Chicken Man

Parting words from the greatest cockfighter who ever lived

"There's so much people don't understand about cockfighting," Ratliff says, looking at me earnestly. There was a time when people understood it, he says. Now people have dogs and cats instead of kids. "Makes no damn sense."

For the Humane Society of the United States, the eradication of cockfighting has been the top priority since 1998, when citizen groups in Missouri and Arizona passed ballot initiatives that made it illegal in their respective states.

"This is such a black-and-white issue, we shouldn't even be talking about it," says John Goodwin, the deputy manager of animal fighting issues at the Humane Society, based in Washington, D.C. "These are very egregious forms of cruelty that society has simply outgrown."

Ratliff and one of his game birds.
Ratliff and one of his game birds.
Hobbled by old age, Ratliff, 83, now gets around his farm on a scooter
Hobbled by old age, Ratliff, 83, now gets around his farm on a scooter

There is no doubt cockfighting is a brutal sport, and that the roosters suffer an agonizing death. According to a Humane Society brochure, the birds are often drugged with stimulants and steroids to make them unnaturally aggressive. Razor-sharp steel blades are attached to their legs to inflict deep puncture wounds. Legs are broken. Eyes are gouged out. Dying birds are forced to keep fighting.

"The fact is that they've had to breed gamecocks to be artificially aggressive and to demonstrate a much higher level of gameness than their natural ancestors," Goodwin says.

Besides cruelty, there are other reasons to ban the sport, Goodwin says. Illegal gambling is the norm at every cockfight, he says, and drug dealing is rampant. On top of that, cockfights can contribute to violence. In the last year, there were two fatal shootings at cockfights in Texas, one in May in Starr County that left two men dead, and another in September in Fort Bend County, near Houston, that left one dead and sent another to the hospital in critical condition.

In several states, including Hawaii and South Carolina, cops and government officials have been arrested for running interference for illegal cockfighting pits.

"These are people that in most of the country their activity is illegal," Goodwin says. "So you mix crime, the blood and cruelty, the high-stakes gambling, you mix the firearms that people bring to protect the money that they bring to gamble, and sometimes you end up with really bad results."

On June 11, 2005, with police helicopters hovering overhead, dozens of federal agents swooped down on what was perhaps the largest illegal cockfighting pit in the United States. Called Del Rio, the Eastern Tennessee pit was reportedly owned by Don Poteat, the former president of the United Gamefowl Breeders Association, the largest cockfighting organization in the United States.

When the officers arrived, a tournament was in progress. Those who tried to flee were stopped by police helicopters and the squad cars that lined the perimeter. All told, 144 participants were arrested that day. Three hundred birds were seized as well as $40,000 in cash, likely the pot the competitors were fighting their birds for.

In a press release days later, the Humane Society called the raid "the latest in a series of major blows to the world of illegal animal fighting." On Internet message boards used by cockfighters, the raid was dubbed Black Saturday. "I don't know how this will work out, but it don't look good," one poster wrote on the site "We got a war on our hands," another declared.

Despite the laws against it, cockfighting flourishes throughout the United States, but especially in the South. According to a booklet from the United Gamefowl Breeders Association, there were 4,848 gamefowl breeders in Texas in 2002, which is more than just about anywhere except Alabama and Indiana, Goodwin says. Cockfighting has been illegal in Texas since 1907 and is now a felony.

But there are loopholes. In Texas and other states in the South where cockfighting is illegal, it is not illegal to own a game bird or to watch a cockfight. In Alabama, where it is legal to both own a fighting rooster and to watch a fight, participation in a cockfight is only a misdemeanor and punishable by a $50 fine.

The only way to stop cockfighting, Goodwin says, is to make it a felony in all 50 states. "If you can win $10,000 to $15,000, you're willing to risk a $200 misdemeanor fine," he says. In states where participation in a cockfight is a felony, most cockfighters take their birds to neighboring states where it is legal. Enter H.R. 137, a federal bill that was introduced two weeks ago by Congressman Elton Gallegly of California. The bill will make the interstate transportation of game fowl, currently a federal misdemeanor, into a federal felony, which means the hundreds of cockfighters from Texas who travel to New Mexico and Louisiana to fight their roosters will be risking a whole lot to do so. It won't be long before cockfighting's illegal in New Mexico too, Goodwin says. And then the organization will turn its entire focus to the last place where the blood sport is still allowed to thrive: the backwoods of Louisiana.

"We don't want to count our chickens before they hatch," Goodwin says. "But I think it's safe to say that cockfighting is on its last leg."

"C'mon," Ratliff says. "I've got something to show you outside. You won't believe it. It will imprint your brain, and you'll know what we're talking about."
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