The Utah Legislature inched closer Wednesday to toughening penalties for cock fighting.
In a 8-2 vote, members of the House Judiciary Committee opted to move SB112 forward for debate in the Utah House. The bill makes it a class A misdemeanor to engage in cock fighting in any way. Repeat offenders would face a third-degree felony, punishable with prison time.
Cock fighting is already illegal in Utah, but is only a class B misdemeanor. The proposed law’s sponsor, Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, believes that makes the state too lenient on cock fighters.
Wednesday night at the Utah State Capitol, Davis argued that Utah is currently the only western U.S. state in which cock fighting is not a felony. That makes Utah a magnet, he added, drawing people from other states who want to avoid the potential for tougher prosecution.
During his comments, Davis also held up two metal spikes, each about three inches long. The spikes, technically called “gaffs,” are affixed to the legs of the birds, which are then placed in a ring together. From that point, “they fight to the death ripping each other apart,” Davis explained.
Davis has the support of the Humane Society of Utah. Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy also sent a letter with Davis on Wednesday night, expressing support for the bill.
However, numerous members the little-known cock fighting community also showed up to argue against the bill. David Devereaux said the two main justifications, cruelty and crime, were “overstated and not justifying of a felony.” Among other things, Devereaux said the law could negatively impact those who raise chickens but don’t fight them. He also argued that contrary to popular conceptions, cock fights are populated by otherwise law-abiding people.
Devereaux cited tradition among the reasons people are still interested in cock fighting. He added that the gaffs are attached to the birds to make the fights more humane; roosters naturally fight, but if left to their own devices would peck at each other far longer. The weapons reduce the likelihood of a slow and painful death.
Before the committee moved the bill forward, it added several amendments to the language of the bill. The amendments are designed to clarify that the cock fighting must be done intentionally, as opposed to a naturally occurring skirmish in a farm yard.
Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, was among those who expressed skepticism about the bill. He said he had “serious concerns” about the breadth of the bill.
Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, also wondered during the debate if the bill was a “law looking for a crime to be committed.” The comment came after Perry noted that the bill’s authors only expect an average of half an offender a year to be prosecuted. With so few expected offenses, Lee asked if cock fighting was really a problem in Utah.
Davis responded that currently most offenders aren’t prosecuted because the laws are simply too lax to make it worth it.
The House will now consider the bill.
The Senate approved the bill in February.