Senate assures public that cockfighting is still legal in V.I.

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Despite a new federal law prohibiting cock fighting in the United States, members of the V.I. Legislature insisted Wednesday that people of the territory still are allowed to legally participate in and attend cockfighting events.

While acknowledging some of the inconsistencies in the V.I. Code concerning the matter of cockfighting, the majority of the Senate Committee on Culture, Historic Preservation, Youth and Recreation agreed that cockfighting still is permitted in the territory.

"I am going. I just want someone brave to go with me," said Sen. Diane Capehart, explaining that she wanted to attend a cockfight so she could better understand the culture.

For years, the territory has held on to cockfighting, though, nationally the country has moved closer to eradication of the so-called "sport." On Feb. 4, Congress passed the 2014 Farm Bill, which made participating in or attending a cockfighting event a felony. President Barack Obama signed it into law three days later.

Since then, the debate in the territory about the legality of cockfighting has been ongoing.

"Neither the U.S. Department of Justice nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture, under whose jurisdiction cockfighting falls, is willing to give a concrete interpretation of the statute," Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen said in a written statement read into the Senate Committee hearing record.

Christensen said that it is unlikely people in the territory would be federally penalized for their involvement with cockfighting, and compared the difference in law territorially to state marijuana laws that go against the federal marijuana laws.

Some of the senators said that there is not even a question as to whether cockfighting is legal in the territory.

"One thing that's clear here today - to me - is that cockfighting in the V.I. is not illegal," said Sen. Kenneth Gittens.

Sen. Terrence Nelson agreed, stating that making it illegal would mean imprisoning more citizens in the territory, which the justice system does not need.

"To make them criminals," Nelson said of people who participate in cockfighting. "No way. My answer is hell no."

Sen. Myron Jackson, chairman of the committee, asked questions of those testifying, including Dr. Bethany Bradford, director of Veterinary Services for the V.I. Agriculture Department.

Bradford did not state whether the department had any opinion as to the legality of cockfighting.

Only Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly seemed to oppose the legality of cockfighting in the territory, stating that it was cruel, unnecessary and likely not lucrative enough to be justified as an "industry" within the territory.

"If you wouldn't mind being that rooster inside that pen, OK, but don't call it an industry," said Rivera-O'Reilly, who requested from the V.I. Bureau of Revenue the amount of annual Gross Receipts Tax that is collected from cockfighting, which falls under the category of entertainment in the V.I. Code.

The reference to cockfighting in terms of the tax revenue is the only one that can be found in the V.I. Code, according to V.I. Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Wayne Biggs Jr.

Biggs said that the DLCA currently has four licenses out to venues, two on St. Thomas and two on St. Croix, to operate cockfighting events.

"The sport is still legal in many of the territories of the United States," Biggs said, noting that Puerto Rico brings in tens of millions of dollars annually from cockfighting.

The Legislature's legal counsel, attorney Susan Moorehead, advised the committee that none of the territories had made cockfighting illegal, though only one - Guam - had a law explicitly making it legal.

In the V.I. Code, the law is unclear, as some of the laws appear to contradict each other, based on her interpretation, she said.

While the code states that cockfighting can be taxed, it also states that it is a crime to unnecessarily harm or abuse an animal, Moorehead said.

"An argument could be made both ways," she said.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email

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