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The Oklahoman

Cockfighting ban in question
2002-11-24

Votes are tallied, the election is certified and the court injunctions already are in play. Legalized cockfighting is clearly now in the hands of the judges.

But state residents still ask the question: What effect, if any, will a law that bans cockfights have in Oklahoma?

Cockfighting commonly is reported to be widespread throughout the United States, where only Louisiana and New Mexico remain as legal sanctuaries for the storied blood sport. There are also at least three national cockfighting magazines in circulation, two in Arkansas, a state that banned cockfighting in 1879.

So will Oklahoma's new law really matter? Or will it simply be a hollow page in a law book?

The answers may lie somewhere within the boundaries of Missouri and Arizona, the last two states before Oklahoma to pass laws that banned cockfights. Voters from both states approved those bans in 1998 after fierce campaigns to prevent them.

Cockfighting now is a felony in Missouri and Arizona, just as it is in Oklahoma.

"The true test of the law will be in the enforcement of it," said Kathryn McGowan, a spokeswoman for The Humane Society of Missouri. "Once the law goes into effect, then it will be up to local law enforcement to uphold it in their communities."

Whether Missouri and Arizona authorities have succeeded in this respect is open for debate. No cockfighter has been convicted in the past four years in either state, which in itself is not proof that the law hasn't been effective.

Curt Ransom, the Missouri Humane Society's director of rescue and investigation, warned that the enforcement of the law is much more involved that simply telephoning a county sheriff with a tip about an underground cockfight. He stressed that state animal activist groups must also be prepared for the ramifications of the law's enforcement.

"Oklahoma is going to go through a lot of growing pains," Ransom said. "Investigating and finding violations is easy. Having the proper facilities to house them is the difficult part. You don't just destroy the birds. You have to have a place to house them until a trial can take place, and that can often be a difficult task.

"Often times these birds are hyped up on steroids. Nor can you house two birds together or they will destroy one another. These aren't your typical birds. So it's not as easy as a sheriff issuing a warrant and confiscating the birds."

Missouri's Humane Society is still creating a system that can care for any confiscated gamecocks, Ransom said. Activists are trying to pass a law in which alleged violators would be forced to pay for the housing of their own birds. The process continues despite being two years removed from the Missouri Supreme Court's decision to uphold the 1998 election results.

In Arizona, the state's high court refused to hear more appeals from gamecock supporters in February of 2001.

"There are reports all the time of people finding dead roosters out there, so we know that it does go on, at least in the rural areas," said Jamie McDowell of The Humane Society of Southern Arizona. "We also get a lot of reports from people who know it's going on in their neighborhood but they don't know exactly where or who is involved.

"People are reporting it much more."

Belton Hodges, 82, a World War II veteran and lifelong gamecock breeder from Phoenix, told the Salt Lake City Tribune recently that the new Arizona law forced him out of business.

"I had a bunch of them (gamecocks)," Hodges said. "I had to dispose of them. Sent some to New Mexico where it's still legal, gave them away. Couldn't sell them. No value in Arizona for them. I suppose they're doing the same thing in Oklahoma ...

"Hope those Okies stand up and fight for their own rights."

Missouri State Sen. Danny Staples, a Democrat, doubts that his state's new cockfighting law has had much of an effect on the sport. Staples emerged as an outspoken opponent of the Missouri ban four years ago.

"I don't think it has stopped cockfighting in Missouri," Staples told The Oklahoman. "You just don't hear about it anymore. Besides, I don't know of a rural sheriff's department in Missouri -- and I'm sure in rural Oklahoma -- that has the manpower to enforce the law."

Clandestine cockfighting events are common occurrences throughout the United States.

Last year in Pike County, Ky., deputies were summoned to a popular cockfighting arena, only to make no animal-cruelty arrests. The event touched off a furor among animal activists in Kentucky, where cockfighting has been illegal since 1893.

When asked about inaction of the deputies, Pike County Attorney Mike Hall told The Associated Press sarcastically, "As soon as we get rid of all the drug problems and drunk driving and domestic violence, I'm going to ask the police to mount an all-out effort against chicken fighting."

Cockfighting remains a popular underground activity in Appalachia.

The same can be said across the Oklahoma state line in Arkansas, where the magazine "The Gamecock" is published in the tiny town of DeQueen. Publishers of that magazine declined to be interviewed for this article.

"There's a national cockfighting subculture," said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president for The Humane Society of the United States. "It's widespread. Half the states have had laws that banned cockfighting for more than 100 years, and yet this clandestine community continues to exist.

"And it always will. But it's been pretty quiet in both Missouri and Arizona."

Pacelle contends the new laws in those states have already curtailed cockfighting activities dramatically by their mere existence.

"The severity of the penalty is what makes it effective," said Pacelle, who testified before Congress earlier this year about underground cockfighting nationwide. "Cockfighters have traditionally just considered misdemeanors part of the expense of doing business. But when the crime is a felony, now you're talking about something much more serious.

"Now you're talking about jail time. I definitely think the noose is tightening around the whole industry."