Latest cockfighting bust in Memphis, finding of diseased birds underscore case for stronger laws

Published 1:06 pm Wednesday, January 17, 2024

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More than 100 roosters and hens seized last week from a cockfighting operation in Memphis will be killed because of disease – a reminder that cockfighting poses a major threat to Tennessee’s significant poultry sector. Tennessee Senator Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, is seeking to strengthen the law to crack down on cruelty, to address the other crimes associated with animal fighting, and to protect the state’s poultry flocks from diseases spread by sickened, stressed cockfighting birds.
“Animal fighting is an ongoing, widespread problem in Tennessee, and our investigations have documented illegal cockfighting from Cocke County to Shelby County,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action. “Nearly two decades ago, we saw Tennessee fighting pits that were hubs for high-stakes illegal gambling, prostitution rings, chop shops, and more. Now, today’s added threat is the spread of deadly avian diseases spread by cockfighting, threatening the state’s major poultry industry. That’s not a circumstance that farmers or consumers can afford, and state lawmakers need to act and stop kowtowing to organized criminal associations in the state.”
In this most recent case, Memphis Animal Services says the seized birds, discovered to be kept in cramped cages and standing in their own feces, had Mycoplasma and had to be euthanized. A dog with injuries consistent with animal fighting was also seized at the duplex in Nutbush earlier this month. One man, Luis Vallellanes, 47, has been charged with Aggravated Cruelty to Animals.
Tennessee is only one of eight states without felony-level penalties for cockfighting, despite a long history of illegal animal fighting. In 2020, Animal Wellness Action released an investigation exposing major cockfighting traffickers in Middle Tennessee and East Tennessee.
Animal Wellness Action has documented illegal trafficking of birds from Tennessee to jurisdictions as far-flung as Guam, Mexico, and the Philippines. The investigation found that nearly 12,000 fighting birds were shipped from U.S. states to Guam, and that Tennessee cockfighters shipped the sixth largest number of birds to the small U.S. territory in the western Pacific.
One Tennessean, Larry Whitehead, appeared on the cover of “Cockfights” magazine, one of the premier cockfighting industry publications that reports on outcomes of fights from the biggest cockfighting derbies in the world.
The FBI shut down two major cockfighting complexes in Cocke County in 2005, asserting that local law enforcement there had been corrupted and cockfighting was tied together with prostitution, narcotics, chop shops, and gambling by children. Some years later, there was a series of other cockfighting pits raided but the fighting and the possession of animals for fighting thrives, and prior law enforcement actions have not been sufficient to deter the crimes.
Senator Lundberg is seeking to align the penalties for cockfighting with those established in Tennessee’s anti-dogfighting law. U.S. law also makes cockfighting and associated activity a crime. Lundberg has argued that crime and animal disease are bound up with the cruelty at cockfighting farms and fights.
Congress is also considering a further upgrade of the federal animal fighting law, in the form of the bipartisan FIGHT Act, H.R. 2742/S. 1529. That bill has more than 400 agencies and organizations behind it.

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