- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - In a state where the flagship university’s mascot is a fighting gamecock, some legislators are trying to toughen the penalties for cockfighting, which is illegal in all 50 states.

Currently a misdemeanor in South Carolina, the crime would become a felony on second and subsequent convictions under legislation considered Wednesday by a Senate panel, punishable by up to a $3,000 fine and five years in prison.

Animal-rights activists say cockfighting is cruel, a haven for gambling and drug use and desensitizes children in attendance to violence. But game fowl breeders contend cockfighting is a centuries-old tradition that’s no more cruel than hunting sports, and that breeding the birds is a source of pride.

“You’re putting chicken’s lives ahead of how we live,” said Casey Kelly of Warrenville.

Gary DiCorte, of Little Mountain, said he’s raised game fowl most of his life and sells and ships them worldwide.

He contends having “domain over my animals” is an American right. “I’m the owner. It’s my property,” said DiCorte, adding he has several hundred game birds.

The breeders argue that gamecocks fight by nature, and they’re raised for things other than fighting, including poultry shows.

Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said the breeders are making arguments unrelated to the proposal.

“We’re not going to outlaw chickens fighting because we know chickens can’t read,” he said. “We won’t outlaw you owning those chickens. What we will outlaw - and what’s already outlawed - is people putting spurs on them,” injecting them with stimulants to fight or betting on which bird will win.

Contests that pit two roosters in a deadly battle have been illegal in South Carolina since 1917, though University of South Carolina fans still cheer for mascots that wear the contest’s metal spurs. “Sir Big Spur” is an actual Old English black-breasted red gamecock that’s an icon at football games.

The breeders draw a distinction between cockfighting and what they call testing their birds, which the law allows in limited situations involving fewer than five spectators and no gambling.

South Carolina is among nine states where cockfighting is only a misdemeanor, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said cockfighting is just as bad as dogfighting.

“I don’t think you should put any animal in a ring to fight to the death and watch as amusement,” said Shealy, the measure’s sponsor. “It’s wrong, regardless of the animal.”

Jarrod Bruder, director of the state Sheriff’s Association, said sheriffs are concerned by a lack of penalties, as arrests might result in a $100 fine. It’s particularly a problem, he said, in counties that border Georgia and North Carolina - where the crime is a felony.

“It’s becoming more of a slap on the wrist,” Bruder said.

Shealy’s proposal would set minimum fines - $500 minimum for a first conviction and $1,000 on subsequent convictions.

Senators took no vote Wednesday.

Legislators have repeatedly defeated proposals to make cockfighting a felony. But they did allow for increased penalties in 2006, a year after the state’s former agriculture commissioner, Charlie Sharpe, pleaded guilty to extortion. He admitted in federal court he took $10,000 to protect a cockfighting ring from legal trouble.

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