Scarback, the Hu-maniacs and the Cockers
LIFELESS and silent, nothing stirs as far as the eye can see over the flat, tornado-licked plains of southern Oklahoma. Every so often a few hardscrabble homesteads and tar paper shacks slide past in the yellow/brown scrub, as you drive route 70, five miles north of the border with Texas. Somewhere in this vast agrophobic stillness a fight to the death is just beginning. According to state law, I am risking ten years in a US federal penitentiary and conviction as a felon just by taking part in what I am about to witness.
My contact ends the two hour drive from Oklahoma city and hurriedly turns into what looks like a farm with a large, beige barn - no windows - and surrounded by defunct caravans - boarded-up and derelict. There are no signs, letters or numbers anywhere to be seen. Scattered about are pick up trucks. One has a bumper sticker that says, “Gun control is hitting your target first time.” It’s deathly quiet and seemingly deserted.
We make our way over to a rusty steel caravan. After two short raps a door swings open to reveal a man called Hank who sports a manicured Wyatt Earp-style moustache. “I feel sorry for the suckers we are about to meet today,” he grins, ushering us inside. His girlfriend Brenda, a blonde in bleach denims smiles conspiratorially. Hank continues with a grin: “Scarback’s ready to kill whoever he meets. Ain’t ya boy.” And we all look down to the champion who is obsessively tearing at a tuft of lint at our feet. Scarback is a chicken.
He is also a four fight veteran, a Hatch/Claret ‘battlecock’ or fighting rooster whose legs are so strong that one kick from them would snap your index finger like a stick of rock. If you were to ruffle the feathers on his back you would find a four inch scar from a previous fight. Resplendent in violent orange, black and red, his comb, wattles and ear lobes have been shorn off, lest they provide an easy target for his opponent. Now he looks more like a bald eagle with the curve of his beak and the evil look of malice aforethought in his inscrutable, bright orange eyes.
In around ten minutes Scarback will either be dead or crowned a fifth-fight champion. Hank plucks him from the floor and tapes him up like a boxer. First corn plasters are tied round either leg, then double-sided electrical tape. Hank pulls two glinting, steel gaffs which are semicircular, needle sharp and approximately three inches long out of a red-felt lined case. The gaffs are attached to a leather rectangle of white leather which affixes round the roosters leg like a bandage and is held tight with wire.
Hank works Scarback’s claws which gives a satisfying crack each time. Once done, Scarback stands proudly puffing out his chest, the glint of steel spurs curving inwards and upwards on the back of his legs. Scarback will now face a packed arena, men wagering thousands on his life.
Not that Scarback realises, and it’s a moot point if he even cares, but another war has been waged on his behalf from the Senate in Washington DC to the local legislature in Oklahoma. Since 1832 almost all of the fifty states has banned cockfighting until only three stubbornly held out against the march of animal rights activists: Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma - the world home of cockfighting. Here generations of ‘cockers’ have bred roosters, passing birds and bloodlines from father to son for centuries. Several million of the state’s economy comes from cockfighting in feed, medicine and peripheral industries. Here, in the Oklahoma ‘Badlands’, cockfighting is a way of life.
But animal rights campaigners led by the Humane Society, known among cockers as the ‘'Humaniacs', have waged war. It has been a vicious clash which has split the largely rural state. The cockers say any ban will threaten countless livelihoods and family traditions. They say the Hu-maniacs are merely urban folk with slick Washington lobbyists who have no love for animals, and they just elicit sympathy from the public with outdated propaganda in order to make money. The campaigners argue that cockfighting has no place in a civilised society. “They are arming farmyard animals with knives to amuse themselves,” declares Cynthia Armstrong of the Oklahoma Coalition Against Cockfighting. “And then betting on the outcome. They act torn up about killing them but they strap knives on and send them to their deaths.”
In November last year after a closely-fought state referendum cockfighting was banned in a vote 565 967 to 441 220. It makes it a felony to hold cockfights, keep equipment or facilities for cockfighting or to possess birds used for cockfighting. While it is technically banned in the state last minute legal wrangles mean the law is not being executed to full affect yet.
Outlawed, the last few pockets of resistance against the law remain. Cockfighters are highly clandestine and have operated for decades in drug-cartel type secrecy. Later, I would learn how dangerous it can be to breach that trust. My car would be ransacked and I would narrowly escape a severe beating.
I had been warned before I left New York that I would be entering into a dangerous, twilight world of drugs and guns and illegal gambling. Cynthia Armstrong of the Oklahoma Coalition of Cockfighting warned me: “Nationally law enforcement have discovered large sums of cash, illegal weapons and drugs at cockfights.”
It’s a surprise then to enter the barn which houses the cockpit and, once in, to be met with a scene of surprising domesticity. A kind-faced old lady with a dentured smile sells us tickets to the Texoma Game Club’s Colonel Sparkman Memorial 8 cock derby. Children run around shouting with glee and a woman in a blue rinse sells T shirts emblazoned with roosters that say, “All Heart” against confederate flag backgrounds. Another man has a stall selling potions like ‘Rooster Booster’ and ‘Pecker Wrecker’ while also offering magazines like ‘The Feathered Warrior’ and ‘Grit and Steel.’ A staff of five runs a busy canteen selling chicken burgers among other things. And a man works a knife sharpening lathe, honing the gleaming tips of gaffs and the scalpel sharp edges of cockfighting knives. There are three weapons: the gaff, short knife and long knife. Long knives are several inches long and are basically scalpels. The deadly edge means fights are over very quickly, the short knife is a smaller version and is favoured by Mexican fighters.
The crowd milling around begin to take to comfortable, orange padded cinema-style seats in a four sided, 500 capacity arena. In the front row are fifty year old women in pink, cashmere turtle necks and pearls who come from an oil-rich family in Texas, behind them Mexicans in ostrich skin cowboy boots and custom made Stetsons. Behind them couples holding hands on dates and then a sprinkling of gap-toothed men in dungarees. All stand reverentially and remove their hats for the national anthem and the hoisting aloft of the Stars and Stripes.
We face down on the cockpit: a raised octagonal stage about 20 feet across, raised on grey painted cinder blocks which is framed by an eight foot high two inch mesh wire fence. The referee stands in the centre wearing a black and white striped umpire’s jersey and smart black, creased trousers. The fence is to protect us, not the roosters. If a battlecock armed with knives on its back legs were to land in the audience it would do untold damage. In the Philippines the previous week a cockfighter was killed when his bird jumped out of his hands and split open the carotid artery on his neck.
Behind the bleachers the roosters are weighed and are fought within 2 ounces of one another. Their gaffs are wiped with surgical spirit and then Hank, cradling Scarback, makes his way out of a tunnel. The crowd begin to roar, laying bets with one another across the small arena. “Eighty over here!” “Twenty on the one with the green hat!” Greasy wads of notes are held aloft in tight fists, despite signs all over the pit saying ‘No Gambling’ as a nod to Oklahoma’s total ban on gambling. Hank, strokes, fondles and kisses Scarback who by now is looking around curiously.
Behind him is his opponent, cradling his bird. The two avoid eye contact until once in the ring. A steel gate clangs shut behind them. The two men go to either corner and drop their birds to the ground. Scarback lands with an agile flourish, stands tall and crows with all his might, delicately strutting around and casting an insolent eye at the audience. He will win if he kills the other bird, it runs away or is so battered it cannot fight anymore.
That done, the birds are swiped from the floor and the two men cradling their roosters meet in the middle, shake hands and nod at the referee. They then stand sideways on to each other and with their roosters cradled in their arms sway them as if rocking a baby to sleep but by doing so swing the roosters into each others faces. The birds peck savagely at one another every time they get close.
They step back and the fight begins. Hank mumbles into the ears of Scarback all the time, stroking him furiously and faces his opponent and raises the rooster to his left eye as if aiming a gun. On the count of three the men drop their birds.
Even before they hit the ground both fan their hackle feathers out, looking like a suddenly opened umbrella. One touch to the ground and Scarback beats his wings with a muffled whump and soars high, maybe five foot as his opponent soars to meet him. Like an eagle reaching out to seize its prey with talons, his neck extends as he meets his opponent in mid-air. The collision is spectacular - a savage explosion - a blur of dust, fury, feathers and razor sharp steel. All roosters lead with their left and so does Scarback, beating a savage tattoo of 1-2, 1-2, 1-2 with his gaff-armed legs against the other birds breast and face as they fall. They land entangled, spitting with rage and heaving with adrenaline. Once separated they tear, kick and peck at each other again. Both Hank and other man roll with every punch and Hank’s opponent lifts his leg and kicks as his rooster does, vicariously.
After a few seconds the referee calls break, ending the round. The men pick up their birds caress and cajole them and then release their straining bodies again. This time Scarback bursts high, smashes his opponent against the mesh fence and as they fall kicks down to drive two inches of the gaff into the other bird’s back and through his heart. His opponent is dead before he hits the ground. A few speckles of blood spray the dirt crimson.
Scarback lands entangled before struggling to wrench his gaff free. And then he unfurls himself vaingloriously to his full height. After a few exploratory pecks to his rivals head, he places his left foot proprietorially on the other birds lifeless chest and throws his head back with a victorious crow that ricochets off the walls of the arena. Ten seats back, Shocker, as he is known in cockfighting circles places a heavy hand on my leg. “What did I tell you Jonathan,” he proclaims proudly. “ I told you I raised the meanest, baddest, bitchin’ motherfuckin’ roosters in Oklahoma.”
IT took three months before Shocker revealed who he was. The name was just one of the monikers I found on the www.pitmaster.com, a cockfighting website. Cockfighters all have a nom de guerre so that their true identities cannot be found out and often, for tax purposes. In an increasingly hostile climate they have gone even deeper underground. On the bulletin board cockers talk, swap anecdotes and rail against the Hu-maniacs. At first any request to meet them was met with outright hostility and I received a number of threats in my e-mail. One said, “If you sensationalise this story to their (the cockers) detriment they will haunt you till the end of time.” But while I had threats I also had some who apologised for the behaviour of their fellow cockers offering that they had been stitched up so many times they didn’t trust anyone anymore. But one, Shocker, after three months of learning to trust me invited me to Oklahoma to see a fight.
Shocker, is famous in cockfighting circles. His real name is Jimmy. He’s a 57 year old tough man who, when he frowns, looks a little like an angry rooster with his grey hair but dark tinged eyebrows forming an angry chevron. He runs a dental lab with a staff of twelve making dentures, bridges and prosthetics just outside Oklahoma city with his wife, Kathy. It’s highly skilled and demanding work. He chain-smokes Camels, drinks coffee by the bucket load and has a laugh which sounds like a chicken fight: a huge eruption. But Jimmy is almost teetotal and certainly doesn’t do drugs. “I don’t drink or chase women anymore,” he says. “But chickens? I’m addicted to chickens, a fanatic you might say.”
As we drive out to his place in a huge, SUV truck with blacked out windows and a personal plate - Shocker - he needs little prompting to explain why an intelligent, moneyed man would become addicted to game fowl. “Did you know its the only animal that will fight to the death no matter what? he says. “Or that a rooster has 17 more times testosterone in him per Ib than a human male?” And in a phrase I would hear repeated over and over again when speaking to cockfighters, the quality of a bird is determined by whether he is ‘game’ or not. “There just ain’t no back in a rooster,” he proclaims again, forcefully. “I admire them more than anything else in the world.” He says this with a sort of frowning wistfulness. “They never, ever give up. It’s something I have tried to instil in my boys.” He pauses. “Well until one of them got stabbed and realised he better line out a bit.”
And in that sense Jimmy is no different from some of the greatest figures in history. Cockfighting began 2500 years ago. Alexander the Great’s armies would take fighting roosters with them on military campaigns and Alexander would make his troops fight them before going into battle. The plumes the Romans and Greeks wore on their helmets in battle were meant to intimidate their opponents and resemble fighting cocks. St Augustine based his theology on them from an essay he wrote on a cockfight in the fourth century. And in the US White House, Abraham Lincoln won his nickname ‘Honest Abe’ from his fair refereeing of cockfights.
Unsurprisingly, cockfighting has been an immutable part of the lexicon of our times. Cockpit comes from cockfighting, cock eyed, cock of the walk, cocksure, to dig in your spurs, crow about and cocky to mean unafraid and insolent all come from cockfighting. And indeed cock, meaning penis, also derives from cockfighting as men over the centuries have viewed their virility and masculinity as one and the same as their fighting cocks. Pecker also comes from the same thing.
Yet cockers today, according to Professor Frederick Hawley, a sociologist at Western Carolina University, are not a shady criminal demimonde but “really hard working blue collar guys.” Professor Hawley has been to numerous cockfights over the years. “This isn’t like baseball or football to these guys. It goes way beyond sport: its an affirmation of who these southern guys are. Its an affirmation of their communities. The cock is emblematic - it will fight to the death. These are all attributes white southern men value. But they love these birds, really love them to such an astonishing emotional level.”
Born and raised “in the dirt of Kansas” Jimmy is a rarity in that his father had nothing to do with fighting chickens. Jimmy was newly demobbed from the army medical corps and bored when he caught a story in the paper about underground cockfighting in Kansas. He suffered the usual threats of violence when he asked around it but, a few months later, he was trusted enough to be taken to his first cock fight in Oklahoma. “A rooster just flew up and BAM! smashed the other bird against the wall and killed it stone cold dead. It was the craziest thing I had ever seen. From then on I was addicted.”
He moved to LA, set up a dental lab in Santa Monica making bridges and dentures for the stars and gave Hollywood grins to Richard Gere, the Jackson Five and Elizabeth Taylor among others. He had a staff of sixty and while making his fortune bred roosters, crossing into Arizona and Mexico to fight them on the weekends as it is illegal in California.
He made his first million by the time he was 35 and decided to retire and follow his addiction: chickens. He sold his business and with his three sons and then wife, packed up a U Haul trailer half filled with their possessions and the other half with thirty two roosters and three brood hens and lit out of LA to Oklahoma, the home of cockfighting and where any attempt to ban cockfighting had always been met with fierce resistance.
Jimmy bought some land near to Blanchard Oklahoma where there was pit up the road. And with his partner Randy, spent every spare moment he had raising or fighting chickens. Then there were at least 42 pits in the state and cockfighting was in its heyday. Oil was being found in the state and the boom was on.
Texoma was the first pit to put up thousands of dollars in prize money. But with such large sums of money cheating and fight fixing became rampant. There are a million ways to cheat, each more ingenious than the last. Birds sometimes drop dead on the scales or as soon as they enter the ring after fights have been fixed and slow acting poison acts too quickly. A brown nicotine substance is smeared on the neck feathers which is instant poison to birds who touch it with their beaks. Rattle snake venom is smeared on the gaffs or knives and with just one touch the other bird falls dead. Gaffs are fixed on with swivel hinges so that they can’t cut. And one famous method is to inject a bean with poison and force it into the birds crop. It can be squeezed at will and the poison released when it becomes time to throw the fight. Birds are picked up and masturbated until they ejaculate which causes them to lose interest in fighting or chilli's are discreetly pushed up their rivals anuses during the fight. Pits would mysteriously burn down in the middle of the night, when gambling debts weren't paid or fights were fixed. And everyone knew local enforcer High Walter, who carried a shotgun under his trench coat, and who liked to nail people's hands and feet to the floor before setting them alight.
Although the cheating is not as bad as it was with more stringent checks cockfighting has become more of a family sport to many. The FBI infiltrated the pits and the bad guys were locked up. Randy, Jimmy’s partner, is in prison after trying to pay off his gambling debts by carrying drugs up from Mexico, Jimmy never was paid the million dollars for his business, his wife left him and he raised three sons single-handedly while restarting a business from scratch. Now the one place Jimmy thought he could pursue his passion for cockfighting has made him a felon. “I been through it,” says Jimmy. “All I had left was my roosters.”
On paddocks behind his house serried lines of green, plastic barrels spaced at ten foot intervals are home to roosters tethered by their left leg. A circling hawk thought he has spotted an easy meal when he flew over Jimmy’s field of roosters. As he flew in for the kill he had no idea he was about to take on a battlecock. Jimmy came ouf the following morning to find a stunned, badly beaten up hawk lying on its back with the rooster standing over it crowing in victory. The noise is phenomenal and when I played my tap recorder back the woofer was so distorted it was impossible to hear what was said. Jimmy has 300 roosters which is modest, some, like the millionaire cockfigthers from Texas have 2000 and full time staff’s to keep them.
A few lines back are hen houses where roosters who have won their fights are placed with hens as a reward and to breed. “I could sit down with you for ten weeks and not be able to teach you one tenth of what I know about chickens,” says Jimmy. “I’ve been doing it all my life and I’m still learning.”
Jimmy’s roosters are not domestic chickens, but bred from jungle fowl. Thousands of years ago cockfighters in Asia found the stupidest, nastiest bird. And ever since, all over the globe, cockers have refined, bred and mutated the breed with assisted Darwinistic efficiency into pure, mongoloid fighting machines. Himalayan Bankivas were bred in for speed and flying kicks, Malaysian birds for stamina. “That there,” says Jimmy, pointing at a clucking rooster eyeing us, “is a Kelso which is like a Muhammed Ali of roosters. I bred him with a Hatch which is like the Mike Tyson of roosters. So now I have a real good fighter in every way. I kinda like playing God.” And like Dr Frankenstein, Jimmy is proud of the creatures he creates. “I have some Hatches in there with green legs and funnily enough no-one wants to fight them.”
Roosters are fed a diet to rival any boxer’s in training. A high carbohydrate diet is used to bulk up so Jimmy makes conchiglie pasta by the sauce panful, cider vinegar is added to keep feathers soft and supple, as is black pepper, garlic and Walmart multivitamins. Vitamin K is used which helps to clot blood as well as iron in chelated form to produce more red blood cells. Yet nearly all cockers keep their exact feed regimes a secret. Doping is not only allowed, its positively encouraged and birds are given strychnine and other concoctions to make them faster and fiercer.
They are only brought to fight when they are two years old. Then they enter a comprehensive but gruelling training programme. A workbench covered in carpet is used and Jimmy will work long into the night, flying them to the table which builds up their formidable leg muscles and their flying power. Jimmy plays the radio while doing this to get them accustomed to the noise of the cockpit (“Anything but country music - they hate that”) and once they can do it fifty times without opening their beak they are ready to fight. They will spa too on a regular basis, and little padded gloves go over their spurs. It takes weeks of dedication to get a rooster up to fighting speed. “When you see ‘em fight,” says Jimmy, excitedly. “You are right in there with ‘em - its like being in a fist fight but you don’t get hit.”
There’s no doubt he loves his birds, spending every waking hour he can with them when not working. Many, like his champion Heart Attack a 17 time winner, are lovingly cared for into old age. So how can he put something he obviously loves so much through so much pain? “A rooster doesn’t feel pain like human does,” argues Jimmy. “It’s part reptile.” I ask if he would stop cockfighting if he knew they felt pain? “Yes I probably would,” he says squarely. “A lot of other cockers wouldn’t but I would. Look, I’ve seen birds fly out of trees snap their legs off and carry on eating.” But surely there must be pity for a bird that gets slashed to pieces in the cockpit? “Pity don’t come into it,” he says. “These birds love to fight that's what they do. They eat, shit, crow and fight - that's it. But most cockers take better care of their birds than their own children.”
To prove his point Jimmy, sets a bird on the outside edge of his paddock free. To the bird’s left is another rooster, to the right a huge expanse of open field and freedom. The rooster jumps to the ground, takes two or three strides and begins to pummel the living daylights out of its neighbour until it can barely breathe. “See,” says Jimmy. “That's what they do. It maybe brutal but so is life. These people don’t like the brutality but they don’t seem to mind wrecking people’s lives because they object to how animals behave. Around 30% of the people round here will lose their livelihoods because of this.”
Cockfighting is big business. Birds that win fights can change hands for as much as $5000. And Jimmy will sell a pair for roughly $1500. Oklahoma is perfect for breeding roosters because of its dry climate. Lorry loads of birds are exported to countries like the Philippines and Puerto Rico where cockfighting is a national sport. In fact cockers head out to Manilla all the time and many many marry Filipino women who were much in evidence at the cockfight.
Yet as the ban comes into effect there are those who will be decimated by it. In cockfighting circles everyone shakes their head, tutting, when they talk of “Billy” and what he is going to do. At thirty six he is paid by wealthy rooster fighters to rear, train and fight their chickens. He’s a fifth generation cocker and has raised and fought roosters since he was five.
Dressed in a baggy Haiwaian shirt with the telltale scars and scratches on his arms of a man that denote a man who handles fighting cocks for a living, we meet in one of the outhouses at the cockfight. He’s surrounded by a gaggle of adolescent boys who treat him like a revered rock star. He cradles his champion rooster proudly. “I would bet my house and car or get a bank loan against this fell,” he says in a lazy, slow drawl. “He can whoop anyone.” Later a man comes in with a wad of $100 bills to pay Billy off.
A father of three he sends his children to college with the $400 a week he makes from roosters. “I got a real nice house, a swimming pool and pay my family’s $800 a week grocery bill,” he says. When the ban comes in he will be out of work and will have only his wife to support him and his family.
Billy seems complete confused as to why anyone would want to ban a sport that has been the centre of his life since he was born. “Even if you don’t put a weapon on them they will fight until they beat their feet plumb off and one or both them die. That's what makes them so special,” he says, kissing his champion. “They are going to kill each other anyway. At least this way they get to fight for their lives.”
Yet while Billy admires and loves them, particularly his trademark grey roosters, he is coldly emotionless when he talks about birds that don’t have heart and don’t fight. “If a bird quits on me I go home and kill all his brothers.” Quitters in the blood line is bad for business and any imperfections are weeded out.
And of course there is a brutality about cockfighting which can’t be ignored. If a fight goes over a certain length of time, the birds are taken to back of the stands to one of three drag pits. Here birds which are battered, beaten with lolling necks and bloody feathers fight with the last breath of their bodies. The Doc, as he is known, a surgeon from over the state line in Texas, fights his roosters in trademark blue surgical scrubs. Even with with his bird hacked to pieces, it still feebly pecks at the other. Like others he coaxes the very last fight out of his rooster by wetting its face with water and putting the dying bird’s head in his mouths to suck blood and feathers out of its throat.
As the derby draws on, each entrant has eight birds which are fought to whittle down the overall winner with the most number of victories. After a while it feels a little like a conveyor belt and is not so much brutal as somewhat boring. Even Jimmy slumps in his seat yawning with fight after fight.
Until, that is, one of his birds is killed in a long knife fight. All the tough talk about no pity and only victory meaning anything seems to dissolve. Visibly upset, he cradles the dead bird like a baby and stalks out to his truck, in a fuming rage. All the while he had been cheerful, genial and helpful with me but this time with the dead bird which he gingerly places in the back, he is wordless and says he needs to go home to spend time with his wife.
And he leaves me and a photographer alone at the cockfight. Which is when trouble starts. All along I have vouched that we wouldn’t take any pictures at the actual fight, but someone spots the photographer holding an instamatic in his hand. He is grabbed and strong-armed out, and I too am found and marched out to behind the pit. Jimmy had warned me that undercover journalists or animal rights activists caught at cockfights were beaten. The owner knew we were here only at the last minute, reluctantly tolerated our presence but stipulated no cameras.
A towering man with a greasy baseball cap and beard leads us out to the rental car along with the pit owner: a slick, silver haired and moustachioed fifty year old from Alabama. “Where is the book you were writing in?” they demand. I am forced to hand over my notepad, all our film is taken but not before the taller of the two roughly pokes around in the back of the car. And then we wait for the fists to fly. They eye us, pausing, inhale and then relent.We are told to leave immediately. “You don’t know how lucky you are to be walking out of here,” growls, greasy baseball cap, turning on his heel. It was terrifying.
“You had the luckiest escape of your lives,” says Jimmy, the following day. “Normally they beat fire out of your ass. I would have been expecting to make you a new pair of teeth today.” The only reason we weren’t attacked is that Jimmy had vouched for us. But now however, the one cocker who decided to trust the press will now be outlawed by his own community. “Y’know,” says Jimmy sadly. “I’ve spent twenty years building up my reputation in this sport and I’ve lost it overnight.”
A few days later I visit Cynthia Armstrong, head of the anti campaign at the state senate. She’s a trim, fiftyish women with a bob hairstyle, a lime green business suit who turned to animal rights work along with joining the Oklahoma City ballet council when she retired as a stock broker. She admits she has never been to a cockfight. But she is highly charged and emotive when talking of cockfighting. “This is not natural,” she says. “You show me a rooster that has the manual dexterity to tie a knife to its leg. If they have a natural agression it is over mates and territory.” Her motivation for her part time campaigning is clear: “ I am just pleased Oklahoma won’t be seen as a third world country anymore.”
Her own victory has surprised her but now she is not quite sure what to do with all the birds she has saved. She wrinkles her nose when I ask if she will take any to her home. At first she says people can take them to the states where it is still legal to fight them and then relents and says: “I would honestly rather see the roosters humanely euthanised than fought to the death.” In the new act all roosters even vaguely connected to fighting will be killed.
When I mention this to Billy Bingham, he goes quiet and tears up. “I don’t what these people are talking about he,” says. “Its more cruel what they are doing just going out there and killing them all.”
Indeed, it seems odd that while it is a felony conviction to fight a chicken against another, 8 billion chickens are killed every year in the US to feed a population that gorges itself on Kentucky Fried Chicken and Chicken McNuggets. While preparing this piece I emailed and called five or six of the biggest chicken producers in the US asking to look round a legitimate poultry factory. Not a single one replied to let me see for myself how chickens are legally slaughtered. However, it is known that birds are reared to five months, and then packed off to the factory where they are hung upside down on a conveyor belt and slowly fed into a machine which slices their heads off. It was easier to get into a felonious cockfight than to see the how a chicken burger is made.
Democrat congressman Randall Erwin is at work trying to get the new legislation repealed. In his office in the State legislature, along with pictures of himself with President Clinton he has two boar’s heads mounted on the wall, which he shot himself. “If you run into one of those into the woods and you are not allowed to kill it you better find a tree,” he says. “What I’d like to do is take one of these animal rights people out there and see if they would want to shoot it or find a tree.”
“These are people who don’t understand rural traditions and customs and just want to get money from the public. I asked them what are you going to do with all these birds and they just call your local vet and have them killed. What’s the difference if you have them killed or you let them fight for themselves? its a tragedy what these so called humane people have done.”
Most cockfighters I met were family men of retirement age who had invested all their savings in their rooster businesses as a hobby and retirement fund. Not only will all their beloved birds be slaughtered but they stand to lose their pensions and financial futures too. None could afford jail terms as felons and none were prepared to move as their families were in Oklahoma.
Yet some are still defiant. Bill Davies is a sixty year old Vietnam veteran with half moon glasses and a woodash beard who is a self employed concrete contractor. “I’ve worked hard all my life,” he says. “And I’ve fought for this country’s freedom. I’ll make a point that they will have to take me to jail before they get my stuff. We don’t want to impose our values on people and to build a cockpit in downtown Oklahoma city but we don’t expect people imposing their ways upon us either. Its like saving up to buy a car and then someone coming in and saying you can’t have that anymore.”
The days of legal cockfighting are limited. Now Washington DC has joined in the fight. The Farm Bill which will come into affect in May will make it illegal to transport roosters over state lines. This is the final nail in the coffin which will stop breeders taking their birds into the last two states to fight where it is still legal.
Yet with more Mexicans settling in the US and cockfighting an intrinsic part of their culture some say the sport is bigger than it has ever been. But now it is illegal and underground this will draw back all the unsavoury characters. At present, in sharp contradiction to animal rights activists claims that cockfights are vipers nests of criminal activity, according to the local Sheriff there has not been a single arrest at an Oklahoma cockfight for guns, drugs or violence.
Jimmy, despite the enormous danger we have put him in, invites me out to his game farm one last time. “I’m pleased you saw the fight,” he says, regardless of what has happened. “I can see how people would find it brutal but I have nothing to hide.” He concedes he won’t break the law to fight roosters but, to save the lives of his birds from the ‘rooster holocaust’ he has signed them all over to the Kiowa Indians on a nearby reservation. As the Indian settlements are a sovereign nation, state law does not apply there. Jimmy looks at me with a sidelong glance and arches an eyebrow: “I told you - I’m a cockfighter. I’ll always come back fighting.”