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Ada Evening News

Cockfighting ban takes effect today, Law's effect still unclear

ADA - Publicly, local law enforcement officials across Oklahoma say they will enforce the ban on cockfighting, which 56 percent of state voters approved Nov. 5. Privately, many of the understaffed departments say they have better things to do than becoming the "rooster police."

Cockfighting is now illegal in 48 states. Only New Mexico and Louisiana allow the sport.

The issue has become a classic case in state political history. The Oklahoma Coalition Against Cockfighting, led by Janet Halliburton, describes cockfighting as a cruel, barbaric sport where roosters try to slash each to death. While promoters like James Tally, head of the Oklahoma Gamefowl Breeders Association, say cockfighting is a time-honored sport in rural Oklahoma and warn that its elimination could be the first step of infringing on freedom of choice.

The Oklahoma Coalition Against Cockfighting circulated an initiative petition in 1999 to get the issue before voters. However, the petition had languished in limbo while the two sides have battled it out in court. The state Supreme Court cleared the question for the ballot last August.

Game breeders say the anti-cockfighting coalition's initiative petition to ban the sport infringes on freedom of choice.

Chuck Berry, president of the United Game Breeders Association, is unhappy with the wording of SQ 687.

"The penalty phase is outrageous," Berry said. "A 10-year prison term and/or a $25,000 fine for owning, possessing or keeping a fighting rooster is ridiculous."

Berry said cockfighting is an important industry in Oklahoma.

"We're talking about a $100 million a year industry in Oklahoma," he said. "That's a big deal, especially when you consider the shape of our economy. I urge voters to reject SQ 687 because of its strict penalties."

The cockfighting ban will become official when state Election Board officials certify the results at 5 p.m. Friday.

Many state political leaders, including state Rep. Danny Hilliard and Gov.-elect Brad Henry, have said SQ 687 is a poor bill with penalties that are too harsh for the offense.

Cockfighters in Oklahoma remain optimistic that a way will be provided for them to keep their birds. Though some say it is a scam, some owners are trying to go through Indian tribal channels.

James Tally, president of the Oklahoma Game Fowl Breeders Association, said cockfighters are not going to accept the ban lying down. He said his group intends to contest the ban.

Questions still remain: Is it legal for owners to sell their birds to cockfighters in New Mexico and Louisiana? Officials at the state Attorney General's Office and law enforcements agencies across Oklahoma say it remains unclear how the ban will be enforced.

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.

Tally said he is telling people to not fight their chickens, and to get rid of their spurs - for now.

He said he expects his association to initiate action to overturn the ban. Cockfighting supporters hope the law will be found unconstitutional.

"You go from something that is perfectly legal on Tuesday to a felony charge on Friday," Tally said.

The ban passed by about 124,000 votes out of more than a million cast in the state. Oklahoma County voters approved it by about 62,000 votes and Tulsa County voters approved it by about 76,000 - for a combined total of 138,000. Tally and other cockfighting supporters claim urban dwellers have "lost touch with rural America."

A federal ban on the interstate shipment of fighting roosters goes into effect in May 2002.

There are approximately 2.8 million gamecocks in Oklahoma.