SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico will defy the U.S. government and approve a law to keep cockfighting alive in a bid to protect a 400-year-old tradition practiced across the island despite a federal ban that goes into effect this week, officials told The Associated Press on Tuesday night.
The move brought cautious rejoicing in the cockfighting business despite concerns that the U.S. territory is trying to override a federal law that President Donald Trump signed a year ago.
“We are certainly challenging a federal law. We know what that implies,” Rep. Gabriel Rodriguez Aguilo, who co-authored the bill, told the AP.
He said that Gov. Wanda Vazquez was scheduled to sign the bill Wednesday morning and that he expected the fight to end up in federal court.
As word spread, those in the cockfighting industry cheered the news.
“There’s going to be work!” exclaimed Domingo Ruiz, who owns more than 30 cocks and has spent more than half a century in the business. “We’re going to keep the fight alive.”
Cockfighting generates an estimated $18 million a year and employs some 27,000 people, according to the bill approved by Puerto Rico’s House and Senate.
Puerto Rico has 71 cockfighting establishments in 45 municipalities licensed by the island’s Department of Sports and Recreation, said Secretary Adriana Sanchez. She defended the cockfighting tradition and contended the U.S. government banned fights for economic and not animal welfare reasons.
“Their instinct is to fight,” she said of people in the business. “The people who dedicate themselves care for them and train them.”
Animal rights activists have long pushed to end cockfights in U.S. territories, saying they are cruel and noting they are illegal in all 50 U.S. states.
Wayne Pacelle, founder of the Washington- based Animal Wellness Action, said he doesn’t believe the statistics on Puerto Rico cockfighting.
“They are widely exaggerating the economic value,” he said. “Watching animals slash each other just for human entertainment and gambling is not judged as a legitimate enterprise by mainstream people.”
The measure says it is legal for Puerto Rico to host cockfights as long as people don’t export or import cocks or any goods or services related to cockfighting. The latter actions would violate the federal law, based on how Puerto Rico officials interpret it.
“It remains to be seen whether that’s how federal authorities understand it,” said Rep. Luis Vega Ramos.
Vega sought unsuccessfully to amend the measure to add authorization for local officials to not cooperate with federal agents in prosecuting people for cockfighting. But several municipalities, including the capital of San Juan, have authorized municipal police not to crack down on cockfighting.