A Ban on Cockfighting, but Tradition Lives On


– Gameness til the End

A Ban on Cockfighting, but Tradition Lives On

July 6, 2008
By Adam B. Ellick

CHAPARRAL, N.M. — After two weeks of preparation, 150 officers, backed up by a helicopter, slipped into this sleepy desert town. Their focus was not illegal immigration or drug smuggling, but a less pressing crime: cockfighting.

But when they raided what was billed as the Christmas Cockfighting Derby in December expecting to find 300 cockfighters, they found fewer than a dozen people. The cockfighters had been tipped off, the police said, and the officers issued tickets for four misdemeanors before seizing 12 shrieking roosters.

Last year, New Mexico became the 49th state to make cockfighting illegal. (Louisiana will become the last state when a ban there takes effect in August.) The state has devoted vast resources to ending the sport, but with only one misdemeanor conviction thus far, it continues unabated in hidden venues, cockfighters and law enforcement officials say.

And light penalties — a first offense is a petty misdemeanor — have not only failed to stop the fights, they continue to attract cockfighters from four of New Mexico’s five neighboring states, where the sport is a felony.

“It seems they’re always one step ahead of us,” said Robyn Gojkovich, who in May became the state’s first full-time animal control investigator.

Ed Lowry, 51, a paunchy rooster breeder from Chaparral, agreed.

“They ain’t shut nothing down,” said Mr. Lowry, who has not been charged, even though his truck and computers were seized in the December raid.

Mr. Lowry, who still possesses his prized bloodlines, said he constantly turns down invitations to fight. As a director of the New Mexico Gamefowl Association, a nonprofit cockfighting advocacy group, he has taken up fighting in the courts, where appeals claiming tribal, religious and cultural sovereignty have failed to win exemptions from the ban.

“A gamecock shows me what an American should be like,” he said. “You defend to the death.”

To avoid the police, law enforcement officers say, promoters have relocated the fights from large arenas to clandestine sites on sprawling properties. Lookouts are stationed atop dusty mesas, and speakers, which in the past blared mariachi music, now carry feeds from police scanners.

But law enforcement officials are not giving up. They insist their aggressive operations — the raids, the full-time investigator, a special cockfighting task force — are sending a message in a war of attrition.

Nationally, though, it appears that animal rights advocates are winning that war, and they have been helped by a high-profile case. The conviction of the football star Michael Vick in a dogfighting operation in 2007 has pushed animal cruelty cases to the fore.

Circulation of the country’s largest trade magazine for cockfighting, The Gamecock, has fallen to 8,000 from about 14,000 over the last decade as states strengthened penalties for animal cruelty. And the wider cockfighting community, once an $80 million industry in the state, is suffering. In New Mexico, profits at feed stores and hotels in cockfighting strongholds are down as much as 70 percent, owners said.

Some police officers in this state say the pressure for stepped-up enforcement from the animal rights lobby has become so intense that resources are being diverted from more serious crimes, like drunken driving and amphetamine abuse.

For years the state’s governor, Bill Richardson, a Democrat, avoided the issue. In 2006, Jay Leno ridiculed him on the “Tonight Show,” for saying there were strong arguments on both sides of the issue. At that time, the sport was already a felony in 33 states. But in March 2007, Mr. Richardson signed the measure outlawing the sport. He was widely criticized as only getting behind the legislation because he was then running for president.

“You can’t go on the national stage and have people find out you have no problem with a bloody sport,” said Sheriff Darren White of Bernalillo County, where officers issued citations for two cockfighting misdemeanors in a raid on June 21.

Mr. Richardson’s office said he would not be available to discuss the issue.

Sheriff White, a Republican who is running for Congress, said the ban has transformed public opinion on animal cruelty issues. Animal rights advocates agree.

“New Mexico is on the verge of having a modern culture,” said Heather Ferguson, the legislative director for Animal Protection of New Mexico, an animal-rights lobbying group. Ms. Ferguson said a newly established animal cruelty hot line was receiving about 90 calls every two weeks.

As public support rises, so do costs. The Chaparral raid cost the four counties involved more than $25,000, officials said. And several high-ranking police officers, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to talk to reporters, said that while they oppose cockfighting they are frustrated at how politicians are disproportionately emphasizing the crime.

“We don’t even investigate misdemeanors on other crimes,” one officer said. “We laugh at these investigations.” Of one cockfighting raid he said: “We wasted $10,000 on a recent misdemeanor. I’d rather use that for a D.U.I. checkpoint and take 20 people off the road in the three hours and save lives over chickens. I feel good when we save chickens, but whoop-de-do, a misdemeanor?”

Others defended the raids, citing ties between cockfighting and other criminal enterprises, like illegal gambling.

“You aren’t going to take down a cockfighting ring with two or three people,” Sheriff White said. “This is not a friendly card game. There’s a lot more going on.”

Ms. Ferguson said she would like to see even more legal action on the issue. She is seeking $200,000 in additional state money to finance positions like a full-time prosecutor for animal cruelty cases. In addition, she is working to make cockfighting a felony in New Mexico. Over the next year, Animal Protection of New Mexico will lobby for about $1.1 million for three new animal custody facilities that would be completed by 2010.

For 16 years, Richard and Louisa Lopez operated a 310-seat cockfighting arena at their farm in Luis Lopez, N.M. The $30,000 they earned annually from the operation helped subsidize their farm expenses, and send their children to college. Last month, they used the arena for their family reunion and a baby shower.

“We don’t have money to buy diesel sometimes,” Mr. Lopez said. “And this is the place that kept my farm going.”

In January, the courts dismissed a suit by the New Mexico Gamefowl Association claiming economic devastation. Ms. Gojkovich, the animal control investigator, was hardly sympathetic.

“You need to go find a job at Wal-Mart,” she said.

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