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Houston Chronicle

New federal law to clip 'cockers'
Enthusiasts see sport's demise


The cockfighting industry is in a state-by-state battle for survival and Texans who call themselves "cockers" aren't ready to go away quietly.

In recent years, they've been some of the biggest stakeholders in the high-dollar, legal cockfighting matches that played out in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Louisiana.

But a federal law that takes effect in May will deal a major blow to the cockfighting way of life. Regardless of what happens in the neighboring states where cockfighting still is allowed, their last legal outlet for fighting their birds will dry up when they are banned from transporting gamefowl across state lines.

Cockfighting was outlawed in Texas in 1907, but that hardly mattered to the thousands of people who continued to legally breed and sell fighting birds throughout the state.

"Cruel" and "grotesque" are words animal rights activists use to describe the practice of strapping metal gaffs, or knives, to the roosters' legs, and then fighting them to the death. Cockfighters don't see it that way. An aggressive bird that won't back down from a fight is "game," the cockers say, and outsiders just don't understand that admirable quality.

The Texans drive long miles to test their birds in the weekend derbies, spending money in motels and restaurants that surround the larger pits. Texas breeders supply birds and fighting paraphernalia throughout the United States, and ship gamefowl to foreign collectors who will pay top prices.

When they're not breeding or fighting their birds, enthusiasts from El Paso to Sulphur Springs are fighting courthouse and congressional battles to keep their sport legal in the adjacent states.

Oklahoma is the latest state to outlaw the sport, voting Nov. 5 to ban fighting or even raising the birds. The law is being challenged in court. The Humane Society of the United States already is campaigning for a similar ban in New Mexico.

But the federal law looks like the end, say many gamefowl enthusiasts.

"It's going to open up a whole can of worms for people who were perfectly law-abiding citizens until this passed," said Bill Keller, a spokesman for the United Gamefowl Breeders Association.

Dwaine White of Weimar is a retired blacksmith, a man who learned both his profession and his now-threatened gamefowl breeding at his father's knee. The breeding business he operates with his wife, Nonie, is described as one of the largest in the state, and he uses the income from his flock of about 1,000 birds to supplement the $506 a month from Social Security.

Birds bred from proven winners command higher prices, but most gamefowl sell for between $150 and $200 apiece. It's currently legal to ship birds destined for the game pits through U.S. mail, but the federal ban will change that.

"I was raised in New Mexico, and we've had birds since I can remember," said White. He says he's not going to break the law, but he's not going on welfare, either. When it becomes illegal to transport his birds to buyers across state lines, he says he may move his business to Mexico or the Philippines -- where 90 percent of his clients live.

"You know, we don't have gambling in Texas but those buses load up every weekend and go to (casinos in) Louisiana," White said. "We're not crooks."

Animal rights activists and cockfighters are at odds over that point.

Chris Gaddis, a Houston resident and longtime gamefowl breeder, says he resents the way cockfighters are perceived. When law enforcement agencies raid a game pit, he said, the animal rights groups and the media focus on alcohol, drugs and prostitution.

"They make it out like (we're) the scum of the earth," Gaddis said.

Wayne Pacelle, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, says his organization is gradually convincing most people not only that cockfighting is cruel, but that the gambling attracts a lot of other vices. Pacelle is determined to make it illegal in all 50 states.

Law enforcement officers periodically raid cockfighting matches in Texas, usually after neighbors complain. The Department of Public Safety raided a New Braunfels cockfight in May 2000, where about 500 people had clustered. The raid yielded about 10 arrests and officers seized about $30,000.

But the usual raids are for smaller, "neighborly" matches, as one cockfighter describes them.

The big money, and the crowds, usually go to the legal matches in the contingent states.

Law enforcement agencies in Texas clearly do not view illegal cockfighting as a criminal priority, but Pacelle says that attitude has been changing since cockfighting became a felony a little more than a year ago.

"It's a lawless sort of subculture, and a bust of a cockfight can yield a number of arrests for multiple purposes," Pacelle said.

But Gaddis says he's pretty typical himself, despite the stereotyped image people may have of cockfighters as rednecks. "If you saw me on the street, downtown in a suit and you passed me in the tunnel on the way to Treebeard's, you never in your life would think I'd go fight a rooster. I guarantee you."

Cockfighting largely is a rural tradition. People who defend it tend to see the practice's opponents in their own stereotypical terms -- rich city dwellers and "animal nuts."

The Texas Gamefowl Breeders Association estimates there are as many as 30,000 people breeding fighting birds in Texas, though they claim only 1,200 as members.

"At the (cockfighting) pits I know of in Louisiana, the ones I go to, I'd say three-quarters of the people are from Texas," agrees Carroll Parrot of Tomball, 73, a retired postal carrier and longtime gamefowl breeder.

Because Texas was surrounded by legal cockfighting venues until the Oklahoma ban passed early this month, Pacelle said, people with rooster-related businesses have used the central location to great advantage.

Flip through the pages of gamefowl magazines like The Feathered Warrior and the advertisements demonstrate Texans not only are selling the fighting birds, but a wide assortment of support paraphernalia. Some businesses sell steroids to make the birds more aggressive; others sell the metal gaffs that are fastened to the birds' legs to make them more deadly; others sell pens, shelters and feed.

People within the gamefowl industry disagree on what will happen when the federal law banning interstate transport takes effect in May.

Wayne Mayfield, a Silverton rancher and gamefowl breeder who is president of the Texas Gamefowl Breeders Association, thinks the industry will eventually dry up. "My prediction is that people will probably participate heavily this year, and then sell what they can," he said.

Marion Boatman of Axtell, near Waco, keeps about 75 to 80 birds at any one time. He's never sold one, he says, but raises them and "tests" them in the fights to see if the bloodlines he is trying to preserve remain true to the birds his family has raised for 60 years.

If the federal law makes it illegal to take his birds to Louisiana, Boatman said, that's the end of cockfighting for him.

"Then I will just quit testing birds, because I'm a law-abiding citizen -- I'm not going to violate the law," Boatman said.

But a lot of Texans will go underground, he said, organizing their own big-money matches on the sly.