Cock-and-Bull Story

Legislators rush to "clarify" -- read "weaken" -- Proposition A, recently passed by Missouri citizens to protect animals from being used in cruel contests

Proposition A -- banning cockfighting, bear-baiting and other cruel animal contests -- was the first animal-welfare bill ever put to the people of this state. It filled last August's ballot boxes with a resounding 63 percent of the votes, and activists breathed a sigh of relief. They'd been urging legislators to restore this law for more than a decade. Finally, in exasperation, they'd gone straight to Missouri's citizens. Now the will of the people was clear.

The language of the law, retorted the legislators, was not clear. Within a few months, they'd launched five bills to "clean it up," narrowing the proposition's scope and expanding the exemptions.

Furthest along is House Bill 79, already passed out of the House and plumped down for the Senate's consideration. Cosponsored by House Speaker Steve Gaw (D-Moberly) and Rep. Bill L. Ransdall (D-Waynesville), HB 79 is the least harmful of the proposed bills. Still, activists question its necessity and implications.

HB 79 at least leaves the body of the law intact; it simply adds language about fishing and rodeo to the exemptions. "Proposition A doesn't affect fishing or rodeo," blurts Barb Gray, one of the founders of Missourians Against Cockfighting. Indeed, the proposition ends with this reassurance: "Nothing in the provisions of sections A, B and C shall be construed to ... prohibit rodeo practices currently sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association."

HB 79 wants that to read "rodeo practices approved by the state Department of Agriculture." Ransdall says it's a harmless expansion that will allow such nonsanctioned practices as team roping and "mutton-busting," in which children ride sheep before a bullfest. "The Department of Agriculture will simply provide a list of approved rodeo practices," he says. Ransdall sees HB 79 as a simple, necessary fix for a bill that "wasn't drawn by people up here that draw law."

So why was it professionally necessary to insert fishing into a law about animal fights? "I think they're looking at the word 'baiting' and ignoring the definition," drawls Gray -- and it turns out she's right. "People hear 'baiting,'" Ransdall says solemnly, "and think of fish."

The big concern for activists, though, is SB 200. It merges three individual bills into one that, according to Gray, "will basically rewrite Proposition A, limiting it to cockfighting and bear-wrestling." SB 200's sponsor, Sen. Larry Rohrbach (R-California), says "there was quite a bit of concern about applying it to all other animals. Does it involve field trials of bird dogs, or coon-treeing contests where you provoke a coondog to bark at a coon in a cage?

"Prop A, while it passed with a pretty good margin, was defeated in 80 counties," continues Rohrbach. "It's not very neighborly to impose this.... Folks in the country are a little nervous. This left us with gamecocks you couldn't even transport to the state fair to show them. It would be a great comfort to folks involved with animals in traditional ways if this thing were clarified."

For more than a century, Missouri law banned all animal fighting. Then a man who'd been arrested from a cockfight audience challenged the spectator section of the 1873 law, calling it unconstitutionally vague. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed -- and struck down the entire law in 1985. Activists have been fighting, albeit bloodlessly, ever since. This August, they finally restored broad protection. But if SB 200 passes, "baiting and fighting animals" will be replaced with "baiting and fighting gamecocks." Provisions regarding the sale or transportation of fighting animals will be dissolved, and instead of having to comply with the rules of the professional rodeo association, cowboys will be free to use practices "sanctioned by any association established for promoting or operating rodeos."

That leaves no legal defense against hog-dog rodeos ("'Rodeo' is a misnomer -- it's a hog-dog fight," snaps Gray) or any future variation. And Brenda Shoss, vice president of the St. Louis Animal Rights Team, worries that even the core of Prop A, the cockfighting ban, will become impossible to enforce by the time legislators finish chipping away at the language. "This archaic blood sport is already illegal in 45 states," she notes. "We passed a good, solid bill by a majority, and now it's being gutted."

Gray, too, is dismayed to see a populist victory weakened by the professionals. "I think they are not understanding that people who care about humane issues are part of their constituency," she remarks. "If the Legislature repeals Prop A, we will go back and we will do it again. The people in this state do not want blatant cruelty to remain legal.

 
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