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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Animal Protection Foes Feel the Heat in the South

The animal protection cause is not the real estate of any single political party or ideology. It is sometimes perceived to be more closely aligned with Democratic and progressive politics, but the breadth of support is much more wide-ranging. The humane treatment of animals has become a universal social value, for Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, hawks and doves.

The cause is especially taking root in the conservative and evangelical movements, with the resurgence of historical figures such as William Wilberforce, who helped to start the first SPCA in 1824. In more modern times, Matthew Scully, formerly a special assistant and speechwriter for President George W. Bush, raised animal protection as a moral issue for conservatives in his 2002 book, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. Scully’s work led to a cover story on factory farming in The American Conservative magazine, and a column by George F. Will in Newsweek. Other conservative commentators such as Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, and Ben Stein have regularly advocated for animal protection.

281x196_cockfighting_poster The idea that animals deserve moral consideration, in fact, is moving from brainstorming to barnstorming. A conservative group called South Carolinians for Responsible Government recently took Sen. Jake Knotts (R-Lexington County) to task because the state lawmaker blocked legislation to crack down on cockfighting. The group sent a mailer to Knotts’ constituents, which you can see here, and it reads in part:

Dog fighting and cockfighting are brutal forms of animal cruelty. Recent arrests of illegal cockfighting rings show this violent activity is also associated with illegal drugs and weapons.

Tougher laws are needed in South Carolina to make cockfighting a thing of the past. But when tougher cockfighting laws were presented in the Legislature, Jake Knotts made sure that cockfighting interests were protected and that the laws were weakened.

Jake Knotts is wrong on cockfighting.

Knotts, who has served eight years in the South Carolina House of Representatives and six in the Senate, has come under fire from his own party and probably faced the toughest reelection of his career. He barely came out ahead in a three-way Republican primary, and was forced into a runoff against former Lexington County GOP Chairwoman Katrina Shealy because neither candidate won 50 percent of the vote. The incumbent squeaked by, but there’s no doubt he was shaken.

John_cockfighting_2 It’s not the first time that the cockfighting issue has played a role in elections. In 2004, Democratic Congressman Chris John sought the U.S. Senate seat left open by the retirement of Sen. John Breaux in Louisiana. Cockfighting was still legal in the state, and Chris John had been the cockfighters’ point man in Congress. Animal advocates ran a statewide campaign against Chris John, and exit polls showed that 32 percent of white Democratic women voted for the Republican candidate, Congressman David Vitter, in part because they couldn’t stomach Chris John’s support for cockfighting. Vitter, an opponent of cockfighting, won by just 19,000 votes and now serves in the U.S. Senate.

Cockfighting had once been treated with a wink and a nod in many parts of the South, but tacit approval for staged animal fights is no longer a viable political position in Louisiana, South Carolina, or anywhere else. Conservatives and liberals might not agree on much, but they do agree that forcing animals to tear each other to pieces for amusement and gambling is a matter of right and wrong. In red states and blue states, lawmakers who serve the interests of animal abusers are going to feel the heat.

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