Tennessee is one of only 13 states with misdemeanor penalties for cockfighting, but a bill pending in both the state Senate and House of Representatives would elevate the crime to felony status.
Popular in rural parts of the state, including small towns in West Tennessee, cockfights pit roosters against one another, often fighting to the death. The animals wear spurs or knives strapped to their feet and spectators gamble on roosters' fates. Some large operations even run concession stands and sell souvenir T-shirts.
Last week, the bill successfully passed through both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. Shelby County Senate committee members Beverly Marrero, Paul Stanley, Mark Norris, and Jim Kyle voted in favor of felony penalties.
"It's a very cruel thing to do. I see no value in making this permissible," said Stanley.
John Goodwin of the Humane Society of the United States said the low penalties in Tennessee often attract cockfighters from surrounding states.
"Most states bordering East Tennessee, including Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, punish cockfighting as a felony," said Goodwin. "Tennessee is fast becoming a refuge for people who want to commit this crime without fear of meaningful prosecution."
The bill would also strengthen penalties for spectating at any animal fight, including dogfights. If passed, simply watching a fight would be punishable with a Class A misdemeanor.
The bill is currently in the Finance Ways and Means Committees in both the House and the Senate. Those committee votes are expected some time next week.
-- Bianca Phillips