Originally created 04/27/01

Morality debate continues as cockfighting persists



It's a simple sport. Two roosters enter the pit. And they fight, slashing and gouging with the steel knives tied to their legs.

The one left standing wins. The loser usually doesn't live to fight another day.

Depending on whom you talk to, cockfighting is either a beautiful display of natural aggression and courage or a barbaric abuse of innocent animals.

But the sport of cockfighting goes back thousands of years and spans the globe. And although it's illegal in most states, including Florida and Georgia, it certainly hasn't disappeared.

It is very much alive, kept going by people who have been involved for generations and by immigrants who come from countries where cockfighting is as popular as basketball, almost as popular as soccer.

Just last month, police raided cockfights near Baldwin, in Crescent City and in Coffee County, Ga. Police estimate that as many as 600 people were at the three fights.

And it doesn't stop here.

In recent years, cockfighting busts have been made in New York City and suburban Chicago. It's shown on live television in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, where it's among the most popular sports, and said to be a weekly event in Melbourne, Australia.

There is even a United Gamefowl Breeders Association, based in Ohio.

It has state directors for 30 states, from Florida to Washington, New York to California.

At the University of South Carolina, the mascot is the gamecock, the logo complete with knives strapped to its legs. Grit and Steel, one of several national cockfighting magazines, has been published monthly since 1899.

"It goes all over the world," said Joseph Skinner, son of the editor. "Philippines, Australia, England, Alaska, Ireland. We get mail from Iran all the time."

The magazines are full of ads selling gear and birds. Battle cocks go for about $200.

Hundreds of breeders across the country take special care of the bloodlines, from the innocent-sounding Lacy Roundheads and Madigin Clarets to the more serious Pearl-Legged Butchers and Gladiator Greys.

"You can't outlaw tradition," said Orlando Riera Gomez, a Miami game fowl breeder, "especially something that's been going on for 6,000 years. All they're doing is making criminals out of people who enjoy nature."

Cockfighting is still legal in Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico. A proposal to outlaw cockfighting in New Mexico was narrowly defeated in a state Senate committee earlier this year.

The most recent states to ban the sport were Missouri and Arizona, which did it by public vote in 1998. The last before that was Florida, which banned it in 1986. Even watching a cockfight is illegal in Georgia.

Alec Newell of Mayport, Fla., still has a few roosters and hens in his back yard, but he doesn't fight them anymore.

"It's just not worth losing my right to vote over," he said.

Mr. Newell, 52, was introduced to cockfighting by his grandfather in Gainesville when he was 12 years old.

He attended fights every other weekend during the season and had up to 30 or 40 birds in pens in his yard.

"I was a small fish," he said. "There are people who fly all over the country for the fights."

He said he knows of men, well-known businessmen in the Jacksonville area, who still have acres and acres of fighting cocks.

"I don't offer moral judgments," Mr. Newell said. "It's like eating liver. Either you like it or you don't. I see it as a property thing, but people could have argued that about slaves."

Alan Dundes, professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California at Berkeley, has studied cockfighting around the world and edited a book of essays about it.

Mr. Dundes said he's not sure exactly when man first started fighting cocks.

One theory, he said, has it starting in China and Southeast Asia.

But it had made its way west by the time of the Roman Empire.

It was a common pastime in Great Britain, which banned it in 1835, and in Spain. From there it moved to Latin America.

The sport has seen renewed interest in the United States in recent years, Mr. Dundes said, because many of the new immigrants are coming from Southeast Asia and Latin America, where it's extremely popular.

"It used to be primarily white rural males," said Fred Hawley, a professor of criminal justice at Western Carolina University, who has studied and written about cockfighting for much of his life. "But now there are large numbers of Hispanics. Women weren't allowed, but now there's powder puff competitions just for women."

Lt. John Hartley, head of the organized crime division of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, said he was surprised by the crowd of 250 people at the cockfight near Baldwin.

"That was a pretty diverse group," Lt. Hartley said. "You had blacks and whites, men and women, people from the country, from the city."

It's hard to know how many cockfights are going on around Jacksonville, Lt. Hartley said.

"It's a tight-knit group. They don't let people in that they don't know," he said. "These aren't like dopers. They don't tell on each other."

Mr. Newell, the former cockfighter, agreed.

"With enough money,"Mr. Newell said, "anybody can go to the Super Bowl. But to go to a cockfight, you've got to know somebody."

It's not hard to find people on each side of the issue. As you might expect, the Humane Society of the United States is against it.

"We're opposed to animal fighting of any kind," said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the group.

So the Humane Society is actively backing state and federal legislation that would crack down on the breeders.

Two bills have been proposed in the Florida legislature this year.

One would make it illegal to ship birds to states where cockfighting is illegal; the other would make it illegal to possess animals for fighting.

One question in the morality issue is whether cockfighting is natural.

Mr. Pacelle and other cockfighting opponents say stimulants such as amphetamines and low doses of strychnine are used to encourage the cocks to fight.

But game fowl breeder Mr. Gomez disputes that.

"You can't make an animal fight," he said. "You can't make a chicken do what it doesn't want to do."

Mr. Newell remembers a windstorm a few years ago that blew the pens down in his Mayport yard, freeing the birds to get at each other.

"It was a battle royal," he said. "Two years' worth of work was gone. Once they get together, they fight. That's their natural instinct. There's only going to be one [filtered word] of the walk."

Even Mr. Hawley, the criminologist, agreed.

"The fighting is natural," Mr. Hawley said. "The reason that roosters have historically been used as symbols of bellicosity is that they are cocky, they're angry."

"There's a certain amount of cruelty," said Mr. Dundes, the University of California professor. "But, generally, they're treated very well, they're fed, they're groomed. They live a lot longer than the ones raised for KFC."

Then, of course, there's the gambling issue. ABC World News Tonight did a report last month on cockfighting in Oklahoma, where it's a billion-dollar-a-year industry. Cockfighting is legal there, but gambling on the fights is not. An ABC hidden camera showed cash changing hands almost continually.

Mr. Pacelle said Humane Society agents have attended more than 100 cockfights undercover.

"There's never been a cockfight we've attended that didn't have gambling," he said. "People don't go to Las Vegas and play blackjack just to watch the cards turn."

But Mr. Gomez has a response to that.

"Where is gambling bigger than in college athletics?" he asked. "Do we do away with college athletics because there happens to be gambling involved?" But despite the news reports, legislation and animal rights activists, Mr. Gomez is convinced his sport will survive.

"Remember this," he said. "All the chicken that you eat today comes from man's fascination with the gamecock 6,000 years ago, when they were originally domesticated for that courage, that beauty.

"Regardless of what happens in this country, it will continue for another 6,000 years."

"You can't outlaw tradition, especially something that's been going on for 6,000 years. All they're doing is making criminals out of people who enjoy nature."- Orlando Riera Gomez, a Miami gamefowl breeder