Cockfighting: Ag chief's support may take wing
The onetime backer of cockfighters' rights isn't ruffling feathers with his new, middle-of-the-road stance.
OKLAHOMA CITY - When Gov. Frank Keating announced that he is ordering a statewide vote Nov. 5 on a proposal to outlaw cockfighting in Oklahoma, he made his feelings about the blood sport very clear.
"Cockfighting is cruel; it promotes illegal gambling, and it is simply embarrassing to Oklahoma to be seen as one of only a tiny handful of locations outside the Third World where this activity is legal," Keating said.
He urged all Oklahomans to vote for State Question 687, which would make it a felony to raise or train fighting cocks or operate a cock pit and a misdemeanor to attend cockfights.
Whether Agriculture Secretary Dennis Howard takes that advice remains to be seen.
In the fall of 1999, when cockfighting opponents were circulating their initiative petition, Keating was neutral and Howard was one of their most vocal critics.
He even advised the Oklahoma Gamefowl Breeders Association on how to defeat the effort.
"I gave them a lesson in Politics 101," he said then, adding that he advised them to
get the question on a low-turnout election if they failed to defeat it.
He described the proposal to outlaw cockfighting as "big government" signing on to an animal rights agenda that goes far beyond cockfighting.
"Would rodeos be next?" he asked.
He charged that the animal rights movement was leading the fight against cockfighting and described it as an effort to "make criminals of law-abiding citizens," whose only offense is pursuing a sport they love.
"Too many of our freedoms are slipping away," Howard said in an Oct. 20, 1999, Tulsa World story.
But Wednesday, after Keating's blast, it appeared that the Gamefowl Breeders Association has lost a staunch ally.
Howard claimed to know little about the cockfighting proposal, despite his strong stand against it almost three years earlier.
"I have not seen the initiative petition," he said. "I assume the attorney general will write a ballot title.
"When I see it, I'll decide if I'm for it or against it."
He said that when he made his earlier statements, his agency had good relations with the cockfighting and breeding industry.
"We hadn't had any trouble with them," he said.
But he said he has no connections with the industry.
"I've never been to a cockfight in my life, and no one in my family is in the poultry business," said Howard, who also is Oklahoma's agriculture commissioner and heads the Agriculture Department.
But he acknowledged that he has concerns about the animal rights movement and what such organizations as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) might have planned for the future.
"My concern has always been about fishing, hunting and rodeo," he said.
"All across America, there's an animal rights movement."
Supporters of the effort to stop cockfighting have said repeatedly that they have no intention of going after hunting, fishing and rodeo.
Howard also conceded that he is concerned about the possible erosion of individual rights.
"I'm a little bit of a Libertarian," he