Game fowl businesses stay active despite ban on cockfighting
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)--Despite a cockfighting ban approved by Oklahoma voters in 2002, many in the game fowl business continue to operate.
In McCurtain County, roosters continue their daylong crowing at the Cogburn place.
The couple's flock has shrunk by a third, to about 200 game fowl, but otherwise it's business as usual. Rupert Cogburn, 77, and wife Merilynn, 69, still crate up occasional orders for a rooster and two or more hens, and deliver them by air mail.
"Of course we didn't hear anything from the sheriff or the district attorney, because they know what we're doing up here," Merilynn Cogburn said.
So it is, statewide. While cockfights have been driven far underground, the breeding industry has survived.
The problem, experts say, is proving how the birds will be used.
Merilynn Cogburn classified her flock as "show birds" and said she doesn't question her customers' intent.
Without evidence the birds are sold to cockfighters, "I can't prove that they're breaking the law," McCurtain County Sheriff Johnny Tadlock said.
His opinion apparently is shared by other law officers and prosecutors. An informal survey found just four incidents leading to arrests under Oklahoma's felony ban on the activity. All involved actual cockfights or substantial evidence of one. The only convictions to date involved three people in Oklahoma City who received two-year deferred sentences. The other defendants, all in southern and eastern Oklahoma, are awaiting trial.
Breeders have been spared the law's possible 10-year sentence and $25,000 fine.
Depending on who's talking, Oklahoma is either a better place to live or a far poorer one since November, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the final appeal to the cockfighting ban.
Judy Hamilton of Kingston made $60,000 to $70,000 annually staging a couple dozen cockfighting derbies a year at her 714-seat arena.
Those days, like the arena's seats and fight pit, are gone.
"The state and the media has put me out of business," Hamilton said. "I'm broke."
The law hasn't just hurt cockfighters, said Val Holland of Davis, who owns about 30 game fowl. The law, he said, has hurt those who sell feed, lumber, lawn equipment, electricity and natural gas.
"This just killed rural Oklahoma," Holland said.
Jay McClure, owner of a Sulphur feed store that supplied Holland and about eight other Murray County cockfighters, figures the law cost him $30,000 a year.
The state's largest breeding operation, Harmony Downs near Guthrie, spent $150,000 a year just on feed, said its president, Ed Pyle.
The 60-acre farm, ordered to close by the Logan County sheriff, had annual operating expenses approaching $1 million, said its trustee, Hank Trattner.
The only winners from the ban "were those who believed whatever they believed," Trattner said.
"Everybody else lost."
A 2000 study done for the industry found a $75 million-a-year economic impact in Oklahoma.
One national animal rights expert said the economic impact pales against the credibility Oklahoma gained by banning cockfighting.
"I would think the economy gains from leaving behind primitive pastimes that give Oklahoma a backwards reputation," said John Goodwin, deputy manager of animal fighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States.
Goodwin said Oklahoma cockfighters have been reduced to sneaking their birds to New Mexico, where cockfighting is legal, or Arkansas, where it is a misdemeanor.
Doing so subjects them to arrest under a federal ban on transporting fighting birds across state lines.
To combat that, Louisiana fight organizers require out-of-state participants to enter a "poultry show" at or near the fight pit.
"That way, they can hand everybody a blue ribbon, and if they get pulled over across the state line they can say, 'I was just at a poultry show,"' Goodwin said.
Richard Gray, district attorney for five eastern Oklahoma counties, said cockfighting is "underneath the radar now."
Two of the four cockfighting prosecutions are in his district.
"I don't think we'll ever get rid of all of it, but I certainly think a lot of it has dried up," Gray said.
Cynthia Armstrong, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Coalition Against Cockfighting, agreed that the industry has been decimated. Still, she wonders how game fowl breeding farms--except for Harmony Downs--have escaped lawmen's grasp.
"It would be hard, in my opinion, to justify a large breeding operation for show purposes. That borders on absurd," Armstrong said.