Police look at misdemeanors and felonies differently. By taking this to a higher level, I think there's going to be more busts on some of these illegal activities that are going on. —Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City

SALT LAKE CITY — Animal advocates encouraged lawmakers at the state Capitol Thursday to pass a bill that would upgrade the penalty for game fowl fighting in Utah to a felony.

The state's current penalty for game fowl fighting, commonly known as cockfighting, is a class A misdemeanor. But SB112 would make it a third-degree felony.

Members of the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of Utah, as well as citizen lobbyists met with lawmakers in the House to show support for the bill.

Utah is currently the only state west of South Dakota in the continental U.S. where the penalty for game fowl fighting is not a felony, according to the Humane Society.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, says the penalty upgrade would make game fowl fighting more enforceable.

"Police look at misdemeanors and felonies differently," Davis said. "By taking this to a higher level, I think there's going to be more busts on some of these illegal activities that are going on."

The bill would also prohibit the sale and possession of "an instrument designed to enhance the ability to, or likelihood of, causing injury to a game fowl with the intent that the instrument be used in game fowl fighting or game fowl training."

Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, said the bill would not change the fact that animals are considered property, but it would emphasize the humane treatment of animals.

"Animals belong to people. … But they're a different kind of property," Anderson said. "We're not saying it's illegal to have a rooster. We are saying that it is inhumane to have roosters with razors on their claws get together and fight."

Deborah Foote, state legislative director for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Southwest region, says the bill is not just intended for curbing animal mistreatment, but also for other crimes associated with it.

"This is not just about cockfighting and animal abuse," Foote said. "This is also about the illegal drug trade and the illegal gambling that accompany it. We certainly believe that felony penalties are appropriate for those types of activities."

Davis said the bill will likely be examined in a judiciary committee within the next week.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com