Calls to Ease Cockfighting Penalties Ruffles Feathers in Oklahoma

Breeds of colorful Hatches and Kelsos are said to derive from jungle fowl and have historically been bred for fighting. But Troy Thompson, a bird farm owner in southern Oklahoma, said he sells them for breeding purposes. Troy lived in Texas before deciding to return to Oklahoma and raise his own roosters.

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, referring to how raising gamefowl is typical in the rural communities he knows.

Thompson is one of the 15,000 members of the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission, a nonprofit that promotes the interests of game fowl owners. While cockfighting was banned in Oklahoma in 2004, the activity has a long tradition in the state. The Gamefowl Commission has given campaign contributions and advocated for laws to reduce penalties for cockfighting.

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

President of the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission Anthony DeVore says it’s all 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.’”

Cockfighting has been illegal in all 50 states since 2007. While the activity is illegal, thousands of gamefowl 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. According to her, American birds are highly prized around the world. Depending on the birds, they can be sold anywhere from 75 USD to 2,000 USD. They’re often sold to international buyers in countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Mexico, and the Philippines.

The birds are 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.”

Cockfights still occur across the U.S. despite being illegal. Illegal fighting pits have been uncovered from Indiana to Texas, and farms in Oklahoma and Alabama have been raided. Often, birds seized in these illegal cockfight operations are destroyed by authorities due to the roosters’ instinct to fight and to prevent the spread of diseases.

Cockfighting has been in the U.S. since colonial times. According to Philip Levy, a history professor at the University of South Florida, 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 50 years ago in response to the Animal Welfare Act. John “Bucky” Harless serves as the group’s public relations director and secretary and often judges shows.

“Our goal is the preservation of our civil liberties and constitutional rights and preserving 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.”

Aside from the national organization, there are game fowl groups in several states including Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Indiana, and 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. He maintains he’s not involved with anything illegal, he’s only interested in preserving the different breeds of roosters,

“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,” he stated, wishing people would take the time to understand the birds and the breeders.

When it comes to efforts in Oklahoma to lower penalties for fighting the birds, Plumb said he thinks it’s a good idea. However, for Oklahomans, it depends on who is asked.

According to a 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.

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 USD.

According to DeVore, 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.”

Prosecutors such as Oklahoma’s former Attorney General Drew Edmondson said it takes evidence of fighting paraphernalia like steroids and gaffs.

“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 Oklahoma’s state law on cockfighting 20 years ago. Now, Edmondson serves as the co-chair of the Law Enforcement Council of Animal Wellness Action. He said that cockfighting is usually linked to other criminal activity, mainly gambling.

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 Governor Kevin Stitt faced backlash when he appeared in a video showing support for the Gamefowl Commission, saying he wanted to “cheer you on from the sidelines.’ Gov. Sitt also mentioned the long and storied history of game fowl and the need to protect game fowl farmers in Oklahoma.

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.”