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Raising roosters is big business. Now a push to ease penalties for cockfighting is ruffling feathers

Troy Thompson raises 2,000 to 3,000 roosters annually on his farm in Oklahoma. The birds are tethered to "teepees" when they're five to six months old. "If these aren't penned up, you know, they're going to fight out in the wild to the death. And that's why we have to separate them like we do here," Thompson said.

There are rows and rows of small white structures housing individual roosters on Troy Thompson’s farm in southern Oklahoma.

“You know, some people like pigs, some people like horses — I like chickens,” Thompson said.

These breeds of colorful Hatches and Kelsos are said to derive from jungle fowl and have historically been bred for fighting, but Thompson said he sells them for breeding purposes.

A sign says Troy Farms in front of rows and rows of white A-frame structures where roosters are tethered.
Troy Thompson grew up around game fowl and said he returned to Oklahoma with a plan to raise his own roosters. He raises three breeds: Kelsos, Hatches, and Law Greys, that he said each date back more than 100 years. “So, you know, we’d like to keep these bloodlines going for the historical purposes of it,” Thompson said. Graycen Wheeler / KOSU

After living in Texas, Thompson decided to return to Oklahoma and raise his own roosters. It’s something he’s been around throughout his life, and he said, it’s pretty typical in the rural communities he knows.

There’s hardly a town you can go to in the state of Oklahoma or any town in Texas where somebody doesn’t know something or own some game fowl in one of those towns,” Thompson said.

He is one of 15,000 members of the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission, a nonprofit that promotes the interests of game fowl owners.

In recent years, the commission has given campaign contributions and advocated for laws to reduce the penalties for cockfighting. The sport was banned in Oklahoma in 2004, but there’s a long tradition in the state.

Within the last couple of years, several bills have been introduced in the Oklahoma legislature to reduce the cockfighting penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor in the first two instances or to give individual counties the right to do so. One bill made it through the state’s House of Representatives this past spring, but has not been picked up by the state Senate.

Anthony DeVore, president of the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission, said it’s about protecting breeders’ rights.

“We want to be able to own and raise and sell the game fowl without interpretation of people trying to say that we’re trying to fight them and just not have to look over our shoulders,” he said. Because, you know they’re flying drones over and saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got an illegal activity,’ and we’re like, ‘We’re just raising chickens.’”

A man in a blazer stands with a rooster next to a man in a ball cap in front of rows of white A-frame shelters for roosters.
President of the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission, Anthony DeVore (left), and Troy Thompson pose for a picture on Thompson’s farm. Graycen Wheeler / KOSU

Raised in the U.S.

Cockfighting has been illegal in all 50 states since 2007, when Louisiana became the last state to outlaw fighting roosters. The same year Congress passed the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act, which makes it a federal crime to sell or transport animals or paraphernalia for the purpose of fighting.

Yet while cockfighting is illegal, thousands of game fowl are raised in the U.S. each year.

“It’s a rampant, huge industry in the United States,” said Leighann Lassiter, director of animal cruelty policy at the Humane Society of the United States.

She said American birds — raised in states from California to Oklahoma to North Carolina — are highly prized around the world. Depending on the bird, she said they can be sold anywhere from $75 to upwards of $2,000, often to international buyers in countries including Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico and the Philippines.

Lassiter said they’re often sent through the U.S. Postal Service or other carriers.

“It’s not illegal to ship a bird,” she said. “It’s illegal to ship a bird for the purpose of fighting. Proving that is where the difficulty comes in. Proving that this person is knowingly shipping that bird and what their intent is. That’s the difficult part.”

Cameron Harsh, the U.S. director of programs for World Animal Protection, agrees with Lassiter – proving breeders knowingly sell birds to be fought is a challenge.

“I think a lot of individuals are hiding their intent and they’re selling to other businesses in other country markets where it may be tacitly accepted that these animals are going into fighting systems, but it’s not explicitly determined,” Harsh said.

While it’s illegal in all U.S. states and territories, fights are still occurring across the country.

Fighting pits have been uncovered from Indiana to Texas, and farms raided in Oklahoma and Alabama. Often the birds that are seized are destroyed by authorities, because of the roosters’ instinct to fight and to prevent the spread of disease.

Law enforcement officials, with assistance from the Humane Society of the United States, discovered a pit on the scene of an alleged cockfighting operation in Indiana in November 2022.
Law enforcement officials, with assistance from the Humane Society of the United States, discovered a pit on the scene of an alleged cockfighting operation in Indiana in November 2022. Meredith Lee / Humane Society Of The United States

The culture

Cockfighting is a practice that has been in the U.S. since colonial times. That’s despite criticism from Puritans and an attempt to ban it by the Continental Congress, according to Philip Levy, a history professor at University of South Florida , who’s written a book about chickens.

He said the first animal anti-cruelty organization was formed in the U.S. after the Civil War, and efforts to ban bird fighting grew in the late 1800s.

“So you always end up like ebb and flow,” Levy said. “It comes and goes and comes and goes. It has been the general lean against it for a long time, but it creeps back in, periodically.”

The United Gamefowl Breeders Association was founded about 50 years ago, in response to the Animal Welfare Act, which was passed in 1966. John “Bucky” Harless serves as the group’s public relations director and secretary and often judges shows.

“Our goal is preservation of our civil liberties and constitutional rights and the preservation of an ancient strain of chickens,” Harless said. “And if you’re not allowed to raise them, how are they going to survive? You know, they’ll become extinct. They’ll be a dodo bird.”

A man holds a rooster.
Anthony DeVore, president of the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission, holds a rooster. The group has more than 15,000 members and DeVore said the state has about 5,000 game fowl breeders. Graycen Wheeler / KOSU

Today, as well as the national organization, there are game fowl groups in several states; including Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Indiana, Illinois and a newly-formed group in Kentucky.

Bryan Plumb belongs to game fowl commissions in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma and raises about 800 roosters a year on his farm in southwest Missouri.

Plumb is firm, he’s not involved with anything illegal — he’s interested in preserving the different breeds of roosters. He said he wishes people would take the time to understand the birds, as well as the breeders.

“You know, they associate the rooster people with everything. Illegal gambling, drugs, prostitution, you know, that’s wrong,” Plumb said. “But most guys that raise roosters are country folks. There’s a good old boy you run into down to the feed store or the local cafe. They’re not what’s been stereotypically labeled.”

When it comes to efforts in Oklahoma to lower penalties for fighting the birds, Plumb said he thinks it’s a good idea.

“For me to sit here and tell you that I wouldn’t like to be able to, you know, legally test my birds, I’d be lying to you,” he said. “That’s what they’re bred to do.”

In Oklahoma

As to whether Oklahomans think penalties for cockfighting should be lowered, it depends on who is asked.

According to a Sooner Survey poll conducted a year ago, about 87% of residents believe cockfighting should remain illegal in the state. Meanwhile, DeVore said the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission hired a company to poll Republican primary voters, which found most supported the legislation to lower cockfighting punishments.

Back in 2002, Oklahomans voted 56% to 44% to ban cockfighting and make it a felony. The law was challenged, but the state’s Supreme Court upheld it in 2004.

Today the state’s game fowl commission points out that cockfighting is a misdemeanor in several states including California — while it’s a felony in Oklahoma and about 40 other states. Those who intentionally breed or sell birds for fighting in Oklahoma can face prison sentences of up to 10 years and fines of up to $25,000.

DeVore said the penalties are excessive, especially when compared to other crimes with lower punishments, such as drug possession. He claims teenagers involved in the Future Farmers of America could be prosecuted under the current law, because materials used to raise the birds, such as drop pens, could be interpreted as an intent to fight.

“You know, they’re trying to make it to where we can’t raise chickens,” he said. “And that’s all we want to do is be able to own them and raise them without fear of somebody’s interpretation of intent, because the intent law is not defined.”

 A rooster crows in front of white shelters.
A rooster crows on Troy Thompson’s farm. Each morning Thompson said he’s up at 4 a.m. to check on the roosters, feed and water them. “It’s a good day when you know everything’s as it should be,” he said. Graycen Wheeler / KOSU

But prosecutors, including Oklahoma’s former Attorney General Drew Edmondson, said it takes evidence of fighting paraphernalia, such as steroids and gaffs – the barbs that can be attached to roosters’ legs for fights.

“I don’t think if what they have are roosters that they use to propagate the species and create more chickens, I don’t think they have any realistic fear of being, in any way harassed or intimidated or much less prosecuted,” Edmondson said.

“But there is a big difference between having roosters because you’re raising chickens and having roosters for fighting. It’s just a world of difference.”

Edmondson defended the state’s law 20 years ago before the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Now, he is the co-chair of the Law Enforcement Council of Animal Wellness Action.

He said cockfighting is usually linked to other criminal activity, mainly gambling.

“Can you imagine staging a cockfight without betting going on? I can’t,” Edmondson said. “I don’t know why people would go watch them unless they’re betting on the outcome.”

For Edmondson, it’s not surprising breeders are advocating and donating to state legislators in hopes of lowering penalties for cockfighting.

“It’s big business for them. There’s money to be made,” he said.

Last fall, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt faced an onslaught of criticism when he appeared to show support for the game fowl commission’s work in a short video, which was later released by Animal Wellness Action.

In the video, the Republican governor addresses the game fowl commission saying he wanted to “cheer you on from the sidelines.” He goes on to talk about the “long and storied history of game fowl” in the state and the need to protect game fowl farmers in Oklahoma.

“I can’t wait to see what we accomplish together in the next legislative session,” Stitt said.

At the time, the governor’s communications director, Abegail Cave, said Stitt did not support animal cruelty.

“He supports the Oklahoma agricultural industry and often records videos for Oklahoma groups,” Cave said. “No legislation has been presented to him and he hasn’t considered or endorsed any legislation on this topic.”

In recent months, Cave has said the governor will not support the bills still in the legislature to lessen penalties for fighting birds.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Copyright 2024 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.
Harvest Public Media

Harvest Public Media

Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues through a collaborative network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.

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