SALT LAKE CITY — National and state animal advocates are decrying Utah's status as the only state west of the Mississippi River to lack a first-offense felony provision for cockfighting.
Utah bumped into that singular category this week when Nevada's governor signed into law new provisions elevating the offense in that state.
The Humane Society of the United States and its counterpart in Utah is blasting the state for failing to join 37 others across the country that impose a felony penalty for cockfighting on the first offense.
"Utah has one of the nation’s weakest cockfighting laws — it is just a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum penalty of up to $1,000," said John Goodwin, director of animal cruelty policy for the national organization.
"That’s a minor cost of doing business for cockfighters, who gamble large sums at these cruel events. Utah needs to send a message that it is no refuge for this blood sport,” he said.
During this last session, a bill by Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, would have increased the penalty to a felony. Although it passed in the Senate, it died in the House.
In February in advance of the committee hearing on the bill, a poll showed that a strong majority of Utah voters across the state — 70 percent — felt stronger penalties should be in place. Support crossed political affiliation and gender. Conducted by Mason Dixon Polling & Research Inc., the poll showed that only 15 percent were opposed.
A previous attempt to retool the law failed in 2005. The measure was brought up again in 2006, the same year a cockfighting ring was busted in Ogden, with nine people arrested and 100 animals seized. Another ring was broken up in Pleasant Grove that year, resulting in 19 arrests.
John Paul Fox, an investigator with the Humane Society of Utah, said cockfighting is a frequent weekend activity in the state, especially in the rural areas.
"They can be small or big events," he said. "We've busted some with bleachers and a snack bar. There's quite a bit of money involved with these things."
Fox said engagement in cockfighting is also a family affair, crossing generational lines.
"It's multi-generational. Grandpa did it, his son did it and now the grandchildren are doing it. It is a family thing to help raise and train the birds. At a lot of the cockfights, there are young children there."
Goodwin said Utah's misdemeanor penalty for cockfighting puts it in the same realm of the six interconnected states that are the cockfighting corridor: Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. Three other states lack the stiffer penalties as well.
While California does not make it a felony on the first offense because of its three-strikes law, Goodwin said the fines are astronomical and were just increased again last year.
Goodwin said because Utah remains the last refuge for ardent fans of cockfighting who won't be dissuaded because it is a felony, the organization is already hearing of more activity in the state. There's been noise about a cockfighting pit going on near Goshute tribal land in northwestern Utah, and rumors of new operations up near the Idaho border.
"The winnings are so great, a misdemeanor does not deter them," he said.
Last year, a lawmaker opposed to the measure said it didn't make sense to make felons out of people watching birds engage in natural behavior when abortion is still legal in the state.