Master Cockfighter

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There was a fine in Georgia for killing hawks, the man told him. Ratliff wasn't impressed. "We're just killing the damn things that eats our chickens," he says he told the man. "By the way, I'd just as soon hang your ass on that chain-link fence as one of those damn hawks or coyotes, and I mean it. You're just a bunch of damn people who have no business being American."

The Humane Society would always be a pain in Ratliff's ass. As soon as he finished building the cockfighting pit that now stands in Jal, New Mexico, a woman from the organization got a judge to put a padlock on it. Ratliff had to go all the way up to Santa Fe to argue his case.

"Our lawyer says to the judge, 'I understand you love to fish.' The judge nodded. So our lawyer asks him, 'Which is more harmful, to let two roosters fight in their way of thinking or to put a minnow on a hook?' The judge thought about that for about ten seconds. He said, 'I put my minnows on a hook.' Then he hit the gavel and said, 'Case dismissed.'"

But things changed over the years. In 1975, cockfighting was a felony in just a few states. By 2005, it was a felony in 33.

"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."

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 gamerooster.com. "We got a war on our hands," another declared.

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Jesse Hyde
Contact: Jesse Hyde