Proposal to Weaken Cockfighting Penalties Clears Oklahoma House

Oklahoma outlawed cockfighting in 2002, being one of the last places in the U.S. to do so. More than 20 years after the ban, worries arise as it seems like Oklahoma is wavering as the Oklahoma House cleared a proposal to weaken cockfighting penalties.

Recently, a political action committee in Oklahoma launched a fund to support farmers who raise gamefowl. Additionally, in a video that has since been pulled from YouTube, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt recorded a message supporting the group known as the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission, saying he would “cheer you on from the sidelines.”

Gamefowl farmers and enthusiasts welcome the re-emergence of cockfighting in Oklahoma.

Troy Thompson, a former high school teacher and coach who now works full-time raising thousands of gamefowl on his 55-acre ranch, reminisces on the days when cockfighting was legal.

“It’s mind-blowing that you went from perfectly legal to facing a 10-year prison sentence,” he says, keeping an eye on the chickens on his farm, ones that he raises with vitamins, green grass, and the highest-quality feed year round.

On the other hand, those who oppose cockfighting and consider the matter long-settled, are frustrated.

Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, says, “Before the ban, rural Oklahoma counties were peppered with cockfighting arenas set up in large barns with stadium-style seating, overhead lights, and even concession stands. Events attracted hundreds of spectators, even children and families. After a major event, it wasn’t uncommon to see the property littered with dead bird carcasses after fights to the death. We went from 42 arenas, to … maybe there are 10 or 15 pits in the state,”

Pacelle’s organization is one, among many others, who slammed Gov. Stitt for his aforementioned YouTube video. In defense, Stitt stated that he “records dozens of videos each week and didn’t give his participation much thought”, but added, “Of course, I’m not for gamecock fighting in the state of Oklahoma, but I am open to reducing penalties if the state’s GOP-controlled Legislature sends me a bill.”

Anthony Devore, head of the Gamefowl Commission, isn’t fazed by the backlash and frustration from animal welfare groups. He said that he and others raise gamefowl to participate in poultry shows and sell them as breeding stock overseas, especially in areas where cockfighting is legal and popular such as Mexican states, the Philippines, and other countries in Southeast Asia.

“We represent game fowl farmers who breed and raise game fowl, but not for fighting purposes,” said Devore. He does acknowledge that a former district director in the Gamefowl Commission was charged with facilitating a cockfight and that the criminal case against the former director is pending.

Devore also acknowledges that they’re operating in a gray area of the law and says that reducing penalties would remove the fear of felony criminal charges hanging over their heads.

While cockfighting is illegal at the federal level in Oklahoma, recent cockfighting arrests in the state are a reminder that the activity is well alive.

Greg Mashbrn, top prosecutor for three central Oklahoma counties said that while they have been cracking down on those who raise gamefowl and use them for fighting, it’s unlikely anyone has been sentenced to prison for it. “I would say there’s probably almost none (in prison). In the 18 years I’ve been DA, we’ve only had two cases,” he added.

Still, Mashburn maintains that it’s important to enforce anti-cockfighting laws as there is often a criminal element tied to it, such as illegal drugs and gambling.

Despite the arrests, some animal rights supporters say that local sheriffs and prosecutors turn a blind eye to reports about the practice. Drew Edmondson, a former county prosecutor and attorney general for Oklahoma, now serves as a law enforcement co-chair for Animal Wellness Action. He said it’s easy to understand why some elected officials in Oklahoma, even sheriffs, might look the other way when it comes to cockfighting.

He called it a combination of money and politics. “For local politicians, it’s a pretty easy call when 60, 70, 80% of their county voted ‘no’ on the issue, to soft-pedal it and not treat it like a serious crime,” he said.