Johnson City who continues to investigate animal fighting as a private consultant, told the Senate committee last week that the top prize in a cockfighting derby typically ranges from $30,000 to $65,000. Against such a prospective payoff, he said, the $50 fine is nothing.
He said a $2,500 fine, on the other hand, would be a significant deterrent — especially to those who are just spectators.