Outpost of cockfighting under pressure for ban

N.M. bird fans resent `outsider meddling'


SOCORRO, N.M. - First it was the actress Pamela Anderson who angered New Mexico's cockfight enthusiasts.

In a letter to Gov. Bill Richardson in October, Anderson expressed support for a proposal to forbid cockfighting throughout the state, declaring, "The whole country is watching, especially Hollywood, which your office actively courts for the film business."

The letter was released by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and was quoted in newspapers all around New Mexico, one of only two states, with Louisiana, that have not banned cockfighting.

Next it was the HBO talk show host Bill Maher, who wrote in a public letter in November: "Cockfighting: let's see, blood, violence and illegal gambling - sounds more like a Scorsese film than a sport. If this is how you treat your athletes, no wonder you don't have a major league baseball team."

New Mexico might not have any major league teams, but members of the New Mexico Game Birds Association, the state's largest cockfighting advocacy group, say it is proud of the sports it has.

One is cockfighting, a practice, particularly popular among Hispanics, that is believed to have originated in ancient Greece and Persia, pitting gamecocks against each other with metal spurs attached to their legs.

The birds often fight to the death.

Massachusetts was the first state to ban cockfighting, in 1836, and has been followed by 47 others. But New Mexico's galleros, as cockfighting practitioners here call themselves in Spanish, are determined that their state will not be next, even as they face their strongest challenge yet from animal rights activists and some celebrity friends.

"I oppose abortion, but I'm not going to tell Pamela Anderson or even my daughter not to get one - it's their choice," said Louisa Lopez, who operates one of New Mexico's largest cockfighting pits, the Gentlemen's Arena Game Club, on the outskirts of Socorro, a small town south of Albuquerque.

"So who are these outsiders telling me what to do? Who are they to come here with their ideas of what's right and what's wrong?"

Even the most fervent galleros - or cockers, as they are called in English - acknowledge that their opponents are on a roll.

In November, the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to Oklahoma's cockfighting ban, enacted in 2002. That choice by the justices placed New Mexico and Louisiana in the cross hairs of groups such as PETA and Animal Protection Voters.

The activists' efforts appear to have touched a nerve, however, with people in New Mexico's cockfighting pits, its Legislature and even the governor's office. Many are unhappy with what they perceive as meddling by outsiders.

"I'm officially undecided on the issue, but I don't believe it merits the attention it's received," Richardson said in an interview. "Every time it's introduced it distracts from pressing issues like access to health care or drunk-driving fatalities, serious problems affecting our population."

"But it goes beyond distraction sometimes," he said. "Some of the implied threats coming from these Hollywood personalities are condescending and insulting."

New Mexico's cockfighting season gets under way in December and usually lasts through July. The new season coincides with what is expected to be the reintroduction of a bill in the Legislature to ban the sport; hence the noticeable increase in lobbying activity by Anderson, Maher and other opponents.

Many of the estimated 10,000 New Mexicans who breed gamecocks describe cockfighting as a part of the state's culture, dating from Spain's colonization of this part of the Southwest four centuries ago.

Ronald Barron, president of the New Mexico Game Birds Association, noted that it was a practice shared with other former Spanish possessions where it remains common, including Puerto Rico, Guam, Mexico and the Philippines.

"We're a wild frontier kind of state," said Barron, a former oil field worker, "and some of the people who come here like the physical beauty of the place, but they frown on the people. I find this ironic and a little sad."

He said cockfighting generated about $50 million a year for New Mexico's economy.

Cockfighting has never been for the faint of heart. It is usually associated with frenzied gambling, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz pointed out in his classic essay on the sport, "Notes on the Balinese Cockfight."

Purses in New Mexico can reach more than $10,000, making the loss of a prized gamecock, bred through generations of pedigree to fight to the death, a risk that most galleros are prepared to take.

To be sure, many New Mexicans do not agree that cockfighting should be preserved, or even portrayed as a part of the state's heritage. Martin Chavez, the mayor of Albuquerque, has called it barbaric.

"The idea of putting razor blades on the feet of these birds and allowing them to tear each other up is obscene," he said.

Chavez, a former state senator, supports a ban. He acknowledges, however, that earlier efforts to enact one have been accorded little importance, with the required legislation handed off to freshman lawmakers as a way of testing their mettle with one of the state's more fragile issues.

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