Kentucky State Police say they have opened an investigation into a huge cockfighting arena at “Sally Gap” near Williamsburg in response to a recent report by the Humane Society of the United States about the operation.
KSP Post 11 Public Affairs Trooper James Trosper said officials didn’t know about alleged cockfighting activities at the arena two weekends ago.
The HSUS sent an undercover investigator into the “pit,” owned by local resident Johnny Baird, and filmed cockfights in progress. The group claims about 400 participants from several states, including Tennessee, Michigan, and South Carolina, came to fight birds and gamble on the cockfighting matches. They also say hundreds of dollars were gambled and that young children even attended the event.
“That was the first time we were made aware of it,” Trosper said. “We do take it serious. We do investigate complaints when they come in. Arrests will be made and citations given to anyone that we catch involved in cockfighting.”
Trosper said there hasn’t been a single cockfighting complaint logged in the Post’s computerized system in over two years, and only one animal cruelty complaint overall – a report of a young boy kicking a dog in Clay County.
But Whitley County Sheriff Lawrence Hodge said KSP officials are being disingenuous about their lack of knowledge regarding cockfighting in Whitley County.
“For them to say they didn’t know it was there is untrue,” he said. “I’ve been in the parking lot of the place holding road checks with troopers … my whole staff has. If the brass sitting up in London has so little grasp of what’s going on in Whitley County, it might be time to change a little of the brass.”
Hodge said he’s never formally complained to KSP about the cockfighting pit, only referred complaints from citizens to KSP. He said his department hasn’t the manpower to investigate such a large operation.
“Everybody that calls me is concerned about the crowds. They weren’t concerned about the chicken fights,” he said. “I gave them the [phone] number and told them to call post. They’ve got the special investigation units and stuff.”
Trosper said Hodge may have told others to call post, or tried to pass word through a trooper, but never made a formal complaint on his own.
“The proper procedure is to call our dispatch center and that call can be recorded and logged into our system,” he said. “We take these kind of complaints very seriously. We don’t ignore them. The local Sheriff may have told a trooper and it went in one ear and out the other, but this is the first time I’ve heard about this.”
Trosper said statewide, KSP posts have successfully shut down cockfighting operations. He pointed to a recent instance where Post 8 in Morehead raided a cockfighting facility.
Hodge said he has doubts if cockfighting is even technically illegal. Kentucky laws regarding animal cruelty make it a misdemeanor offense to be a spectator or vendor at an event where animals fight “for pleasure of profit (including, but not limited to being a spectator or vendor at an event where a four legged animal is caused to fight…” A local court in Montgomery County threw out some cockfighting related convictions in 2005 when interpreting the law.
“There’s nothing in the KRS books that I’ve found against it,” Hodge said. “I’m really not sure on the laws on it.”
John Goodwin, Deputy Manager of Animal Fighting Issues with the HSUS, said legislative history and court rulings uphold his organization’s contention that the sport is illegal.
“The real life effect is that the grey area in the law is giving cover to some people that want to engage in cockfighting,” he said. “The legislature needs to step in here, strengthen the law, and clear up the confusion.”
Goodwin says the phrase in the animal cruelty law “including, but not limited to” means cockfighting is still illegal. He also points to a 1995 decision by Franklin Circuit Judge Roger Crittenden on the issue. Crittenden upheld a veto by former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown, Jr. in 1980 of a bill that would have excluded birds from the animal cruelty laws. Litigants were challenging the fact that Brown vetoed the bill within 10 days.
“I don’t think there was ever any legislative intent to legalize cockfighting,” Goodwin said. “We’ve checked the legislative record on it and there was never any debate over it … that would have been a big deal.”
Forty-eight states ban cockfighting.
Goodwin said cockfighting has been a problem in Whitley County for some time. An Associated Press story from Aug. 2001 recounts a similar visit by HSUS investigators, and television reporters, to a similar operation called Rooster Arena. It eventually closed, but not because of law enforcement action.
“This isn’t the first time in that county there’s been an issue with cockfighting and the Sheriff has twiddled his thumbs and done nothing,” Goodwin said.
Hodge said he remembers another cockfighting facility located on KY 904 near the Patterson Creek Fire Department. He said it closed and is now located in Knox County.
“To me, it’s gross, but that’s just my personal opinion,” he said. “I’m not going to tell other people what to do.”
Trosper said that investigation into the cockfighting pit at “Sally Gap” might be more difficult now because of media attention – owners and participants now more cautious because of increased scrutiny. HSUS investigators originally were drawn to the facility by an advertisement placed in a national publication about cockfighting.
“They may close for a while or something like that,” Trosper said. “They certainly are going to be more careful about who they let in there which will make it harder for undercover people to gain access.”
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