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Tulsa World

Cockfighting supporters, foes still at odds

Cockfighters suffered two setbacks Tuesday night, but they weren't giving up the fight. And, after looking at the governor's race, they were proclaiming a partial victory there.

"We tagged Steve Largent . . . out, and we meant to," James Tally said of the lone gubernatorial candidate to back the cockfighting ban and a surprise loser on Tuesday. "One thing about it, he's out."

Simultaneously, cockfighting opponents were still gleeful over bringing an end to the activity in Oklahoma.

"It put to rest any doubts that we are a backwards state," said Janet Halliburton, chair of the Oklahoma Coalition Against Cockfighting. "We are a progressive state. Oklahoma voted to go forward."

With Tuesday's vote, Oklahoma became the 48th state to ban cockfighting. It remains legal in Louisiana and New Mexico.

Outspent by their opponents, cockfighters turned to grass-roots efforts, including voter registration drives, in an attempt to defeat the ban. Before Tuesday, Tally, president of the Oklahoma Gamefowl Breeders Association, predicted that the several thousand voters they had added would impact other races, particularly for governor.

"We're going to vote for Brad Henry," who won the governor's race, Tally said. "He took one look at the (ban) and he knew it would create problems."

While it may have been a partial victory, it was the loss in the main event that hurt, Tally said. Oklahomans voted 56-to-44 percent in favor of State Question 687, which banned the activity. Unofficial results from Tuesday should be certified by the end of the week, with the ban taking effect this weekend.

Voters also rejected the chance to nearly double the number of voters needed to get an animal-related restriction on the ballot. State Question 698 went down with a 54-percent "no" vote out of more than 963,000 cast.

Voting broke along urban and rural lines, with the populous counties overwhelmingly supporting the ban and the outlying areas opposing it.

"You take Oklahoma City and Tulsa out of this and it's over. It's not even close," Tally said. "It's amazing that people who don't know anything about what you're doing can tell you what to do."

On the other side, Halliburton could hardly contain her jubilation over Tuesday's vote and a final winning margin of more 115,000. Halliburton led the petition drive to get cockfighting banned.

"It has been grueling," Halliburton said. "I had no idea it would be that difficult, but I always knew we would win.

"I knew the people of Oklahoma weren't a bunch of animal abusers."

Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of communications for the Humane Society of the United States, said the vote was the happy culmination of a three-year fight. Circulation of the initiative petition to ban the activity started in September 1999. Results of that drive were the subject of a drawn-out court battle that only ended this summer.

"This is a big moment," Pacelle said. "We're obviously delighted to see the end. The people of Oklahoma did the right thing."

Cockfighters weren't quite ready to accept Tuesday's vote as the ultimate fate of the pastime, Tally said.

"This ain't over," he said. "We'll take this back before the court and argue the constitutionality of this petition."

Even a challenge on constitutional grounds will be difficult. As a petition, members of the coalition against cockfighting had to defend the ban in court. With voter approval on Tuesday, the Attorney General's Office will be defending the law.

"They wasted $500,000 in the court earlier in the fight," Pacelle said of the cockfighters. "If they want to waste some more, we don't mind."

Sen. Frank Shurden, D-Henryetta, an outspoken critic of SQ 687, said on Wednesday that he will introduce legislation next session to make violations of the new law a misdemeanor instead of a felony. The proposal includes penalties of up to $25,000 in fines and 10 years in prison.

Maximum penalties for most misdemeanors are fines up to $1,000 and a year in jail.

Henry promised to consider that proposal but said he won't commit himself until he sees the actual legislation.

Meanwhile, cockfighters are trying to figure out what to do next. Cockfighting season was about to start this weekend at some of the clubs around the state. Now, everyone is unsure of what will happen, Tally said.

"We're disappointed," he said. "But we do appreciate everyone who did back us."

The number of cockfighters in Oklahoma grew in recent years because of bans or tighter penalties for cockfighting in other states, Halliburton said. Now maybe they'll leave the Sooner State, she said.

"If they are astute, they will be busy moving to the Philippines," Halliburton said. "It's still legal there."