After introducing a bill (HB2689) strengthening the penalties against animal fighting, Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, asked the Virginia House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources "to strike the sections to prohibit cockfighting, much to the relief of a dozen or so cockfighting advocates who drove to Richmond from rural counties.
The men who appeared to defend cockfighting said they were glad to see the measure go after dogfighting, but not the traditional rural pastime for centuries in parts of the Old Dominion.
'The dog thing was giving chicken people a bad rep,' said Eddie Colmer, who traveled from Rockingham County to oppose the cockfighting ban.
...The Albemarle Republican's measure now would make it a felony to train or sell dogs with the intention of dog fighting and would elevate the misdemeanor penalty for attending a dogfight" (Bob Gibson, The Daily Progress, January 30, 2002).
Gone are the sections banning attendence at cockfights, a seldom prosecuted activity now that it is illegal in Virginia if wagering is conducted. Also gone are parts of the bill to outlaw the possession, training or transport of fighting cocks" (Bob Gibson, The Daily Progress, January 30, 2002).
According to Rob Bell's office, 2,400 farms in the Commonwealth raise cocks for fighting purposes. Many of these ship the cocks to other states.
Virginia's cruelty to animals statute (Virginia Code 3.1 - 796.122) was used in only 2 prosecutions last year - both resulting in suspended sentences (Rob Bell's office, phone call, February 5, 2003).
A look at this statute, and the City and County codes that reflect it, suggests to the legal novice that cockfighting must indeed be illegal. The statute states:
Any person who willfully inflicts inhumane injury or pain [or] instigates, engages in , or in anyway furthers an act of cruelty to any animal or being the owner of an animal permits such acts to be done by another, shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.
However, lawyers say (with a wink and a nod toward the "cruelty to animals" statute) that a nearby section (Virginia Code 3.1-796.125) is more salient [see also, Rob Bell's amendment above]:
Any person engaging in the fighting of cocks or other animals, except dogs, for money, prize or anything of value, or betting or wagering money or anything of value on the result of such fight, shall be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor. Attendance at the fighting of cocks, dogs or other animals where an admission fee is charged, directly or indirectly, shall also constitute a Class 3 misdemeanor. (1984, c. 492, § 29-213.93; 1985, c. 408; 1987, c. 488.)
As long as this statute is not violated, the lawyers deduce that cockfighting, for the pure unadulterated sport of it, is permissible in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Not so with dogfighting, which was already banned and, if Rob Bell is successful, will become a Class 6 felony [Attendance at the fighting of dogs shall constitute a Class 1 misdemeanor].
As amended Rob Bell's bill was reported out of committee (22-Y, 0-N) and passed the Virginia House on a block vote of (98-Y, 0-N).
In the Senate, the bill was referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources, where it was advanced unanimously with only one minor amendment and no debate (15-Y, 0-N).
"The committee chairman, Sen. Charles R. Hawkins, R-Chatham, noted that the bill no longer contained its initial controversial sections to enhance penalties against raising, training and selling fighting cocks and prohibiting attendance at cockfights. ...'In remembrance of [the late former House speaker] A.L. Philpott, the bill is reported unanimously,' Hawkins said [referring to Philpott's well-known fondness for cockfighting and his devoted dedication to his rural constituency]" (Bob Gibson, The Daily Progress, February 11, 2003).
On February 12, 2003, the bill passed in the Senate with amendment (40-Y, 0-N).
It is proposed that chickens were first domesticated many thousands of years ago in south Asia for fighting, and their contribution to human nutrition only came later.
Alexander the Great is said to have promoted cockfights in camp on the eve of battle to rouse blood lust in his men. And it is widely believed that President Lincoln, early in his career, earned the nickname "Honest Abe" while being sought out as an eminently fair judge of cockfights.
Along with bullfighting, cockfighting is legal and quite traditional in Mexico. An independent tourism website offers this defense against the charge of cruelty: "some contend that, given the cramped quarters, debeaking, growth hormones, and production-line slaughter that are part of the commercial poultry industry, game chickens have the better life and that opposition by anyone who eats meat is hypocritical."
In fact a once-common toast, "Let us Live like Fighting Cocks," acknowledged the superior care they receved.
Cockfighting is a tradition in Virginia dating back to the time of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, though there is no clear evidence that they were great fans.
After searching the indexes of the 39-volume The Writings of George Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931 - 1944) and the Diaries of George Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., vol. 1 (Boston: Published for the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association by Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925), Mount Vernon Ladies' Association Research Assistant John P. Riley found only one reference to George Washington witnessing a cockfight.
In a May 5, 1989 letter to Ms. Nita Hemeter of New Orleans, Louisiana of Jefferson SPCA, he says:
As a 19-year old young man in January 1752, [George Washington] was in Yorktown where "A Great Main of [co]cks fought ... [be]tween Glouster and York for 5 pistoles each battle and 100 ye odd I left it with Colo. [John] Lewis before it was decided ..." Whether Washington wagered on any of the fights we don't know.
By numerous references in his diaries and letters to foxhunting, card playing and attending the theater, we know that these were some of Washington's favorite amusements. The lone reference to cock-fighting in his voluminous writings and the absence of documentation of any cockpit at Mount Vernon leads me to believe that it was not an entertainment in which he participated in any great fashion.
Philander D. Chase, Editor in Chief of The Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia has assisted us in our researches. On January 31, 2003, he emailed to tell us:
[Senior Associate Editor] Frank Grizzard just found another mention of cock fighting in our Colonial Series, volume 7, page 42. Washington wrote Van Swearingen on 15 May 1761 from Robert Stogdon's house, which was located between Shepherdtown and present-day Martinsburg, WV:
'At the Cock fight on Saturday last I promis'd to be at a Wedding at Mendenhall's Mill Yesterday, which together with an Affair that I had to settle on Bullskin (that detain'd me a day longer there than I expected) prevented my taking Shepherds Town and your House on my Way.'
One of our notes to the document says that Van Swearingen (1719-1788) who lived at Shepherdstown was Berkeley County sheriff at this time.
In a May 8, 1989 letter to Nita Hemeter, Lucia C. Stanton, Director of Research for the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation states:
Over the years we have had a number of queries about [Thomas] Jefferson's connection with cockfighting and our answer has always been that we have found nothing in the documentary record to indicate that Jefferson either attended cockfights or raised fighting cocks. His interest in raising poultry seems to have been exclusively culinary.
Although it is always much harder to disprove something than to prove it, I am reasonably confident that if Jefferson had had any interest in cockfighting I would have run across it in my twenty years of working with the Jefferson archive. Our former Director spent over thirty years studying Jefferson and found nothing either.
There is a cockfighting pit at Montpelier, we learn in a January 31, 2003 telephone conversation with Lee Langston-Harrison, the Curator of James Madison's estate. But it's from the twentieth century:
Mrs Marion DuPont Scott [legendary owner of the estate and noted horsewoman] had one built. The archaeologists have never found a cock-pit from Madison's time, and they have really been looking for all kinds of things -- I'm pretty confident that if there was one they would have found it. There's no record or evidence that I've come across that Mr. Madison participated in or observed cock-fighting, but it is entirely possible--I know that it was quite popular in the area in his day. In fact, the little hill just behind the mansion is known as Chicken Mountain, and it's a local tradition that the name came from retired fighting roosters living out their days there.
We also spoke by phone on January 31, 2003, with Carolyn Holmes, Executive Director of Ash Lawn-Highland. As far as she knows, James Monroe didn't go in for that kind of amusement.
"I have reasonable confidence that Mr. Monroe didn't have cockfighting here -- there's no indication in anything I've come across, and my personal feeling is that it just would not have been his cup of tea anyway... He did support a lottery, though."
John Hammond Moore, in Albemarle, Jefferson's County, 1727-1976 (Albemarle County Historical Society, 1986), offers several descriptions of cockfighting and other sport.
En route to Monticello in 1782, he notes, "the Marquis de Chastellux stopped at an isolated ordinary which, to his surprise, was overflowing with people (Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782, ed. Howard C. Rice, Jr., 2 vols; Chapel Hill, No.C., 1963, 2: 386-87):
As soon as I alighted I inquired what might be the reason of this numerous assembly in such a deserted spot, and learned that it was a cock fight. This diversion is much in fashion in Virginia, where English customs are more in evidence than in the rest of America. While my horses were feeding, I had an opportunity of seeing a fight. The stakes were very considerable; the money of the parties was deposited in the hands of one of the principal persons, and I took pleasure in pointing out to them that it was chiefly French money. While the bettors urged the cocks on to battle, a child of fifteen, who was near me, leaped for joy and cried, 'Oh, it is a charming .'
The lower elements, in addition to engaging in sports enjoyed by the middle class, had a pastime peculiarly their own, one in which their 'betters' (for very obvious reasons) declined to participate. It was called 'boxing,' but seems to have been a sort of wrestling bout matching contestants who agreed beforehand whether all the pleasures of such a contest (biting and gouging of eyes, for example) would be allowed. Once rules were established and perhaps adhered to, the adversaries went at it, urged on by the cries and shrieks of their backers" (John Hammond Moore, Jefferson's County, 1727-1976, Albemarle County Historical Society, 1986).
"Through some oversight the faculty (in the 1830s and 40s) failed to outlaw cockfighting, marbles, and fisticuffs (or 'knuckles,' as such prearranged encounters were then called), and students enjoyed these as well as other diversions of their own invention" (John Hammond Moore, Jefferson's County, 1727-1976, Albemarle County Historical Society, 1986).
In praise of Captain R. J. Hancock and his future plans for his Ellerslie estate, an account in the Albemarle County Handbook in the late 1800s states,
No more race horses will be trained, and the stock business at Ellerslie will be confined heareafter to breeding and to annual sales of yearllings. The stud consists of three stallions and twenty-five brood mares.
There is also on the farm a splendid heard of Shorthorns, of the best blood and milking families, which were collected by Mr. Lewis F. Allen, editor of the American Herd Book (an uncle, by the by, of President Cleveland); pure Cotswolds and Berkshires; in fact, everything is thoroughbred except work horses, even to setter dogs, Maltese cats and game chickens.
John Hammond Moore adds, "If nothing else, here is sound evidence that love of cockfighting among some Albemarle residents has a long and glorious history" (John Hammond Moore, Jefferson's County, 1727-1976, Albemarle County Historical Society, 1986).
More recently, "Del. Watkins M. Abbitt Jr., I, Appomattox, said, 'I haven't heard anybody being caught [cockfighting] since we had a senatorial candidate caught some years ago. He got caught at a cockfight in Albemarle.' A police bust of a cockfight in Albemarle County in the mid 70s resulted in the arrests of several prominent people, including lawyers who won acquittal when a judge ruled that a trophy seized by police was not an item of value because it rotated to a new winner each year" (Bob Gibson, The Daily Progress, January 22, 2003).
On February 14, 2003 we spoke on the phone with George Bailey, who was Albemarle County Sheriff at the time. He remembers the raid very well. "The farm on Garth Road [Inglecress] was owned by Dr. and Mrs. J. P. Jones." It was Mrs. Jones who sponsored the cockfights - "just a big cocktail party, really - as many as a hundred people, and the fighting pit was inside a round building on the property. Only the people who wanted to would go in, and even some of the people inside couldn't see the fight, there were that many people. And it was all perfectly legal. I checked on it a number of times.
"And this raid - there were 25 troopers, they brought them in and put them up here. [And when they went to the Jones farm] they didn't identify themselves; they didn't have a warrant; they brought along one of my deputies, out of uniform.
"They didn't tell me about it, because I would have told them that
the fights were legal.
But I never did learn why they raided the farm in the first place."
Several prosecutions for cockfighting in our region in the past have failed. In one case some years ago, a breeder was charged with cruelty to animals, but was released when it was successfully argued, pointing to Genesis and its specific language about the creation of each order of living things, that a chicken is not an animal. The law now specificies fowl -- and the word is, fish may be up for specific mention as well.
Gaining money from a cockfight is a misdemeanor in Virginia, but gambling by itself can be a felony -- why then would a prosecutor opt for a lesser and more contentious charge?
The answer is in the nature of how money often changes hands after a cockfight: a number of breeders arrive at the venue, each with five or more fighting birds in individual cages. An agreed amount of money is contributed by each breeder to a pot. The roosters fight by weight, in a round-robin series of matches. At the end, the breeder with the largest number of winners takes the pot.
And this form of profiting from your bird's prowess is not considered gambling.
According to Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos, "The Virginia General Assembly long ago established the legality of cockfighting in Virginia, with the constraints set forth in 796.125 (Jim Camblos, electronic mail, February 6, 2003)
Upon examination of this issue Albemarle County Attorney Larry W. Davis says that he concurs "with the opinion of Jim Camblos on the legality of cockfighting. Any prosecution of illegal cockfighting or cruelty to animals would be prosecuted by the Commonwealth's Attorneys Office and would not directly involve my Office" (Larry W. Davis, electronic mail, February 7, 2003).
And what if one wanted to hold a cockfight today in the yard of the County Courthouse -- the traditional spot for sport?
Routine requests for use of the courthouse steps and grounds are fielded and generally approved by Clerk of Circuit Court Shelby Marshall, acting on behelf of Circuit Court Judge Paul Peatross. As to a request to hold a cockfight? "That's definitely one for the judge," she said. (Shelby Marshall, phone call, February 6, 2003)
The response was essentially the same for the use of the County Officer Building lawn, the site of numerous local events. Yvonne Vess, Office Associate in the Department of Engineering and Public Works, handles most requests for use of the building and its lawn. While most requests for use of the lawn are handled administratively -- with no application and no fee -- "for unusual requests, the Chief of Public Works would make the final decision." She thinks a cockfight would fall into that category. (Yvonne Vess, phone call, February 6, 2003)
"Regarding the use of public property," Albemarle County Attorney says, "any request for use of the County Office Building grounds would be reviewed to determine whether the requested activity is legal, whether or not it would disrupt the regular business activities of the County, whether it can reasonably be accommodated by our public facility, and whether the applicant can provide the financial and supervisory assurances that public property would not be damaged or destroyed and that the activity would not endanger the public. All these factors would be considered prior to deciding whether a proposed use would be permitted. Typical requests are handled routinely. Unusual requests would be carefully evaluated by the Chief of Public Works" ( Larry W. Davis, Albemarle County Attorney, electronic mail, February 7, 2003).
If cockfighting exists in the City of Charlottesville, it's been kept very quiet. Jeanne Cox, Clerk of City Council, has not heard of a cockfight in her 20 years at City Hall. "That doesn't mean that there hasn't been any," she adds (phone call, February 6, 2003).
And while specific records of incidents of cockfighting or gambling on cockfights are not kept in the city, Detective with the Charlottesville Police Department Tom McKean says, in his 9 years, he has never heard of either occurence in the city (phone call, February 10, 2003).
So is cockfighting legal in the city?
When asked, the City Attorney's office would provide no formal opinion on the legality of recreational cockfighting within the City. According to the office, the issue has not come up before; if it comes up, the City Attorney will research it to determine which, if any, state laws and local ordinances may have been broken.
The City ordinance about cruelty to animals is essentially the same as the state statute (Virginia Code 3.1 - 796.122). The City ordinance making it illegal to bet on or charge admission to a cockfight is also essentially the same as the state statute (Virginia Code 3.1 - 796.125) (Assistant City Attorney Renee N. Knake, electronic mail, February 12, 2002).
One way to test the legality of cockfighting in the city (within the guidelines of Virginia Code 3.1 - 796.125) might be to hold a cockfight on private property. Another might be to apply for a use permit to hold a cockfight in a public location, such as Lee Park.
But don't get your hopes up too fast.
According to Charlottesville Recreation and Leisure Services Business Services Supervisor Gwen B. Jackson (electronic mail, February 10, 2003):
"A Special Event Permit must be obtained before an event may be held in a City park. The City Manager is authorized pursuant to City Code Section 28-29 to require permits for the use of City rights-of-way for special events and for other activities that may affect the safety or convenience of the general public. This Section also authorizes the City Manager to promulgate regulations (i.e. the Special Events Procedures) to govern the time, place and manner of such activities.
In order to obtain a permit, a special events application must be submitted in writing along with a $15 fee. The application is reviewed by the Special Events Committee, which includes representatives from City departments such as Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Transit, Neighborhood Development (Zoning), Fire and Police.
The review of the application is guided by the Special Events Procedures as well as input from the various departments. Some of the factors considered include whether the requested location is available, whether the requested event presents a danger to public safety or health or would be unlawful, whether the applicant has adequate insurance and other safeguards, and whether the event can be reasonably accommodated within the City's resources. If a permit is denied, the applicant may request that the City Manager review the denial and provide his interpretation."
On the other hand, if you are seriously interested in holding a cockfight on private property within the city, you might ask the mayor or a city councilor for assistance. The City attorney's office has said they would provide a formal opinion if asked to do so by the Mayor or by Council (Assistant City Attorney Renee N. Knake, electronic mail, February 12, 2002).
UVa Animal Control Officer Scott Hawkins tells us (by telephone on
February 3) that in his nine years on the job -- and in the recollection
of his predecessor taking us back an additional 16 years -- there has been
no instance of cockfighting or the keeping of fighting cocks on the grounds
of the University. It would of course be against the rules in any event
to possess a rooster while living in University housing. What if, we inquired,
someone wanted to hold a cock fight somewhere on grounds, as a demonstration
or historic interpretation (not that we're planning on doing it, but what
The Lawn is a registered national historic landmark and as such, using it for cock-fighting would not be consistent with University goals" [for use of this area].
Additionally, "disruption or obstruction of teaching, research,
administration, disciplinary procedure, or other University activities,
or of other authorized activities on University property is forbidden"
(Undergraduate Record, Chapter 5)."
Word on the street has it that cockfighting still goes on today in Albemarle County [Woodridge, Virginia], Fluvanna County [Kent's Store], and in Page County. However, we do not recommend attending a cockfight uninvited.
Article compiled / written by Dave Sagarin