Sunday Column: Ruffled Feathers in the Legislature’s Cockfighting Arena

Tennessee legislators have been fighting over cockfighting for decades and, as with many morality matters in our state and elsewhere, the squawking boils down to whether traditional values or emerging values prevail in the pecking order of our collective consciousness.
That collective consciousness, of course, is reflected in the people we elect as our state representatives and senators, and what they can agree upon without ruffling too many feathers. It does not involve a question of which came first, as with the chicken or the egg.
The traditionalists came first. Andrew Jackson raised fighting roosters. He also had slaves. There’s an obvious and monumental difference, of course: human beings versus animals. The fate of chickens is irrelevant, inconsequential trivia in comparison to slavery.
And remember that Andy Jackson relied upon a well-armed state militia, composed of citizens with a right to bear arms, in defeating the Creek Indians and, later, the British at New Orleans. In that respect, his traditional view prevails somewhat today in our state’s collective consciousness as reflected by our pro-gun Legislature.
But, well, cockfighting is a matter of debate. Maybe as high up there as such major controversies as whether wine can be sold in grocery stores or whether guns can be kept in cars, just to pluck a couple of issues from among many wherein lobbyists are spurred into what passes these days for mortal combat in Legislatorland.

About 1891, the Legislature decided to make cockfighting officially illegal in Tennessee. This doubtless reflected an emerging — or maybe we should say freshly hatched — ethical proposition that letting two roosters fight to the death is cruel.
But in what amounts to a compromise, it was deemed a very minor crime — a misdemeanor in legal parlance. And there it has remained, excepting only a brief period after a 1989 rewrite of the criminal code increased the penalties — an unintentional error, clucked the legislators who successfully pushed to restore the misdemeanor order of things.
State law has been changed over the years to make other forms of animal fighting a felony. But bullfighting and dog fighting do not have the traditional base in our state that cockfighting does. Further, birds that preen and strut like politicians at a political convention probably just don’t trigger much basic human empathy.
So, until a couple of years ago, cockfighting critics had been chicken about cracking down on rooster rumbles. But things may be changing. Last session, a bill raising penalties passed the Senate but flopped in the House. Last week, a bill that would raise the minimum fine for cockfighting participants or spectators to $500 cleared a House subcommittee. That could signal that a new consensus is emerging in the legislative flock. But Legislatorland’s game of chicken is not over by a long shot.
A day after the House Agriculture Subcommittee vote, a fellow called yours truly to express the sentiment that legislators “should just leave the old country boys alone.” He didn’t want to give his name, but advised that traditionalists would be calling their legislators in protest of higher penalties. When this conversation was mentioned to the subcommittee chairman, Republican Rep. Ron Lollar of Bartlett, he replied: “It’s not the old country boys who are running the business.”
Lollar voted for the bill, sponsored by Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, who stresses that cockfighting today involves organized crime, gambling, drugs, drinking and other unsavory activities. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, he says, will make a presentation to a legislative committee this week to stress that point.
Lundberg did not mention in his presentation that the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) backs the bill. That may be just as well. HSUS ruffles the feathers of many legislators who consider it an animal rights extremist group.
This, then, is one of those bills that really doesn’t get much professional lobbying. It really is legislators reacting to their constituents and their own sense of what’s right. If that sense is that cockfighting today has departed from country tradition to become a criminal enterprise, proponents may have something to crow about. But there’ll still be some folks madder than a wet hen.

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