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The Oklahoman

Breeders pledge to keep fowl despite vote
2002-11-08

Enforcing the ban on cockfighting, which voters decided to make illegal statewide, will be up to local law enforcement officials - some of whom privately say they have better things to do than be the "chicken police."

* Game bird owners face uncertain future

Many cockfighting breeders have also vowed to keep their game birds, at least for now. One breeder referred to her birds as being like "her children," while others said they couldn't make a profit even if they wanted to sell them, which may be illegal anyway.

Several cockfighters bristled at the thought of killing their birds.

"I'm going to keep them because I respect the fowl. I've been good to them and they've been real good to me," said Cliff King, who breeds about 500 game birds in Meeker. "I've raised roosters since 1963, and what do I got to look forward to now? Nothing."

After three years of pecking away at the mostly rural game sport, proponents succeeded in banning cockfighting Tuesday when voters passed State Question 687 in a statewide election. Only two other states allow

cockfighting: Louisiana and parts of New Mexico.

The ban will affect the state economically and psychologically, and cockfighters don't intend to take it lying down, said James Tally, president of the Oklahoma Game Fowl Breeders Association.

The association has about 7,000 members. Oklahoma has an estimated 2 million game birds.

"We do intend to contest this law," said Tally, who owns about 200 birds and fights them as a hobby.

Tally said his phone has been ringing nonstop since Tuesday. Cockfighters want to know how to respond to the law. Concerns include whether cockfighters should get rid of their birds and bird paraphernalia, the fate of the $350,000 cockfighting arena in Kingston and the ban's effect on their livelihood and feed stores.

Most of all, breeders want to know what the sheriffs will do when they knock on their doors.

The ban is to take effect after the state Election Board certifies election results at 5 p.m. today. Under the law, anyone convicted of owning, possessing, keeping or training birds for cockfighting may face one to 10 years in prison and/or a $2,000 to $25,000 fine. Possession of cockfighting paraphernalia, such as spurs, also will be illegal.

Questions remain as to whether it is legal to sell the birds they already have, knowing they might be used elsewhere for cockfighting, or whether they can keep the birds as pets.

The state attorney general's office couldn't clear up the questions. Spokesman Charlie Price said his office will leave enforcing the law up to local law officers.

"I just don't know what to tell you, this thing is brand new to everybody. If I say one thing, some district attorney may read the law another way and it's the DA's decision," Price said.

The Oklahoma District Attorneys Council also was unclear on enforcement.

The council's assistant executive coordinator, Trent Baggett, said breeding game birds was open to interpretation. Some, for instance, may breed them to eat pests, or just to keep the breed going, as King said he intends to do.

Baggett said he couldn't answer whether breeding or raising game birds would be illegal and whether transporting them across state lines would be interpreted as breaking the law.

"That's going to be a question of fact and a question of intent," Baggett said.

This sort of uncertainty irritates Tally and other cockfighters who are already aggravated about having their hobby, and in some cases entire careers, taken away.

"Everybody's calling their district attorneys and sheriffs and asking what to do and you know what they're telling them? We don't know how much time we'll have to be the chicken police, is what they're saying," Tally said. "If it wasn't just so ... sad, it'd be funny."

Love County Sheriff Joe Russell said with an undersheriff, four deputies and a few volunteers, he has bigger problems than chickens.

"It's not one of the laws that's going to be one of my top priorities," Russell said. "I believe we've got a drug problem a lot worse than the rooster fighting."

Said Tally: "I'm telling people, 'Look, don't fight your chickens. Don't even let them get close to each other, if you can help it. If you've got a spur, get rid of it, for right now.'"

Tally said he expects his association will take action to overturn the law. He said he is hoping the ban will be found unconstitutional.

"We don't think you can make someone go from a legal occupation on Tuesday to a felon on Thursday without a hearing," Tally said.

Until then, Tally said he expects most cockfighters will follow the rules the best way they understand them.

"Seems like we'd have some type of guidelines to enforce this when it went into effect, but it doesn't look like we will."