Federal Judge Unruffled by Bid for Cockfighting Carveout in US Territories

By | November 22, 2022

A lawsuit that sought a carveout from a federal ban on cockfighting for Guam and other US territories has been dismissed by the US District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands.

cockfighting
A cockfighting bout at the Dededo Arena in Guam. But this traditional CNMI activity has been illegal on the island since December 2021, thanks to a federal amendment to the Trump administration’s Animal Welfare Act. (Image: Pacific Island Times)

Judge Ramona Manglona declined to overrule the previous decision. She wrote that the need to regulate interstate commerce, ensure the humane treatment of animals, and prevent the spread of avian diseases trumped concerns about intrusion into the islands’ affairs and traditional cultural practices.

The Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), which includes Guam, is an unincorporated territory and commonwealth of the US in the northwestern Pacific Ocean. Its residents are US citizens. But cockfighting, and gambling on the blood sport, has an important cultural significance for the people of the CNMI and many other Pacific Islanders.

Cultural Standards

Cockfighting bouts typically involve spectators placing bets while the birds fight to the death with hooked razors, known as “gaffs” or “slashers” and attached to their talons. The birds are sometimes injected with steroids to increase fighting potential.

The practice is prohibited in 50 states. But it was legal in US overseas territories until December 2021. Congress amended the Animal Welfare Act to include all US Territories in late 2020, giving them 12 months to comply.

Plaintiff Andrew Salas argued that the amendment amounted to overreach into the island’s affairs. That’s because it prohibited and criminalized “a popular and traditional recreational activity.” And it imposed “a moral and cultural standard that has not prevailed there through local democratic process,” he argued.

Salas has served in the CNMI House of Representatives and was the secretary of Commerce from 2004 to 2006. But he has also been “regularly and actively involved in the sport of cockfighting since childhood,” and has raised hundreds of roosters for involvement in bouts.

He says in his lawsuit he “desires and intends” to resume raising roosters for cockfighting purposes. But he complained a credible threat exists that he will be prosecuted for violation of law.

Manglona accepted Salas’ argument that cockfighting is an important cultural tradition on the islands. But she said the case came down to whether those interests outweighed the interests of the federal government. And she determined they didn’t.

Bloodletting ‘Thrill’

Salas said he plans to appeal. If he does, the case would go to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which has already upheld several rulings against legal challenges to the amendment.

Wayne Pacelle is a member of Animal Wellness Action, whose organization was prepared to file an amicus brief in the case if it went to trial. He told the Associated Press it’s time for Salas to throw in the towel and hang up his gaffs for good.

“Mr. Salas is free to appeal, but he and other CNMI cockfighters should heed the law and stop hacking up animals for illegal gambling and the thrill of watching the bloodletting,” said Pacelle. “The activity he refers to as a hobby and a tradition is a federal felony.”

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