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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Fighting cocks facing fade-out

May 8, 2002

WASHINGTON -- While cockfighting has been illegal in Arkansas for more than a century, the practice of raising fighting birds has continued with no end in sight.

Until now.

Passage of the farm bill -- the Senate is expected to send it to the president today or Thursday -- will make it a federal offense to transport roosters across state lines so that they can fight. The law would take effect one year after President Bush signs the bill, which he has promised to do. Violators will be subject to up to a year's imprisonment and a $15,000 fine.

Breeders in Arkansas often transport their birds to neighboring Oklahoma and Louisiana, two of only three states where cockfighting is still legal. The other is New Mexico. They will still be allowed to ship to foreign countries where cockfighting is a popular sport, such as the Philippines.

Paul Wood, a breeder from Cove, said the provision on cockfighting means that anybody who raises roosters to sell will pretty much be forced out of business.

"Can you name any other property that is legal to own and illegal to transport across state lines?" Wood said. "It's unconstitutional."

One recent estimate put the number of Arkansans who raise the fighting birds at 500, but even those with decades of experience in the business say they have no idea just how many are active cockers. About 150 people are members of the Arkansas Gamefowl Breeders Association, said Wood.

The game-fowl farms in Arkansas are easy enough to spot from the road. They contain dozens, if not hundreds, of tiny A-framed huts made of cement or corrugated metal.

Outside or inside each hut stands a bound rooster with brilliant plumage and a fiery disposition.

The provision concerning cockfighting is the result of more than three years of hard work by the Humane Society of the United States. The organization's leaders contend that cockfighting is gruesome and barbaric and that stiffer laws were needed to prevent it.

In a cockfight, the birds have razor-sharp knives or gaffs strapped to their legs. They then claw it out in a pit, often to the death.

"This eliminates the rationale for anyone in Arkansas to have a fighting bird," said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society.

Pacelle does not have much sympathy for those who say the government is forcing them out of business. Not only did the Humane Society seek stiffer penalties for violators of the interstate transportation ban, but the organization also opposed giving breeders a year to prepare for the law.

"In the conference committee, they extended it to one year before it would take effect, apparently as a way to allow these cockfighters to sell their birds. We oppose the idea of a sell-out option," Pacelle said. "We believe most of these people are already engaging in illegal conduct. Congress should not bend over backwards to accommodate illegal cockfighters."

The provision on cockfighting is only a small part of the farm bill, but it did bring about much behind-the-scenes politicking.

Pacelle said former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott declined to bring the bill up for a vote when Republicans were in control of the Senate. When Democrats took over, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, became a key sponsor, as did Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

No Arkansans were among the 57 co-sponsors in the Senate or the 212 co-sponsors in the House.

The proposed legislation was attached to the bill in both chambers by voice vote, meaning that there was no recorded vote. A recorded vote was something that lawmakers who opposed the ban wanted to avoid, Pacelle said.

Arkansas breeders are bitter. They criticize the Humane Society as an organization that is using its war on cockfighting to generate more donations.

"They're not going to stop with cockfighting," said Verna Dowd, publisher of The Feathered Warrior, one of the sport's prime magazines. "They're picking off the weakest ones first. They're already after hunters and fishermen of all kinds."

Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo, who introduced the legislation calling for the transportation ban, has said that he viewed the cockfighting issue as having more to do with law enforcement than humanity.

He said police agencies around the country endorsed the bill, and he associated illegal cockfighting in his state with a triple murder, drug sales and money laundering.

Opponents don't buy Allard's argument. They certainly don't see themselves as lawbreakers. Rather, they see themselves as victims.

Lonnie Young of Batesville said he had planned to use his 300-bird farm to help make ends meet during his retirement. He invested a lot of time and money in that. Now, "if this law goes through, I'm done," he said.

"To me, it's just not right. It's the same as going to a cattle farmer and saying you can't raise a cow for slaughter," Young said. "It's just not right."

This article was published on Wednesday, May 8, 2002