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Wall Street Journal
Cockfighting Ban Raises Hackles Of Supporters, Foes in Oklahoma

2002-11-01

OKLAHOMA CITY -- At local convenience stores, campaign volunteers pass out tabloid-size election literature on what may be Election Day's most contentious issue here. Gubernatorial candidates are split. One side's television commercial features military veterans while "America the Beautiful" plays in the background and a narrator invokes "freedom."

The issue: the right to stage cockfights in Oklahoma, one of only three states that still allow legalized, lethal rooster fights.

Other states will vote Tuesday on contentious ballot initiatives touching on such topics as loosening drug laws, investing public money in the stock market and mandating a reduction in school class sizes. A few are fought with the intensity of face-offs for governor or senator.

In Oklahoma, each side of the cockfighting cause has raised more than $600,000, a substantial sum for a ballot-question fight in the state. Opponents of a ban hired a veteran political consultant and set up campaign headquarters in a suite of offices in a converted movie theater here. They plan strategy that includes fund-raising barbecue dinners and country music hoedowns.

"This is a matter of heritage, personal freedoms and the rights of Oklahomans to live their lives," says Devin Smith, a plain-spoken Oklahoma City radio-advertising salesman and spokesman for Oklahomans for Freedom of Choice, the group leading opposition to the ban. In one TV ad, Mr. Smith appears himself holding one of his own 100 roosters, with his wife and four-year-old son at his side.

Cockfighting, in which two roosters with metal barbs attached to their legs battle in a ring, often to the death, is viewed by many Americans as a particularly egregious form of animal cruelty. In the three states in which it remains legal -- Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico -- it is considered a magnet for illegal gambling, drugs and prostitution.

About 55% of voters supported the ban in a recent poll, but the number had dropped about 10 percentage points from earlier in the campaign. The Democrat and Independent candidate running for governor on Tuesday are opposed, as is former Gov. David Walters, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Jim Inhofe. Gov. Frank Keating, who isn't running for re-election, favors the ban. "It is simply embarrassing to Oklahoma to be seen as one of a tiny handful of locations outside the Third World where this activity is legal," he says.

Though the state's criminal code has prohibited instigating fights between animals since 1907, authorities have long turned a blind eye to cockfighting. In 1963, a decision by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals prevented a county judge from prosecuting six people accused of cockfighting, asking in his opinion, "Is a gamecock an animal?" The chief judge recommended that the Legislature sort it out.

There, rural lawmakers have routinely blocked legislation, using a wide array of rationales. "In every country, the communists have taken over," said Muskogee legislator John Monks in one debate, "the first thing they do is outlaw cockfighting."

Realizing they had little chance of prevailing among lawmakers, cockfighting opponents collected more than 105,000 signatures to put the question before voters.

Though cockfighting supporters failed to block the ballot measure, they gained momentum trying. The campaign's only paid staff member is Larry Wood, a veteran political consultant and liberal Democrat who has helped portray the proposed ban as the work of animal-rights activists from California whose end game is to outlaw hunting, fishing, rodeo -- even zoos.

Though there is little proof of direct support from California animal-rights activists, the Oklahoma Coalition Against Cockfighting does draw considerable support from the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the U.S. Its senior vice president, Wayne Pacelle, calls his adversaries in Oklahoma "a beleaguered, pathetic group whose only hope is to align itself with other animal users."

Mr. Pacelle's strongest support comes from the state's Republican establishment, with former U.S. Rep. Steve Largent, the front-runner for governor, joining Mr. Keating in backing a ban. But opponents of the measure persist. "Is nature cruel?" Mr. Smith asks. "Maybe so. But we're not. These roosters are bred to fight. All we do is control their environment."