The federal farm bill could turn Louisiana’s cockfighters into felons.
March 20, 2002
It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, perfect weather for La Grande Boucherie des Cajuns.
The pink cheeks of children are painted with butterflies, rainbows and clouds. The adults wear sunglasses and grip plastic cups and beer cans. Most of them are decked out in Mardi Gras beads, some the size of walnuts.
Under one of the oaks, there’s a large circular trampoline frame wrapped with wire. Next to it are four caged roosters. They scratch at the leaves under their feet and peck at the ground. Behind the gathering crowd, a band sets up on a flatbed trailer.
A heavy man in green shorts, a matching T-shirt and a worn Adidas sun visor parts the crowd. He cradles a rooster with his right arm and strokes the bird’s feathers with his free hand. Behind him a smaller man holds another rooster, stroking it the same way. He’s dressed in denim, a leather hat and cowboy boots. The roosters have small gloves, a red pair and a yellow pair, strapped to their spurs with rubber bands.
Inside the ring, the man in denim scratches out two lines in the grass with the heel of his boot. Both men face one another. They extend the birds at arm’s length – close enough that the birds could kiss – and then quickly bring them back to their chests. They do this several times, letting each bird get a good look at its opponent.
They place the roosters on the ground behind the lines and let them loose. The roosters flare their hackles (the neck feathers), spread their wings and go at each other, striking with their beaks and their miniature boxing gloves.
Donnie Landry has brought his wife and two young children out to the park to enjoy the festivities. He isn’t a cockfighter. He’s a 37-year-old diesel mechanic, a slender man with blond hair and a thin goatee, wearing a pair of shades and a baseball cap. He hoists his 1-year-old son onto his shoulder to see the action.
“You see ’em?” he asks.
The child nods his head.
Landry says to no one in particular, “That bird’s got a lot of heart.”
What does that mean, for a chicken to have heart?
Landry says, “They stand their ground. They won’t give up. If they go down, they come back up. As long as they’re alive, they’ll keep fighting.”
Cockfighters call it gameness. It’s a gamecock’s ability to remain standing and fight, even until the bitter end. A cock that shows gameness and dies first in a fight can still be declared the winner.
“It’s just like boxing,” Landry says. “To see which one is the strongest, like racing or kickboxing. You don’t want to be in it, but you love to see the action.”
From the flatbed trailer, Lenny Kravitz sings over the P.A. system, “Are You Gonna Go My Way.”
A bald man yells, “C’mon, Red! C’mon, Big Boy!”
A young man yells, “Put him in the gumbo!”
Another man yells, “C’mon, Red! Show him your heart!”
After three fights with three rounds apiece, the crowd moves on to the rest of the day’s events – the butchering of a pig, a greased pig chase and the Squeal Like a Pig contest. The bass player on the flatbed trailer plays the bass line of Black Sabbath’s “N.I.B.”
Landry isn’t aware of the farm bill recently passed by the U.S. Congress. If President George W. Bush signs the bill into law, it will increase subsidy programs and spending for conservation programs, while restricting how much money a farmer can receive. Part of the bill will make transporting fighting roosters across state lines a felony.
“You know how long this has been going on?” Landry says. “This is one of the first forms of entertainment they ever had.”
Cockfighting is as old as Methuselah.
Page Smith and Charles Daniel write in The Chicken Book that cockfighting is “the oldest sport known to man.” The modern game fowl is believed to be descended from the Indian red jungle fowl. From ancient India the sport spread to Persia and China. It was introduced in Greece around the sixth century B.C. The ancient Greeks fought and used cocks for religious purposes. Young men were required to attend the fights to learn about courage and fortitude.
In 186 A.D., St. Augustine wrote about a cockfight in De Ordine. He wondered why the birds fought with one another and why humans were so fascinated with the spectacle. He was struggling with the existence of evil in a world ruled by a loving God. He concluded that without evil, there would be no good in the world, that the ugly confirms the beauty in our lives.
In England, under the reign of King Henry VIII, cockfighting flourished. It was primarily a rich man’s sport. The high entry fees usually kept the common man from entering his cocks, but it was the poor who cared for the birds. In 1834, Parliament declared cockfighting illegal. Smith and Daniel write, “In the long run it made little difference. The world did not seem to improve very much and cockfighting went on rather as before. In England, as elsewhere, it was to prove ineradicable.”
Cockfighting is still common in France, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Belgium, Spain, Haiti, Italy and Southeast Asia, where the sport holds religious and cultural overtones. Today, the Philippines is considered the cockfighting capital of the world. Sunset, north of Lafayette, is considered the cockfighting capital of the nation.
In the United States, cockfighting was widespread throughout the South by the early 1700s. There was a new justification of the sport that the British hadn’t considered – its democracy. Smith and Daniel write, “The wealthy sportsman who wished to participate did so on the terms of the common man, the small hardscrabble farmer, the rancher of modest means, the cowboy or hired hand, the drifter, the mechanic.” It’s rumored that Presidents George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson raised game fowl and that President Abraham Lincoln’s nickname of “Honest Abe” came from his fairness as a referee of cockfights.
In the United States, cockfighting is legal only in Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Despite the sport being an illegal activity virtually everywhere, Daniel and Page note that cockfighting is “almost everywhere forbidden and almost everywhere practiced.”
On Feb. 13, the U.S. Senate passed a farm bill that in part prohibits the transportation of fighting roosters across state lines. The House passed its version of the bill last year. Federal law already prohibits the shipping of animals for fighting purposes, but birds can still be shipped to Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico, where cockfighting is still legal; and cockfighters in the legal states can ship their birds out of their state to other parts of the world. If the farm bill is signed into law, it will make it a felony to transport fighting fowl across state lines, even to the states where it’s still legal.
Nolan Dugas is a cockfighter who isn’t worried about the pending federal legislation.
“They’re not going to stop us,” he says. “They’ve been trying for years and years.”
Cockfighting is in Dugas’ blood. His father fought roosters and he’s been doing it for as long as he can remember.
At age 65, he’s a grandfather, with three grown children and three grandchildren. He worked for Evangeline Maid Bread for 18 years before retiring. Then he worked another 20 years for Community Coffee Company before retiring a second time. These days, he only works for his chickens.
Dugas is a man of few words, with a penetrating stare and a thick Cajun accent. Dressed in a black hat and flannel shirt, he yells to be heard over the 25 cocks crowing like it’s dawn in his backyard. The roosters are separated in individual cages. They strut around in circles, each one acting as if it is the rightful ruler of the yard.
Dugas spends about $300 a month keeping the birds healthy. He has to make sure that their cages are mended and that the birds are well fed. He feeds them vitamins, deworming medication and “the best feed on the market”- a diet of corn, wheat, barley and oats. He says, “A rooster will only give you in the pit what you give him at home.”
The money he spends isn’t an investment, though. It’s just an expenditure of his hobby. He’s lucky if he breaks even in the long run and doesn’t mind losing the money. The enjoyment he gets out of raising, training and fighting the roosters is compensation for the financial loss.
He knows that there are those who object to his hobby, but “I don’t have nothing to hide, me. Maybe they just think it’s cruel.” He says cockfighting is like fishing or hunting and it’s “no crueler than killing a dove with a shotgun.”
Like other cockfighters, Dugas enjoys “testing” his roosters with other game fowl breeders. He likes to go on Sunday afternoons. On a Friday or Saturday night there could be as many as 300 to 400 people packed into one cockpit. Dugas tries to ignore the nights like that.
He says, “It’s too much.”
On the first Sunday afternoon of Lent, it already feels like spring. Inside the M&M Cockpit, a gray metal building outside of Rayne, a couple dozen men – white, black and Hispanic – stand around sipping beer and soft drinks at the bar just inside the front door.
“We’re all color-blind out here,” Dugas says. “We come to fight our roosters.”
There are four large cockpits in Louisiana – the Sunset Recreation Club in Sunset, the Hickory Recreation Club in Pearl River, the Bayou Club in Vinton and Piney Woods in Vivian. It’s not uncommon for some 700 people to be present for a fight at the larger pits. There are about a dozen more medium-sized pits and at least 60 community cockpits throughout Louisiana. The M&M is one of the smaller, community pits.
The front and back doors are open and a breeze slips through and stirs the air under the fluorescent lights. Hand-lettered signs on the walls are reminders that any bird found drugged with stimulants or poison on its spurs will be disqualified without exception. Other signs state that no one under 21 years of age is allowed to purchase alcohol. A few boys hover around the men, being seen and not heard. They’re waiting to help ready the birds for the fight.
The cockpit is in the larger room through a doorway in the bar. It’s an octagon platform walled in with wire from its base to the ceiling. Inside the pit are two smaller cages with ropes attached to the top, extending to pulleys on the ceiling. Instead of pitting the cocks against one another with handlers, the birds are dropped inside the smaller cages. A rope from the side of the pit lifts the two cages into the air and the birds are left facing one another. A photography darkroom timer is strapped to the wire wall of the pit. There are two small sinks with faucets at both ends of the pit. Six levels of painted gray plywood bleachers circle the cockpit.
Derbies are usually larger weekend events. In a four-cock derby, a cockfighter pays an entry fee to fight four of his cocks. He could pay anywhere from $100 to $600 in entry fees to enter them. It’s winner take-all and if there’s a tie, the pot is split in half between the two winning cockfighters.
Dugas has brought only one rooster with him this afternoon. The only fighting it has done is in Dugas’ backyard. It’s part of conditioning the cock for the pit. During these practice bouts, the bird’s spurs are covered with the tiny gloves that resemble boxing gloves. The birds spar without inflicting severe damage to one another.
Asked if he thinks his bird will win, Dugas says, “If I didn’t think he would win, I wouldn’t have fed him like I did for the last year and a half.”
Dugas removes his rooster from a wooden box and weighs it on a scale. A man with a baseball cap and a T-shirt tucked into his blue jeans looks to see how much the bird weighs. On his shirt is an image of Osama bin Laden with crosshairs on his forehead. It reads, “You can run but you can’t hide!” The man’s brought four roosters with him and one of his birds weighs within a couple of ounces of Dugas’.
The men agree to pit the two birds against one another for 20 minutes and to outfit them with gaffs, 1 1/4 inches long. The gaff is a small pick with a pointed end. After the natural spur has been filed down, gaffs are placed over the spurs of the roosters’ legs.
Opponents of cockfighting say that strapping the weapons to the cocks’ legs is cruel. Cockfighters say it’s crueler not to use them. Natural spurs vary in length and hardness and could give a cock with better spurs the upper hand in a fight. They say the weapons are equalizers, assuring that each gamecock stands a fighting chance in the pit.
There’s also the short and long knife, small knives that are slightly curved and sharp on one side. The short knife is any knife less than 1 1/16 inches and the long knife is any knife longer than that. Only one knife is attached to a gamecock’s left leg.
Knife fights are commonplace with Hispanic cockfighters. Within recent years, though, the knife has gained popularity in Louisiana. The weapons are more deadly than the gaffs and the fights are quicker. Dugas fights his cocks with gaffs only. He says, “I can’t see feeding a rooster for two years to watch a fight that fast.” One cockfighter, who asked to remain nameless, said that the “lucky lick of the knife” was corrupting the sport, placing less emphasis on gameness and more on betting.
The roosters are dropped into the smaller cages through a hatch door. A judge enters the ring and sets the timer. When the cages are lifted into the air, the timer starts counting down the 20 minutes and the birds are left in the pit to fight.
Dugas has $200 riding on the fight. His opponent matched the money, collecting bets from some of the spectators to make a pool. There’s more betting in the stands. Bets are made verbally and anyone can take you up on it. A handshake isn’t needed. Your word is as good as signing your name to a bank loan.
Once the fight starts, Dugas watches his bird intently, never saying a word. His opponent is at the side of the pit coaching his bird. In the beginning it looks as if Dugas’ rooster has the upper hand. He manages to fly over his opponent and hook him several times with his gaffs. Occasionally the birds fight with their beaks, pecking at one another’s head. Then comes the decisive blow. A quick lick blinds Dugas’ rooster. A couple of minutes later the judge calls the fight off. The birds are bloody and a light haze of feathers floats in the air. The whole fight lasts less than nine minutes.
Two young boys take Dugas’ rooster and wash the blood from its head and feathers. A man offers to buy the cock from Dugas, but he simply gives it away. The cock might not be able to fight, but he’s still good for breeding.
Dugas isn’t sore about losing the 200 bucks. He says it’s all part of the game. You win some and you lose some. What’s important is that you keep trying.
On the Web site LouisianaAgainstCockfighting.org, there’s a song titled “Chante Pas, Petit Rouge!”, (“Don’t Crow, Little Red!”). The song is sung in both French and English. It’s the story of “a Louisiana boy’s efforts to save his pet rooster from being entered into a cockfight.” One of the verses is:
Today is your day at the bloody cockfight.
Parrain and Papa, the’d bet on you tonight.
They gonna cuss; they gonna shout
When the little red rooster doesn’t come out.
James Riopelle is one of the authors of the tune. He’s protested against cockfighting on three different occasions in Sunset. He says the song was written in hopes of fostering healthy relationships between children and animals.
“(Cockfighting) is just a bad thing for people,” Riopelle says. “Children learn cruelty and see older people engaging in this. It’s a very dehumanizing influence. The cockfighters aren’t necessarily bad people, they’re just involved with cruelty to animals and that’s bad enough for us to want to stop it.”
Pinckney A. Wood is president of the Coalition of Louisiana Animal Advocates. Since 1981, the group has been working with humane societies in Louisiana to pass legislation to end animal cruelty. In 1982, Louisiana’s animal cruelty law was modified to exempt fowl from the law, stating that chickens are not animals. In 1999, the group tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation to ban the use of the gaffs and knives in cockfights.
In an e-mail, Wood says that cockfighting “only serves to satisfy those instincts in man which are ignoble and sinister, and cruelly destroys innocent, sentient creatures in the process.” Asked, aside from the apparent physical harm of the cocks, why cockfighting needs to banned, Wood reiterates, “Base and cruel practices are deleterious and corrosive to the soul of those who revel in them. It doesn’t speak well of one’s character when one is intentionally cruel to any living creature. And it is injurious to the development of a child’s character and psychological adjustment to participate in and not be discouraged from committing acts of cruelty.”
Cockfighters rarely deny that their sport is cruel, but they’re also quick to point out that nature is cruel and that a cockfight is merely an act of nature in a controlled form. Talk to a cockfighter long enough and he’s likely to mention Wayne Pacelle in a rather unfavorable light. One cockfighter stated that Pacelle was behind “the vegan agenda.” There is a perception among cockfighters that animal rights advocates won’t be satisfied until they have outlawed every possible use of animals – including rodeos and circuses, hunting and fishing, even, God forbid, boiling crawfish. Cockfighters say any step to legislate the use of animals is simply another step in outlawing the use of animals for all purposes.
Pacelle is aware of how he’s perceived by cockfighters and says that he’s being cast in a negative light in an attempt to kill the message he brings.
“This isn’t about me,” he says. “This is about the policy issue being debated. It doesn’t matter if I have three heads. Cockfighting is still wrong.”
Pacelle is the senior vice president for communications and government affairs for the Humane Society of the United States, located in Washington, D.C. HSUS has been opposed to cockfighting since the organization’s inception in 1954, but increased its political pressure in 1998 to ban cockfighting nationwide. It began with a ballot initiative in Arizona and Missouri that led to the outlawing of the sport in both states. HSUS is currently pushing for the ban of cockfighting in Oklahoma, where the state supreme court recently ruled that a circulated petition met the requirements to bring the issue to a ballot initiative. HSUS is opposed to any form of instigated animal fights and, Pacelle says, supports “felony level penalties for people who perpetrate these acts of cruelty.”
Pacelle says that there is an entire culture of lawlessness and criminal activity that is associated with cockfighting.
“Even if you remove all that criminal activity,” he says, “you are still left with an indefensible form of animal cruelty where people are pitting animals against one another to hack the other creature to death for the amusement of handlers and spectators. It’s a pretty good indication that it’s unacceptable activity when 94 percent of the states and the Congress deem it illegal activity.”
But what about the argument that even if the sport is cruel, some still deem it as a part of their culture?
“We have made a collective judgement in society that (cockfighting) violates our basic standards of decency towards animals and should be outlawed,” he says. “You can attach a cultural significance to almost any form of animal abuse – whether it’s cockfighting, dogfighting or bullfighting. Our concern for the well-being of the animals trumps the argument that this is somehow culturally indispensable.”
Pacelle concedes that if the farm bill is signed into law it won’t eradicate cockfighting, but it will cause “major damage to the industry.” He says the HSUS is prepared to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Postal Service and other federal agencies to make sure that the law is observed and enforced.
“Louisiana will be the final holdout,” he says, “until we can work with Louisianians to ban it in the United States in its entirety. We’re very confident that if this were ever put to a vote by Louisianians it would be outlawed in a heartbeat.”
Jim Demourelle’s insurance for his company, the Evangeline Psychiatric Care in Ville Platte, had lapsed when it burned to the ground. The fire, which started in three different places, was ruled an arson. He says nothing was salvageable, “not even a pencil.” His wife joked that no one could accuse him of burning down his business for the insurance money since there was none. He believes that animal rights activists set the fire, but he has no way of proving it.
Demourelle served in the Navy for 21 years. He says some people are retired Navy, but he’s Navy retired. In 1960 he went to his first cockfight in the Philippines.
“They told us cockfights were off limits,” he says, “so that’s where we all directly went.” He remembers “how valiant the bird was. Watching a cockfight is like watching a ballet. It’s beauty in motion.”
Demourelle acknowledges that cockfighting is brutal “just like boxing and football are brutal,” but “we’re talking about a chicken … A lot of the things we do are acceptable to (cockfighters) but they’re not acceptable to everybody.” He says the Humane Society of the United States is harassing people who are raising animals and, in many cases, are pet owners. “I don’t want to be engineered,” he says.
It’s a common sentiment when talking to either side of the issue. Those against cockfighting focus on the cruelty of the sport, first and foremost, and add that it does not foster valuable traits in human beings. Cockfighters are quick to point out that there are several cruel sports man participates in – boxing, hockey, football, rugby – and what’s at issue is not allowing someone else tell you what you can’t do with your own property.
Demourelle says that he can’t make his roosters fight.
“It’s their nature,” he says. “It’s what they want to do. Do I capitalize on it and have a good time with it? Yes. That’s human nature. I don’t see that as so strange.”
He denies that criminal activity is pervasive at cockfights. He says, “There’s more crime at an LSU football game in a day than at a cockpit all year long.”
Emanuel Massa says that cockfighting has a $1.3 billion annual impact on Louisiana. It comes from a number of factors, like buying equipment for farms, hiring people to work the farms, feeding the chickens, putting gas in the cars to go to the cockfight and the visiting cockfighters who stay in motels, eat at restaurants and buy souvenirs.
Massa is president of the Louisiana Gamefowl Breeders Association, an organization with nearly 6,000 members. He says that if the farm bill is signed into law, it will negatively impact Louisiana’s economy. Fewer cockfighters from other states will cross the state line to go to cockfights and the breeders who ship fowl out of Louisiana would be felons. He says, “I think this bill walks all over our constitution and our freedoms.”
The federal legislation would regulate interstate commerce, but cockfighters say it’s a violation of states’ rights and that individuals are being regulated by the federal government under the guise of regulating interstate commerce.
“The Humane Society and the animal rights people have big bucks and we’re little fish,” Massa says. “They want to give us 15 years (for violating the law) and it would be a felony. Some people don’t get that for killing other people, beating their wives and abusing children. They’re going to make criminals out of people who are law-abiding citizens with families. We’ve got more to look at than people fighting and shipping chickens.”
Massa says that cockfighters are being vilified, and he doesn’t “think what we’re doing is outrageous or anything worse than what’s going on throughout the whole country.”
Frederick Hawley says that cockfighters are “perceived to be ignorant, gap-toothed rednecks,” and that criminal activities at cockfights are minimal. What concerns him more is that “when you have made cockfighting illegal, you kind of draw it into the arms of criminals and criminal activities. These moral crusaders who want to make it illegal need to think about this.”
Hawley is a criminal justice professor at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. He has been studying cockfighting for the last 25 years and is writing a book on the subject. He says there’s a dual dichotomy between the upper class and lower working class and those who live in rural areas and urban areas.
“You’re not going to find cockpits in upper class neighborhoods,” Hawley says. He adds that cockfighters are “men of the 1860s, when people had to struggle more and die more in the process. They’re Social Darwinists without Darwin.”
Clifton D. Bryant has also been studying cockfighting for the last 25 years. As a professor of sociology at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., his primary area of study is deviant behavior – any type of behavior that violates some type of norm, from robbing a bank to crumbling crackers in your soup, from blowing up a building to belching at the table. He says deviant behavior “covers a multitude of sins.”
“What you have is a clash of cultural norms,” Bryant says. “The cockfighters’ norms are different from the norms you encounter in the city today.” Cockfighting is a symbol of a larger picture, what some refer to as a culture clash between the old way of doing things and the new.
Bryant’s research indicates that cockfighters are “extremely normal people. They’ve very Norman Rockwell. These folks are ordinary Americans. They’re more likely to be married and to be religious people. They have jobs and they work at it. They just so happen to raise cocks and like to go fight them.”
Bryant says that society is suffering from “the Bambi syndrome.”
“For several generations now we’ve been indoctrinated that animals are simply people with fur,” he says. “We’re giving human qualities to animals.”
Bryant asserts that there is still redeeming social value in killing animals. The slaughtering of a hog builds social solidarity in a community. Hunting with a parent brings you closer to them. You may be killing animals, but there is something to be gained from it. He says, “It is my assertion that quality time is worth the sacrifice of the animal.”
In 1972, Clifford Geertz, professor of social sciences at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J., published the article Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight in the journal Daedalus. He tells the story of how he and his wife, while conducting research in Bali, where virtually ignored by the locals until they fled with the rest of the townspeople from a raid on a cockfight.
Geertz described the conditioning, handling, fighting and betting that characterizes Balinese cockfighting.
“What it does is what, for other peoples with other temperaments and other conventions, Lear and Crime and Punishment do; it catches up these themes – death, masculinity, rage, pride, loss, beneficence, chance – and, ordering them into an encompassing structure, presents them in such a way as to throw into relief a particular view of their essential nature,” Geertz says.
Geertz concludes that the cockfight is an interpretation by a group of people of their own experiences and a retelling of that story to themselves.
“The slaughter in the cock ring is not a depiction of how things literally are among men, but, what is almost worse, of how, from a particular angle, they imaginatively are,” he writes.
There are two contrasting world views here. Which one will triumph is yet to be seen. If the farm bill is signed into law, it may thin out the cockfighters’ ranks. But if the past has any lesson to teach us, it’s that cockfighting won’t be wiped from the face of the earth.
The story is as old as Methuselah.