WASHINGTON -- Enthusiasts of cockfighting portray the pastime as a cherished part of their rural way of life, a hobby that does nothing worse than showcase the natural animal aggression of warring gamecocks.
But to their opponents, cockfighting is a barbaric sport that cruelly forces otherwise gentle birds to engage in bloody combat and has no place in a civil society.
Now, one opponent with political muscle has decided to summon the power of federal government to crack down on a sport practiced by at least 20,000 Americans, without outlawing it altogether. Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican, proposed legislation this week that would make it a felony to transport fighting roosters across state lines.
While not a full prohibition, Allard's bill would deal a blow to cockfighting enthusiasts, many of whom travel to Oklahoma, Louisiana or New Mexico -- the only states where the practice is legal -- to enter derbies.
Allard stressed that ultimately, the choice of whether to ban cockfighting rests with each state. His bill would simply close a loophole in federal legislation that bans the interstate transport of all fighting animals -- except roosters. Still, his legislation would mark yet another in a series of setbacks for cockfighting enthusiasts, -- or "cockers," as they call themselves.
"This is not the way we want to be treating our animals," said Allard, a veterinarian. "Most folks out there want it stopped. They realize it's inhumane, and that it's not a good wholesome sport."
A similar bill is likely to be introduced in the House this month. Both are expected to receive broad support.
Members of Congress in states where the sport remains popular were reluctant to state a position.
"We haven't had a chance to study the bill," said Paul Ziriax, a spokesman for Rep. Wes Watkins, an Oklahoma Republican.
At cockfighting derbies, participants tie ice-pick sharp gaffs and knives onto roosters' claws. Two animals are then tossed into a dirt-floor pit to fight as observers wager and root the birds on until one is sufficiently gouged, bludgeoned or slashed. The events, usually held at private clubs, are typically preceded by a social gathering of families that often includes a barbecue and sometimes children.
But resistance to the sport has been growing steadily. In November, voters in Missouri and Arizona passed referendums banning cockfighting.
Still, even in states where the sport is illegal, cockers simply raise their birds at home and come pouring into the still-legal states for fights. Under the Allard legislation, there would be no way for out-of-staters to compete without risking prosecution.
That alarms people such as Gary and Sharon McFarlane. On their farm in Slidell, Texas, the couple raises nearly 100 roosters and often travels to Oklahoma for derbies.
"It's going to make felons out of good people," said Mrs. McFarlane, an officer in the Texas Gamefowl Breeders Association. Many towns in the three states that allow cockfighting -- all of which border Texas -- rely on the money the Texas cockers bring in.
"The opposition likes to pooh-pooh that," she said. "There are motels and restaurants that depend on cockers."
The opposition -- namely the Humane Society of the United States, which is leading a national campaign to wipe out the sport -- insists there is no excuse for what they view as outright cruelty.
"It is one of the dark and ugly sides of human nature that people should be titillated by watching animals die horribly in a pit," said Eric Sakach, the society's cockfighting investigator.
Allard's law would also add teeth to state prohibitions. Law-enforcement officials who discover what they believe to be farms where cockfights are taking place illegally are often stymied by residents who say they are merely training the birds and planning to transport them to states where cockfighting is legal. Under the new bill, such an excuse would not absolve the offender.
Maryland banned the sport in 1983. Next week, Del. George W. Owings III, a Calvert County Democrat, is introducing legislation that would make cockfighting a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, which it is now. Maryland would become the 20th state in which cockfighting is a felony.
"Without hesitation, I'm sure it is going on in this state," Owings said of the sport.
Further restrictions on the sport are likely to intensify a debate in which cockers insist that rural lifestyle is being trampled on by meddlesome, urban-minded outsiders who want to ban their pastime.
But some critics argue that even many rural residents reject the notion that cockfighting is a natural part of their folkways.
"This lifestyle argument burns me to a crisp," Sakach said.
Pub Date: 2/05/99