Dawn in Louisiana
Clarence "Wooly" Bunch has been a cockfighter for more than 40 years and is the proprietor of the Little Rebel Game Club in this small town east of Baton Rouge. But these are the last days of legal cockfighting in Louisiana, and Bunch, an affable fellow with an easy laugh, feels "lost as a bat" as he contemplates his future. The former pipe fitter subsidizes his $600 a month in Social Security with derby winnings, but like other pit owners, he sees the blood sport as being about something more.
"It's my heritage," he says. "I guess there are other people that want to be president of the United States or senators or whatever. Me, I want to be a cockfighter. . . . I would rather do it out in the wide open where everyone knows it and sees it because I am not ashamed of cockfighting."
Cockfight aficionados argue that the new law, which goes into effect today, will merely drive cockfighting underground, like dogfighting rings. Sitting on an armchair in his mobile home with his dog TooToo nuzzling his chin, Bunch says cockfighting isn't in the same category as dogfighting. "Dogs are your friend. . . . Not to say I don't like my chickens, but they are not my friend," he says.
Louisiana is the last state to outlaw cockfighting. In 33 states and the District of Columbia, it is a felony. Virginia recently toughened its law to make even attending organized fights a felony. The sport, still popular in countries including Mexico and the Philippines, remains legal in the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa.
Animal advocacy organizations applaud the closing of the final legal venue in the United States for a blood sport they view as cruel and barbaric.
"It has been a monumental struggle involving lots of people and very many protests, economics, twists and turns," says anesthesiologist James Riopelle. A past president of the state's humane society coalition, he organized protests at the Sunset Recreation Club, which he calls the "Super Bowl of cockfighting." The doctor is considered by animal welfare groups to be a hero of Hurricane Katrina for refusing to abandon the dozens of animals left in his care by residents during the evacuation of New Orleans. Riopelle thinks the national focus on the state after the storms gave the legislature more incentive to take action against an activity perceived as unacceptable by the rest of the country.
But there is a sentiment among cockfighters that being sanctioned for their pastime by those who dine on chicken from factory farms is hypocritical. They raise their roosters for two years, vaccinate and feed them and say the birds at least have a fighting chance of remaining alive. Enthusiasts insist they simply perpetuate the inherent nature of the species, that it would be impossible to stop this jungle breed from fighting. To prevent carnage in the yard, the birds must be tethered apart.
Some of those engaged in cockfighting view themselves as a dying breed and will reluctantly let go rather than hide their activities. Others insist they will find a way to fight their fowl.
"We ain't barbaric and we ain't hurting nobody," insists Bunch's longtime friend Chris Stewart. He feels outsiders don't understand a culture that is centuries old and had been a hobby of presidents. The story is retold countless times about how Honest Abe got his name as a cockfight referee.
"They got us down like we outlaws and, well, if we are, Washington, Jefferson, Jackson -- all of our presidents -- they had them, so they must not have been low-life trash or they wouldn't have been presidents of the United States," Bunch says. "Changing your heritage, well, I don't see where they should think about nothing like that. Now if it's something immoral or improper, I can understand it."
Carter Kinchen of Tickfaw, La., declares: "Religion and cockfighting built this country." Faith, heritage and patriotism are often uttered in the same breath with cockfighting as Kinchen discusses Louisiana's ban.