Guam shipping records reveal steep increase in illegal trafficking of fighting birds

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(Photo courtesy Animal Wellness Action)

The illegal movement of fighting animals from U.S. states to Guam has dramatically increased during the first six months of this year, according to shipping records from the Guam Department of Agriculture (GDOA) recently obtained and reviewed by Animal Wellness Action (AWA) and the Animal Wellness Foundation (AWF).

There was an increase in illegal shipments of fighting birds of 600 percent – from 396 animals for all of 2020 to 1340 for the first six months of the year. Cockfighters are on pace to approach the shipment of nearly 3,000 fighting roosters if this year’s pace of shipments continues.

“Cockfighters have resumed their illegal trafficking of fighting animals destined for Guam,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action. “We don’t expect cockfighting enthusiasts and their political backers to like the unanimous set of federal court rulings upholding the federal law against animal fighting, but we do expect them to respect the law and the authority of the courts. The people sending and receiving these fighting animals are lawbreakers, participating in conduct that allows prosecutors to impose felony-level penalties upon perpetrators.”

In January 2020, AWA and AWF revealed that there were 137 individuals on Guam who imported nearly 9,000 fighting birds between November 2016 and October 2019 in more than 500 illegal shipments by U.S. mail. AWA and AWF allege that these individuals are cockfighters or “cockfighting brokers” who sold birds to others involved in the sport. The top 10 importers of fighting animals on Guam received about 60 percent of the nearly 9,000 fighting birds, with the top importer receiving 1,608 birds for fighting or closely related purposes.

The latest set of shipping records from January – June of this year to Guam put the total number of fighting birds shipped to Guam over 10,000 between November 2016 and June 2021.

It has been illegal since 2002, and a felony since 2007, to transport or sell roosters for fighting across state or territorial lines.  On December 20, 2019, a United States law took effect banning animal fighting everywhere in the United States, including on Guam.

Here are the Department of Agriculture data on exports of fighting birds from U.S. states to Guam, including for the first six months of 2021.

Per calendar year:

Nov – Dec 2016 total number of roosters exported: 370 (2 months in 2016)

Jan – Dec 2017 total number of roosters exported: 3819

Jan – Dec 2018 total number of roosters exported: 2979 

Jan – Dec 2019 total number of roosters exported: 1621 

Jan – Dec 2020 total number of roosters exported: 396

Jan – June 2021 total number of roosters exported: 1340 (6 months in 2021)

Exports of fighting birds to Guam dropped substantially from 2017 to 2018 and then again in 2019. There was an even steeper drop in illegal transports in 2020, with the publicizing of the new federal anti-cockfighting law and the COVID-19 crisis.

But numbers have surged in 2021 again, with the territory on a path to far exceed 2019 import numbers and to approach 3,000 illegal shipments of fighting animals.

Most shippers hail from Oklahoma and Hawaii, with two well-known Oklahoma cockfighting traffickers – Bill McNatt (750 birds) and John Bottoms (181) – accounting for more than two-thirds of all birds shipped to Guam. There is one major California-based cockfighting trafficker, Domi Corpus (170), who ships fighting birds across the Pacific Rim, and also a major cockfighting trafficker, James Edwards (74), from North Carolina. Animal Wellness Action has extensive information on most traffickers on this year’s list of transports, except for a new name on the list — Hang Nhan (104) of Georgia.

On October 1, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the District of Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands rejected a legal challenge from a Guamanian who alleged the most recently enacted provisions of the federal anti-animal fighting law cannot be legally applied to Guam. An amendment to the 2018 Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 took effect one year after enactment, on December 20, 2019, and applied all pre-existing prohibitions against animal fighting to the U.S. territories, including Guam and Puerto Rico where cockfighting has been openly conducted for decades.

In rejecting the argument of the plaintiff, Judge Frances M. Tydingco-Gatewood — after considering the pleadings in the case, including an amicus brief filed by AWA and AWF — relied heavily on a ruling made in a similar case brought by cockfighting enthusiasts in Puerto Rico against the United States. In late October 2019, Judge Gustavo A. Gelpí of the U.S. District Court of Puerto Rico rejected claims by Club Gallístico and other cockfighting clubs, declaring that “[n]either the Commonwealth’s political statutes, nor the Territorial Clause, impede the United States Government from enacting laws that apply to all citizens of this Nation alike, whether as a state or territory.”

“Bill McNatt, John Bottoms, and Domi Corpus are well known to us as cockfighting traffickers and they are defiantly and openly breaking the law,” added Pacelle. “The Guam Department of Agriculture should not allow their illegal transports into Guam, since we have published information to demonstrate that these individuals are steeped in the cockfighting business. There is no legitimate reason for their birds to come to Guam since there is no commercial poultry industry or any other legitimate pretense for these shipments. This is a criminal conspiracy and federal law enforcement should act against these individuals.”

The shippers typically mischaracterized the shipped birds as “brood fowl” or “show fowl” rather than fighting birds in a subterfuge to try to skirt the federal animal fighting law. Our investigation — which included examination of industry sources, video interviews of traffickers, other online research, and satellite imagery of farms revealing cockfighting complexes — makes it clear that dozens of shippers knowingly violated federal law, as did the importers on Guam.

Under Section 26 of the Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. 2156, there are strict prohibitions on transporting animals across state or territorial lines, regardless of whether cockfighting is legal at the export destination. “It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly sell, buy, possess, train, transport, deliver, or receive any animal for purposes of having the animal participate in an animal fighting venture,” reads the law. And the law is specific about not using the mail service for this purpose: “It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly use the mail service of the United States Postal Service or any instrumentality of interstate commerce for commercial speech for purposes of advertising an animal, or an instrument described in subsection (d), for use in an animal fighting venture, promoting or in any other manner furthering an animal fighting venture except as performed outside the limits of the States of the United States.”

AWA and AWF have announced a $2,500 reward for any individual who provides critical information that results in a successful federal prosecution of an individual or set of individuals who violate the federal law against animal fighting. The rewards program is on www.EndCockfighting.org, which serves as a comprehensive resource about the subject and an action center for citizens who want to help combat these animal cruelty crimes.

(Animal Wellness Action Release)

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