Master Cockfighter

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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 gamefowl, 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."

He gingerly walks outside, with me and Hurst in tow. Riding the scooter he uses to get around his farm, we drive out to a row of holding pens where he once kept roosters that were in training. He points to a panel of sheet metal that separates two of the cages. There's a crude hole in the middle. The other day, he says, he came out here to find one rooster had pecked his way through the sheet metal to get to a rooster on the other side. By the time he found them, one rooster was dead and the other had lost its eye.

"See, we don't make them fight," he says. "It's what God put them on this earth to do."

He drives into the field and stops in front of one of the roosters. "This rooster will be 16 years old next spring," he says, pointing to the bird. "Now he'll hit you because he's miserable. When they get old, they don't want to be picked up." He steps from his scooter and reaches down to pick up the bird. "Come here, buddy. I know you know me."

The rooster pecks at him, drawing blood, but Ratliff doesn't flinch. Instead, he cradles the bird and begins stroking its head. Before long, it's as calm as a cat in his arms. "I pick him up just to be ornery once a week or once a month because he's been a favorite. He'll die in my yard. I fought him one time 15 years ago."

He looks down at the rooster, which has closed its eyes. "He loves that petting. He's just like a woman, he loves to be rubbed."

"These birds are like my babies," he says, looking out across his yard. "I love them like they were my children."

Ratliff is done with his school, but his legacy will live on. He's got an instructional video that sells for $500. He suggests I attend a cockfight sometime, maybe at the Bayou Club of Louisiana, where they fight in an arena with glass walls. Or I could try the Legion Club of Jal, the pit he built so many years ago. There are illegal brush fights all the time here in Texas, and he hears about them, but I never will.

"If you ever do go to a cockfight, it will be unlike anything you've ever seen," he says. "Who knows -- you might even like it."

The Legion Club of Jal occupies a big white building not far from Highway 128, a lonely road that runs through southeastern New Mexico, just across the Texas border. From the highway, which cuts through mesquite and sage, the building looks like an old slaughterhouse. It is one of the last places in America where it is still legal to fight roosters.

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Jesse Hyde
Contact: Jesse Hyde