In Oklahoma, a battle to save cockfighting Humane Society plans to launch a campaign to outlaw the sport

November 09, 1998|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

KINGSTON, Okla. -- Lines of pickup trucks were parked on a scrubby field near the Texas border. Inside a large white building that rises over peanut farms and cattle ranches here, folks downed plates of baked beans, sang the national anthem and watched as two roosters in a large dirt pit slashed at each other.

A red gamecock, using pointed steel spikes attached to his claws, pierced the lung of his opponent. The gray-feathered bird stood motionless, dripping blood into a puddle on the dirt. As the injured bird limped back into battle, hundreds of fans called out bets and cheered wildly.

"Call Forty," one man yelled during Saturday's cockfight, offering to wager $40 if someone would bet with him on which bird would win.

"Let 'em fight," yelled another fan, angry that the referee halted the contest.

The sport of cockfighting, once legal all over the country, is flourishing here in southern Oklahoma, a holdover from life on the old frontier. But as the new nine-month season opened Saturday, fans feared that their days of enjoying the sport legally are numbered.

Residents of Missouri and Arizona voted by 2-1 margins Tuesday to outlaw the sport, and cockfighting opponents are preparing for campaigns in the three states that allow it -- Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

Most states -- like Maryland, which banned cockfights in 1983 -- made the events illegal years ago.

But "cockers," as the game fowl breeders call themselves, say the sport offers entertainment for people who work in the oil fields and on farms and just want some fun on the weekends.

They know they are an easy target for animal-rights supporters. But fans say accounts of bloody fights paint too simple a picture of a tradition they cherish.

At stake, the cockers contend, is nothing less than the survival of their frontier way of life.

"I don't know what the animal-rights activists will get out of it. All they're going to do is take a pleasure and a culture away from these people," said Pat Ratliff, the 77-year-old former president of the Oklahoma Gamefowl Breeders Association. His house in Lone Grove is full of gamecock memorabilia and dozens of championship trophies won over his 69 years of rooster fighting.

"Oklahoma and game fowl go together," he said. "This is the last stand. We'll fight them tooth and nail."

The rooster fighters say there are 33,000 cockers in the state and nearly 80 pits. Observers say the nation's biggest derbies can award purses close to $500,000, and other money changes hands as spectators bet among themselves. Rooster fighters say those numbers are grossly exaggerated.

The fundamentals of the sport are simple: The spurs of two roosters are fitted with either razor-sharp knives or 2 1/2 -inch gaffs, which look like curved ice-picks.

The roosters are then tossed into a dirt pit, usually measuring about 24-by-20 feet and surrounded by wire fencing, where they fly at each other, wrestling, pecking, clawing and slicing each other's bodies until one is seriously injured -- or dead -- and the fight, which can last from a few minutes to an hour, is over.

If a rooster runs away from an opponent in the pit, the breeder usually considers that a disgrace and later kills the bird.

"You'll have birds who during a fight are sucking blood through their windpipes," said Eric Sakach, the West Coast regional director of the Humane Society of the United States, who has attended more than 150 cockfights as an undercover observer.

"In this country, slavery was once popular, tolerated and legal. Children were forced into labor and worked in sweatshops. Women didn't have the right to vote," he said. "Among the things we can look at as far as archaic activities that should have been outlawed long ago, and certainly should be now, cockfighting is there."

But cockers say that animal-rights activists refuse to understand that their sport simply encourages game fowl to do what is natural: fight. Sport or no sport, they argue, if birds of this breed are placed anywhere near each other, they will scrap until one remains alive.

"We do nothing to make these birds fight," said John Kozura, a family doctor whose 30-acre farm in Denton, Texas, just below the Oklahoma border, is populated by more than 500 game chickens.

Kozura added that his birds receive better food and care than other chickens.

"Is it better to see the cock go out and die fighting, or with him going through a machine, having his guts ripped out and feathers stripped and ending up in a grocery store?" said Kozura. "Compared to the poultry house, this is a Hilton."

The unadvertised fights are staged by private clubs on private property, often on secluded roads. At last weekend's event in Kingston, held in a 900-seat arena, lawyers, accountants, farmers, retired railroad workers and a wealth of others either brought birds to the fights or came to watch.

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