Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Feathers and Blood

The shadowy allure and complicated politics of cockfighting

By Rob Simbeck

JUNE 12, 2000:  The arena is crowded, smoky, and loud. A din of shouting and cheering rises and falls, punctuated now and then by the crowing of roosters. Fluorescent lights, not all of them working, hang from a low, yellow particleboard ceiling. A light snow is falling, and it takes a moment to realize that it's comprised of finely chopped chicken feathers rising from a small cockpit in the arena's center. There, two roosters--one a deep rusty red, the other a muted gray--rise in a flurry of wings and shuffling feet, flailing under the watchful eyes of their handlers and a referee. The birds come down, tangled like boxers in a clinch, and fall as one on their sides, still flailing, as the crowd cheers.

"Handle!" yells the referee, a tall, stout man with long sideburns. It is nearly impossible to hear him. Each handler takes hold of his bird. The red rooster's gaff--the thin, curved, 2-inch spike attached to the rear of each bird's leg--has sunk deep into the gray rooster's thigh, and the red bird's handler reaches in and works it loose. Each man picks his rooster up for a 20-second break. The referee scrapes two lines in the clay with the stick he carries and yells, "Pit!" Each man sets his bird behind one of the lines and lets go.

"Eat him up, red roostah!" yells a tall, skinny 14-year-old with a growling rasp of a voice in the second row of the bleachers. He is settling into his seat, holding a hamburger from the busy concession stand at one end of the arena. The birds rush each other and rise, flailing and shuffling, their wings making sharp snapping noises.

They tangle once more, and this time the gaff is hung in the gray's wing. The handlers disengage the panting birds and the referee points them toward one of three adjacent drag pits. The fight will finish there, clearing the main pit for a fresh pair. High turnover, which keeps the cheering and betting levels high, is the aim. Blood drips from the gray rooster's leg as the men and birds leave the main pit.

We are in a big metal-sided barn in southern Kentucky, 90 minutes north of Nashville and far enough down a dirt and gravel road that you have to know where you're going to get there. This is, after all, illegal. A good old boy with a big grin and a bigger belly collected $12 from each of us as we drove in on an overcast Saturday evening. Parked around the buildings and in the grass are compacts and luxury cars and plenty of pickup trucks. There are Kentucky plates and a few from Indiana, but the majority seem to be from Tennessee. "This might as well be a Middle Tennessee pit," one of the regulars tells me.

Five hundred people are crammed into a building 120 feet long and 40 feet wide. Most are white and male, but there are a fair number of women and a few blacks and Hispanics. Some young couples are obviously on dates.

In narrow hallways behind each set of bleachers, caged roosters pace and crow. Handlers in small side rooms strap leather strips called boots, which hold the gaffs, onto the roosters' legs. They take the birds to a set of scales when they're called by two women in a glassed-in booth with microphones and a big tote board. Opponents have been matched by computer beforehand.

"No. 47 and No. 21 to the scale," calls the overweight twentysomething in the Tweety Bird sweatshirt, her amplified voice cutting through the noise. The other writes the numbers on the board.

After weighing in, the entrants stand in line, eight or 10 deep, waiting to enter the main pit. Each carries his rooster in the crook of his arm with the earnest reverence of a man carrying a newborn child. Some stroke their birds' feathers absentmindedly, while others study the creatures, smoothing their feathers or blowing gently in their faces.

We are here for a four-cock derby. Each of the 75 entrants has brought four birds, and while multiple losers drop out early, there will still be close to 150 fights between 6 p.m. and 330 a.m. Each entrant has anted $100, and it's winner-take-all.

The pit is square, about 14 feet on a side. It sits 2 feet off the arena floor and is topped by a 2-foot Plexiglas splashguard. Above that is netting--you don't want adrenaline-crazed roosters with needle-sharp spikes on their feet flopping out into the crowd.

I'm here with Eddie, a 30-year-old Oklahoman who's made good money in the Middle Tennessee building trade since moving here in 1987. He is light-haired and well-dressed, and success has started to broaden his belly just a little. He has a nice home near Nashville, a wife, an 11-year-old son, a 6-year-old daughter, and the trappings of a young family on the rise: a Caddy, a piano, a formal dining room, and all the Barbie paraphernalia you could ask for.

He's also got chickens, which he's raised and fought since he was 5, when his grandfather brought him into a life that had been passed down for no telling how many generations. Right now, there are 300 of them. They are pampered--he has two people feeding and watering them and keeping them healthy and pest-free--but he hasn't had time to get them into fighting shape lately. Work's simply been too good. Tonight, he's just here to bet. He has brought a friend named John, who's obviously serving as bodyguard--he is, after all, carrying lots of cash--and another named Steve, who knows Eddie from the building trade. Eddie's and Steve's wives attend Bible study together.

Eddie is in his element here; all the regulars know him. He stands much of the time, holding a fistful of bills and writing in a little notebook. He knows the trainers and he studies the chickens. He works the crowd like Monty Hall, cajoling people, looking for the bets he wants, dismissing offers of too-small bets with a wave of his hand or a simple look away.

Two new fighters climb the stairs and enter the pit with their birds. "I'll lay 50 to 40," he yells. He is wagering more money, so he gets to pick the bird. An old man in a plaid shirt waves from a few rows back, taking the bet.

"I'm over there," yells Eddie, pointing at the handler of the red rooster now in the pit. The referee wipes under each bird's wings with a cloth and water, then wipes their heads and gaffs as a means of discouraging cheating, which can involve putting strychnine on the blades or rubbing skunk scent or owl scent on the bird. Then, to renewed cheers, the roosters are fighting.

Eddie's red bird is all over its white opponent, which takes a quick slash to the head. After a tangle, there is a fierce exchange, and it's clear the white is overmatched. Blood drips from its mouth, staining the brilliant white feathers of its breast. After the next tangle, the white's handler sticks its head in his mouth and sucks the blood from its throat. He spits, then places his mouth on the back of the rooster, just above its tail, blowing to keep it warm.

"Pit!" the referee yells. The white staggers, and with a quick shuffle the red slashes its head and neck again. The white appears to have lost an eye. It goes down, limp and panting, blood flowing in a bubbly rush from its open mouth. The red pecks at its head and the white tries gamely to defend itself, but it's over in another moment. Eddie lets just the trace of a smile curl a corner of his mouth and reaches into the bleachers to take his 40 bucks.

The handlers leave the main pit, and two more come in. The noise level rises before they reach their corners. This is a knife fight; instead of gaffs, each rooster wears a single wide blade on its left foot. Knife fights are quicker, bloodier, and much more popular. Eddie's eyes scan the crowd. "I'm laying a hundred to 80," he yells.

Roosters fight. You don't need handlers or pits or side bets to get them started. You just need two roosters. They fight for turf and dominance, they do it naturally and with a good amount of vigor and blood, and they have been bred to do it for human amusement since the red jungle fowl was domesticated 3,000 years ago in India or Southeast Asia. The activity quickly spread across Asia, became established in Greece and Rome, and moved through Europe, then into the Americas. It is extremely popular in some parts of the world.

George Washington recorded attending a cockfight in his diary. Andy Jackson (this should surprise no one) was an avid cockfighter. Years before Deliverance sealed his celebrity status, poet James Dickey fought them when he was stationed in the Philippines, where it is practically the national pastime. Chickens are still fought legally in portions of Latin America and Asia, and in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and parts of New Mexico. In 1836, Massachusetts was the first state to outlaw cockfighting, and Arizona and Missouri became the 46th and 47th in 1998. Tennessee outlawed it in 1881, the same year as New York, and Kentucky followed suit in 1893.

Cockfighting has hundreds of thousands of fans across the country. They are lettered and unlettered, teetotaling Christians and drug-abusing heathens, poor farmers carrying on an old family tradition, and rich executives drawn to the betting action. At the pit in southern Kentucky, Middle Tennessee's regulars include laborers, a school bus driver, a former district attorney, and the owner of a chichi Belle Meade business. Present or former fighters and attendees include state legislators and other public officials, doctors and lawyers, liberals and conservatives. There are national and local Web sites devoted to the sport, including an online Chicken Soup for the Cockfighter's Soul.

The case against cockfighting is easy to state. The Humane Society of the United States calls it "a cruel and inhumane practice in which two or more specifically bred roosters are placed in a pit to fight. Cockfighters pump the birds full of stimulants, affix razor-sharp knives or ice pick-like gaffs to their legs, and force them to fight to injury or death for the amusement of spectators. Unable to escape the fight, no matter how injured or exhausted they are, the birds suffer punctured lungs, broken bones, and pierced eyes. Young children are often brought to these events and exposed to the gruesome spectacle as acceptable entertainment. They are also exposed to illegal gambling, drug traffic, and firearms--all of which are common at organized cockfighting derbies."

All of that is true some of the time, but not always. Some cockfighters routinely drug their roosters, using everything from speed and steroids to strychnine, which is available by mail order through the more popular cockfighting magazines. Others deem drugs counterproductive and consider nutrition, conditioning, and meticulous (some would say loving) care the keys to winning.

Drug and alcohol use among human participants can depend on the venue. Middle Tennesseans regularly gather in barns or makeshift arenas for fights, and drugs and alcohol often play a part. There are sometimes firearms present. At venues like the one in southern Kentucky, though, fighters and spectators appreciate and want to preserve the more stable and congenial atmosphere.

"When they shut this down," one spectator tells me, "then it'll be back in some guy's barn, and that's when all your trouble happens. You're fighting for a hundred dollars a bird, you've got a guy on his own turf, half-drunk, pissed that he's losing, and you've got trouble. Here there are lots of people policing themselves. We don't want to lose this."

Some venues like this have the tacit or active consent of local law enforcement. At one point during the evening, a male arena official takes the microphone and says, "A couple of you have been drinking. I haven't caught you yet, but if you act up, the sheriff's going to take you out of here." The result is a crowd at least as well-behaved as that at the average UT football game.

While cockfighters frequently assert that "no one ever had to force a rooster to fight," the Humane Society's claim that chickens are often forced to continue is true. Roosters too exhausted or injured to fight are routinely held face to face until they start pecking again.

Small numbers of children as young as 3 attend fights like those in southern Kentucky, and many within the sport don't like it. "I agree a hundred percent that they shouldn't allow kids at these things," says Bobby Jones, fund-raising chairman of the American Animal Husbandry Coalition Political Action Committee (AAHC-PAC), which exists "to stop the further erosion of our rights to use animals for domestic use, recreation, and research."

"I've never been one to have kids around gambling," he says, "and the language is sometimes bad."

Jones is also not impressed by the widespread rationale for cockfighting that cites the sport's longevity and famous forebears. Widely cited claims that Washington and Jefferson raised and fought cocks, and that Lincoln refereed fights, lack documentation, he acknowledges. "That's not a good defense anyway," he adds. "The Humane Society and groups like that will come right back and say they had slaves too. What I base my argument on is commerce and industry, on everything this feeds into the economy, and on the right we should have to do it."

Many stress those economic benefits. Cockfighters coming to southern Kentucky, for example, spend a great deal of money on gasoline, soft drinks, cigarettes, lottery tickets, and motel rooms. "Look at the money we generate with all the feed we buy," says Buford Rediker, who raises fighting chickens in Cedar Hill, Tenn. "We pay taxes on everything, right down to the water bills and electric bills. The government even makes money off the shipping," he adds, referring to birds raised here for sale in other states or countries.

Many breeders also derive their incomes solely or in part from raising chickens. Still, opponents of the sport have little patience with such arguments. "We have little doubt that some did profit from cockfights," wrote the Floyd County Times in Kentucky last November, "but there's money to be made in illegal activities ranging from prostitution to bookmaking to drug trafficking. That doesn't make those activities right."

People are drawn to cockfighting for many reasons competition, tradition, profits, excitement. Bryan Simmons of Crossville, who bred and fought roosters for many years before the time demands of a new job took him out of the sport recently, says two things drew him to it.

"First was the sense of achievement--to lay out your breeding plan and see generation-to-generation improvement, breeding for the things that made America great, for courage, for that never-quit attitude, which is what being 'game' is. The other thing is that I'm probably less a fan of mankind these days than of the animal kingdom, whether it's my horses or my dogs or raising roosters. If you really put forth the effort to take care of the animals, they reciprocate. I gave my roosters my best, and when it came time to take them to the fights, they gave me their best back."

Simmons also says that while many cockfighters, particularly those in professions, feel compelled to hide their interest, he was not among them. "I went out of my way to let people know I was a cockfighter," he says. "I work hard, I pay my taxes, I go to church, and there are a lot of other people who fight roosters in the same boat."

None of these arguments, however, sways opponents like the Humane Society. Eric Sakach, who has studied and fought cockfighting for years for the Society, says, "The fact that some people are still titillated by watching two animals forced to fight for their lives in a pit so they can gamble on the outcome says something particularly nasty about the people involved, and it says something about the society that tolerates such behavior."

Sakach is heartened by the success of the Society's efforts. In Oklahoma, a recent petition drive may well put a cockfighting ban before voters. Challenges from the cockfighting industry currently have the matter before the state's Supreme Court, but Sakach is upbeat. "I think we can expect to see within the next few years that cockfighting will be illegal in all 50 states," he says.

Supporters of cockfighting, who have seen other states fall one by one, are sometimes hopeful, sometimes fatalistic. Many express dismay at the various ways government increasingly seems to be dictating their lives. Jones says, "It's taken them 15 years to destroy the fur market. The game fowl industry is just the next step up the totem pole. Next it'll be hunting."

For many cockfighters, arguments for the sport quickly turn into tirades against animal-rights groups. Even if they acknowledge the sincerity of such opponents, cockfighters are bothered by their attempts to legislate human behavior. "If somebody doesn't put a hand on them and stop them on some issue, we're going to be going to our grocery stores and buying nothing but vegetables pretty soon," says AAHC-PAC vice-chairman Brian Muckey. "I don't believe it's right for any group of people to take away the rights of others just because they don't like something a lot of those people have never seen. People need to know about everything. They need to know about our side, they need to know about their side, and someday maybe we can all work together on something."

Some contend that, given the cramped quarters, debeaking, growth hormones, and production-line slaughter that are part of the commercial fowl industry, game chickens have the better life, and that opposition by anyone who eats meat is hypocritical. Then there are those whose sympathies simply don't lie with the chickens.

"I like animals, but I don't think of animals like I do people," says a local treatment center counselor who attends fights regularly in Oklahoma. As for the pain an animal might feel, he says, "I don't have any feeling for it. I'm sensitive to animals, but I also know from raising bird dogs that you have to do things some people would call cruel--you have to get their attention. That's part of it. Chickens dying is part of cockfighting just like chickens dying is part of me getting a chicken on my table for supper. I realize that's not justification, but that is a fact."

For Jones, the final word on cockfighting comes straight from the Bible. "Every day," he says, "society is getting closer to putting animals on the same pedestal with mankind, and that is not what the Bible preaches. What kind of society do we live in when it's against the law to kill chickens and it's legal to kill unborn babies?"

If one group has learned to respect the fighters and breeders of game chickens, it is legislators. "In this state, you will not find a more powerful lobby than the cockfighters," says Kentucky state Sen. Ernie Harris, the sponsor of a recent bill redefining parts of the state's statute on animal cruelty. Though it had nothing to do with cockfighting, the bill was posted in full on the wall of the Kentucky arena, along with a toll-free number for patrons to register their disapproval. Under heavy political pressure, says Harris, "we changed the bill so it didn't redefine animal cruelty at all." It simply said that anyone convicted of animal cruelty as currently defined could be ordered to psychological counseling. The bill died anyway.

This is a battle Tennessee state Rep. Ben West Jr. knows well. "For about five years," he says, "I carried a bill making animal cruelty a felony. After taking on the walking-horse industry year after year, I ran into legislators in whose districts these birds are raised by the hundreds and shipped to other countries where it is legal. They would say to me, 'This bill doesn't have anything to do with raising roosters, does it?'"

The trainers of walking horses and hunting dogs oppose such legislation, as do many farmers. "Their concerns are very sincere," says state Rep. Mike Williams of Franklin, who sponsored an animal-cruelty bill this year. "They're concerned they're going to be harassed by people adamantly opposed to any training or the use of animals for legitimate agricultural purposes."

Williams' bill defines animal torture, permits courts to order psychological evaluation and treatment upon conviction, and mandates the contacting of protective agencies if the person convicted lives with minor children or elderly individuals. The bulk of the bill is devoted to exempting "birds used for commercial purposes," hunting, fishing, or "capturing fish and wildlife," and "normal and customary agricultural practices." Still, opposition was heavy, with the groups that have opposed West's bills all weighing in with members of the state House.

It worked. Williams' bill was buried in the Agriculture Resource & Industry subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee, and while it's scheduled for consideration in 2001, it's unlikely to reach the floor. "This is very important to people who are animal advocates," says Williams, "but you get to the point where there are other things that are more pressing."

Local law enforcement officers often feel the same way. Sheriff's deputies in Cheatham County arrested 11 people, including two juveniles, at a cockfight near Ashland City in 1998, but such actions are very rare. Local officials report receiving few if any complaints. What's more, many cockfighters in Kentucky and Tennessee can drop the names of public officials, from mayors and law enforcement officers to legislators, who fight chickens or simply turn a blind eye. In his many years of cockfighting, Eddie can remember only two busts, one of which came when the host's wife, with whom the host been fighting, turned everyone in. In both cases, Eddie says, the officers simply told those in attendance to break it up and go home. Cockfighting is a misdemeanor in Tennessee, Kentucky, and 28 other states, and is a felony in 19.

Phil Snyder, regional director of the Humane Society of the United States, says, "We have situations in the state, particularly toward East Tennessee, where we are fully aware that there is a great deal of activity going on, but the local humane societies are scared to death because they could be run out of existence. A lot of people in those communities support humane societies sheltering dogs and cats, but are or know people who are cockfighters, [so] it's political suicide to go after cockfighting. If we would get involved, the locals would be blamed."

The big national battleground now is in Congress, where Senate Bill 345 would ban the interstate shipment of fighting cocks to states where cockfighting is legal. It is sponsored by Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard, the Senate's only veterinarian.

SB 345 amends the Animal Welfare Act, which prohibits interstate movement of dogs and other animals for the purpose of animal fighting, but specifically exempts gamecocks--a loophole that shows the clout of cockfighters. The current bill is of import here because many Tennesseans raise birds for shipment to other states and overseas--both raising and shipping them is perfectly legal. With prices that can top $1,000 a bird, it's not hard to figure the economic incentive to keep the trade going. Millions of dollars' worth go from California and Texas into Mexico, and millions more go to the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii. Within the U.S., many are shipped Express Mail through the U.S. Postal Service in small crates with airholes, a practice that would stop if 345 passes.

In addition to raising birds, Cedar Hill's Rediker ships them as well; he recently sent several to AAHC-PAC's Muckey, who auctions them as part of the PAC's fund-raising efforts. "Even if it does get passed," Rediker says of 345, "it would be two years before it could go into effect in stopping us from shipping them, and then we've got more time to generate money to fight it."

SB 345 has been out of committee and on the Senate calendar for weeks now. It has 50 cosponsors, and a companion House bill has 235 cosponsors. It is supported by the Humane Society, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, and scores of law enforcement agencies and animal protection groups. Still, its passage is not certain.

"Over the last 15 months we've really learned these people are deadly serious," says Sean Conway, press spokesman for Sen. Allard. "They have lots of money, and they've got the best hired guns in town to fight us to the bitter end."

Those guns include two of the best-known and most powerful lobbyists in Washington, D.C. Former Idaho Sen. Steve Symms of Symms & Haddow Associates is retained by AAHC-PAC at a cost of $5,000 a month, according to Muckey, and former Louisiana Sen. Bennett Johnson represents the United Gamefowl Breeders Association at a cost of $75,000 per year.

Symms and Johnson also have the advantage of working for a clientele eager to do some of the heavy lifting--people who are quick to donate and to contact their legislators. Bryan Simmons says he "went through a ream of paper in nine months writing letters to Sen. [Fred] Thompson and U.S. Rep Van Hilleary, and I don't want to think about how many e-mails I sent."

"The day our bill was up in front of the Senate Agriculture Committee," says Conway, "our office in Washington took 500 calls from across the country voicing opposition to our bill. If we can get an up and down vote in the House and the Senate, we will win this thing. The trouble is trying to go through the parliamentary hoops. We are not naive. We realize we have an uphill fight on our hands."

It is well after midnight in southern Kentucky. The crowd has thinned a little, although it is still heavy. Many people wear glassy-eyed looks you would expect after six or eight hours of watching television. The knife fights still stir them somewhat, but not like they did a couple of hours ago. The little concession stand, selling gaffs, videos, antibiotics, vitamins, and T-shirts that say, "Those That Don't Can't Understand--Those That Do Can't Explain," has closed for the night. Even many of the bettors have slowed down. At this point, the chickens are just living dice on a bloody table, being thrown again and again and again.

Eddie, though, is still working the crowd. He and Dan started with $600 between them. Eddie ran it to $1,500 at one point, then lost all but $200 of it. He has slowly worked back to $1,200.

A skinny blond girl, maybe 9 or 10, sits watching from eight or 10 rows back. Her daddy is behind her, massaging her shoulders. She is working a lollipop back and forth in her mouth. At one point he leans down and speaks into her ear. She smiles and rises, flouncing to one of the drag pits, where two birds have been fighting for nearly 30 minutes. She studies them, then looks toward her daddy. She shakes her head and gives him a vigorous thumbs down before heading back his way.

In the main pit, a referee uses a garden rake to scrape feathers to one side before starting the next fight. There are streaks and smears of blood on the splashguard and down the wooden sides of the drag pits. The yellow concrete hallways behind the stands are littered with cigarette butts and matted chicken feathers. A thin, sun-leathered man in jeans and a gray sweatshirt steps on the head of a nearly dead rooster and yanks its feet up sharply. There are trails of blood drops where dead and wounded chickens have been carried toward the back exits. On one of the doors, a clump of feathers is stuck with blood to the brass knob.

A cold, leaden overcast tops the wooded Kentucky Ridge on which the building sits. A muscular young man walks out a back door onto a small concrete stoop. He is carrying a rooster by the feet, either a loser that isn't quite dead or a winner too beat up to be of any use. He raises his arm and brings it down in a swift arc, cracking the rooster's head on the edge of the concrete. He tosses it onto a pile of carcasses near the door and goes back inside. In a few moments he is back with another and he repeats the process. As he tosses this one he notices that the legs of the last one are waving as though gently windstirred. It is lying on its back, not quite dead. He picks it up and delivers another sharp thwack.

He walks back inside, and the heavy metal door slams behind him with a much duller thump.

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