By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
I'm at the Whistlestop General Store, the only business in Blanket, a Central Texas town with a population of 402.
Everyone, it seems, has heard of the chicken man. And sure enough, I find the house just where she said it would be, nestled behind an overgrown field where a herd of white goats are munching grass. I walk around back and knock on the door.
Mike Ratliff calls me in. He's in the living room, sitting in his recliner, feet propped up on the footrest. His hands are folded across his little pot belly, and his clunky brown tennis shoes are covered in chicken shit. He invites me to sit and asks his wife, whom he addresses as "baby," if she can fetch us some root beer. He's got two jagged little scars above each of his eyes, one from a horse that kicked him in the head when he was 18 months old, the other from a hatchet his baby brother accidentally hit him with when he was 5.
Up close, I notice he sort of looks like a chicken—nose curved like a beak, long fingernails like talons, white hair that curls up under his hat like feathers. Across the room is Jarrel Hurst, a Ratliff protégé. He's probably pushing 70, but based on his stature (stout) and his demeanor (no-nonsense), he could probably whup my ass if I ever crossed him. He's got his arms folded across his chest, skeptical of my interest in his friend.
Ratliff is perhaps the greatest cockfighter that ever lived. In 1968, he opened the only cockfighting school in America. Over the years he would teach an estimated 8,000 students, some from as far away as the Philippines.
Then in November, at the age of 83, Ratliff announced he had taught his last class. The Humane Society rejoiced. They called it the end of an era.
"There's not many of us left," Ratliff says of the cockfighters he grew up with. "They're all gone. Dead. They're trying to make criminals out of the rest of us."
The sport is under severe attack, Ratliff says gravely. The Humane Society won't stop until it is completely eradicated from the United States. Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, once the friend of cockfighters, is now doing everything he can to outlaw it in his state, one of only two states where it is still legal.
There was a time you could fight cocks all over, Ratliff says. He fought them in Arizona, Oklahoma and pretty much every state in the South. Fought them in Texas, too, before it became a felony. He points to the long bank of trophies taking up an entire wall. "I've got 97 of them trophies," Ratliff says. "I just need three more to get 100. One of my students will get them for me."
Hurst smiles at his old friend. As they begin to hold forth on the sorry state of the United States of America, particularly its stance on cockfighting, I look around. It's more shrine than living room. Above the mammoth big-screen: an oil painting of two cocks fighting. On top of the TV: the golden bust of a rooster. Next to the TV, nailed to the wall: a toilet seat with a rooster painted on it. Every piece of art, every throw blanket, every knickknack on every shelf is a tribute to cockfighting. Over in one corner of the room I notice a collection of Native American art. A small concession, I guess, to Ratliff's wife.
"People have no damn common sense," Ratliff says, sipping his root beer. "This thing is an industry, this cockfighting is, and it's a way of life. You see the Humane Society is so damn ignorant they don't know anything about common sense. This has been handed down since the beginning of the world, since 5,000 years before Christ."
"People think these roosters, that we make them fight," Hurst says with a frown.
"They're born that way," Ratliff says. "It's inherited from their ancestors like we inherited it from our ancestors."
Hurst asks me what sort of story I'm interested in writing. They've read plenty sympathetic to that damn Humane Society. The way Ratliff sees it, city folks are all mixed up. They shudder at the thought of a racehorse busting a leg, or even a damn squirrel dropping from a tree. Don't they know how beef cattle are slaughtered? A bolt to the head. Chickens are strung up by their hind legs and beheaded. Nothing humane about that.
I explain that I've heard a lot of bad things about cockfighting and that I've come to hear the other side. Hurst nods, not quite convinced.
"We have nothing to hide," Ratliff says, shrugging his shoulders, like a plea to his old friend. He pops a throat lozenge in his mouth. He's got a lot to say.