Finch Fighting:
A New Breed of Animal Cruelty

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Finch Fighting:
A New Breed of Animal Cruelty

By Paul Wachter on AOLnews.com
February 2010

And according to Ashland Police Department Sgt. Greg Fawkes, it's spreading in the United States. "This is a lot bigger than anyone thinks," he told the Globe. "I think it's rampant. I really do.''

America's more-unsavory pastimes have long included underground cockfighting and dogfighting scenes, but now reports point toward a new animal-cruelty trend: finch fighting.

Last week, Massachusetts authorities seized more than 20 of the birds -- 6-inch "little bursts of yellow" as described by The Boston Globe -- after a home inspection in Ashland, a small town about a half-hour's drive from Boston. More than 20 Brazilian men were at the house, and some were detained by immigration authorities.

The raid recalled the arrests in Connecticut last summer of 19 Brazilians involved in a bird-fighting ring, and indeed, the similarities are no coincidence: Despite being banned 20 years ago in Brazil, canary fighting, as it's commonly called, remains popular in the country. And according to Ashland Police Department Sgt. Greg Fawkes, it's spreading in the United States. "This is a lot bigger than anyone thinks," he told the Globe. "I think it's rampant. I really do.''

In 2007, dogfighting generated national headlines after NFL quarterback Michael Vick was implicated by a raid on his property that uncovered numerous instances of animal abuse. And it wasn't until that same year that Louisiana became the last state to outlaw cockfighting. But the latest news from Massachusetts -- of male finches trained to peck each other's legs off in bloody cage battle -- is a reminder that such dark impulses have other outlets.

Humans have practiced animal fighting since ancient times. Both Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, for instance, liked to watch bearbaiting, in which a chained bear would fight a pack of dogs -- a practice that continues in some parts of Pakistan (disturbing video here). Bullfighting continues to fill stadiums in Spain and Latin America.

For animal fighters, the small size and seeming docility of the finches, which are generally known for their song, make it easier to hide their practices than when staging battles between dogs or chickens. Still, finch fighting mystifies many who monitor animal cruelty. "It takes a special mind to put canaries together and fight them for sport," said a Connecticut zoo director after last year's raid in that state. "It's the kind of thing that boggles the mind." Added Laura Maloney, senior vice president of anti-cruelty for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: "This is the first time we've heard of this."

Any accounts of animal fights quickly pivot into broader ethical questions. For example, footage of animals fighting in nature, unprodded by humans -- either on a nature channel or at Web sites like this one -- draws a steady audience. Diners eat animals, either by hunting them themselves or, in most cases, purchasing them from a restaurant or grocery store. After the Vick case, law professor and ethicist Gary Francione wrote that it demonstrated "our 'moral schizophrenia' about animals" and that "the animals we eat suffer as much as the dogs that are used in dogfighting." According to another professor who's studied cockfighting, "Gamecocks live an exemplary life compared to a McDonald's chicken."

But we don't normally eat finches -- by contrast, some owners cook for their birds. And by all accounts the finches in Massachusetts were mistreated, kept hungry and thirsty even before they were prodded into deadly battle. Which is why finch fighting carries an extra dose of repugnance: Free of the ambiguity that can follow other forms of animal cruelty, it has an elemental shock value that even reports of a pit bull-torturing NFL quarterback cannot quite match.