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Los Angeles Times

May 5, 2002

Settling the Dogfight Over Chickens
Cockfighting: Trying to close a loophole, lawmakers bet on a farm bill making it a crime to take game roosters over state lines.

By RICHARD SIMON, Times Staff Writer

For three years the battle raged. On one side, two former senators were hired as high-powered lobbyists. On the other, law enforcement organizations were recruited across the nation to take up the cause.

All over cockfighting.

A seemingly simple proposition--close a loophole in federal law that allows cockfighting to thrive, even though it is illegal in all but three states--proved anything but simple to pass.

The anti-cockfighting provision finally is headed for approval, as part of the massive farm bill that President Bush has pledged to sign. But the battle over the little-noticed plank in the bill illustrates how disputes over narrow interests can escalate into big struggles in Washington, engaging all of the high-stakes tactics of major party collisions and winding up in the middle of serious legislative business.

"It is a commentary on the legislative process," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.).

The measure is straightforward enough: It would make it a federal offense to take fighting roosters across state lines.

Cockfighting is illegal in all but three states: Louisiana, Oklahoma and parts of New Mexico. But cockfighting has remained a law enforcement problem throughout the country, despite decades-old laws against it in most states.

Law enforcement officials say people are able to skirt the cockfighting bans by claiming that game birds in their possession are set to be shipped to one of the three states--or foreign countries--where cockfighting is permitted. Once the farm bill becomes law--perhaps as soon as this week--they will have "no excuse" to possess game birds in states where cockfighting is illegal, said Wayne Pacelle, lobbyist for the Humane Society of the United States.

In cockfighting, roosters with razor-sharp knives or needle-sharp gaffs strapped to their legs are pumped full of stimulants, put into a pit and made to claw each other until one is dead.

California has banned cockfighting since 1905. But just last month, Ventura County authorities seized nearly five dozen roosters in a raid on a cockfighting operation. Cockfights also have been raided this year in New York, Philadelphia and Utah.

Despite such crackdowns, cockfighting has a considerable following, with numerous Web sites and magazines such as Grit and Steel and Feathered Warrior devoted to the subject.

"It's a very large industry," said Sandy Johnson, director of administration for the United Gamefowl Breeders Assn.

"If the birds cannot be shipped for fighting purposes," she added, "then the industry is dead."

When the measure to ban such transportation was introduced in early 1999, proponents figured it would win speedy approval. It enjoyed bipartisan sponsorship. Its authors were Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), a veterinarian, and Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), whose office is decorated with hunting trophies, including a prairie chicken.

The lawmakers had confidence in the logic of their arguments.

Under current law, Allard said, "There is no way for law enforcement officers to determine if someone really is transporting the birds or if the cockfight will be held right down the road."

The measure's supporters were buoyed when more than 200 House members and 60 senators--Democrats and Republicans alike--signed on as co-sponsors.

What they didn't anticipate was the buzz saw of opposition they would encounter.

Two little-known groups--the Ohio-based United Gamefowl Breeders Assn. and the Texas-based American Animal Husbandry Coalition--mounted aggressive campaigns to defeat the legislation.

They spent $300,000 on lobbyists, including two former senators, J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) and Steve Symms (R-Idaho), according to congressional records.

They packed one congressional hearing with 300 breeders, arguing that the measure would deprive struggling farmers of a way to supplement their incomes. They also portrayed the measure as an attack on a misunderstood part of the rural lifestyle.

"The issue is basically rural versus urban," said Bobby Jones, president of the American Animal Husbandry Coalition, who raises about 400 fighting birds annually at his poultry farm 30 miles west of Waco, Texas. "I don't expect people who are raised on microwave dinners and go to movies on weekends to understand what goes on in a rural setting."

A number of lawmakers, mostly from the South, quietly worked against the measure. They criticized the measure as federal intrusion on a matter that should be decided by states.

Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), one of the few lawmakers to publicly speak out against the proposal, last year said, "This isn't about cockfighting. It's about the proper role of the federal government.

"I thought the federal government's job was to suppress insurrections, repel invasions, declare war ... not to stop folks from hauling chickens across state lines."

Sean Conway, an aide to Allard, said most lawmakers opposed to the measure often worked behind closed doors because they were reluctant to be seen as publicly defending cockfighting. That made it more challenging to rebut them, Conway said.

"We spent a lot of time shadowboxing," he said.

Supporters of the measure fought back by threatening to force a roll call vote that would force opponents to come out into the open.

"People came up to me and begged me not to have a roll call vote," Blumenauer said.

The Humane Society of the United States told lawmakers their votes would appear in a report card sent to voters at election time.

When the measure came to the House floor last fall, it passed on a voice vote.

It became a hotly debated issue in negotiations over the multibillion-dollar farm bill, even though the game fowl industry is minuscule compared to other segments of agribusiness.

In the end, lawmakers opposed to the measure gave up the fight because they didn't think it was worth the political risk, said Pacelle, the Humane Society's senior vice president of government affairs. He said lawmakers figured, "Do I want to have my public persona attached to defending cockfighting?"

Some of the measure's supporters, however, are angry that opponents succeeded in making its penalty a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

But Pacelle said he considers the measure's expected passage a "very important victory in stamping out a practice that we consider absolutely odious and indefensible."

And, he said proponents plan to introduce a measure seeking to restore the felony penalties and to make it a federal crime to take across state lines paraphernalia used in cockfighting.

Pacelle said he believes the measure ran into opposition in part because some farm-state lawmakers have a "reflexive antagonism" to the Humane Society and animal welfare issues.

"You had members behind the scenes who were saying, 'Why are we dealing with this?'" he said.

"To the ag people, a chicken is a chicken. This whole process has been a huge learning experience for me."

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