It was 20 years ago that Judy Hamilton overcame her squeamishness and went to see her first cockfight, and after that cockfighting became her passion and her livelihood. As owner of the Texoma Gamefowl Club in southeastern Oklahoma since 1989, she's staged scores of day-long cockfighting derbies in a 712-seat auditorium whose centerpiece, a caged dirt pit, is a killing ground for specially bred, intensively trained and often heavily drugged roosters.
Texoma's next cockfight, the first of the season, is scheduled for next Saturday, but this one's a little different: If she holds it, Hamilton says, she may be prosecuted for a felony.
State Question 687, which will appear on Oklahoma's ballot Tuesday, would make cockfighting and a raft of related activities, including owning game birds, felonies punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Polls suggest that Oklahomans will vote heavily in favor of the ban, which would take effect Friday.
The vote caps a three-year battle between cockfighters and animal rights advocates, a contest in which bitter recriminations, multiple court challenges and heavy spending on both sides suggest it is more a war between cultures than a squabble over a weekend hobby.
"It's my entire livelihood," said Hamilton, 47, whose club in rural Marshall County, just north of the Texas border, is one of about 40 commercial cockfighting pits in the state. "Some people might not like it, just like they might not like bullfighting. But I was raised on a farm and we butchered our own beef and hogs and squirrels and deer. That's a way of life for me. I don't have a backup plan."
Animal rights advocates, who won similar ballot fights to outlaw cockfighting in Arizona and Missouri in 1998, are deploying the same arguments in Oklahoma. The object, they say, is to eradicate a pastime of uncommon brutality whose mainly rural and poorly educated practitioners fit their birds with knives or gaffs -- like miniature ice picks -- and let them hack each other to death.
"It's a culture versus a crime culture," said Janet Halliburton, an Oklahoma City attorney who is leading the local forces in favor of banning cockfighting.
Halliburton, the former chief counsel for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, has never been to a cockfight, but she scoffs at the cockfighters' view of their pastime as a "sport," portraying it instead as a breeding ground of vice.
"It only exists for illegal gambling and it's associated with human violence and drug crimes," she said. "If not for the illegal gambling the birds would have no value and no one would attend . . . There's no reason for thousands of roosters to slash each other to death and cover their handlers with blood just because they like it -- I cannot imagine it."
Cockfighting was outlawed in many parts of the country in the 19th century, and banned under an animal cruelty statute when Oklahoma became a state in 1912. But in 1963, Judge Kirksey Nix of the state's Court of Criminal Appeals, a colorful figure notorious for ties to organized crime, ruled the law was so vague as to encompass even a "boy using his beagle hound to catch a rabbit." Even the Bible distinguished between "beasts of the field" and "fowls of the air," he argued, suggesting that if state lawmakers wanted to ban cockfighting they could pass a law to do that.
Despite numerous attempts, they have declined. One champion of Oklahoma cockfighting, the late John Monks of Muskogee, once played a recording of a rooster crowing to fellow state legislators and thundered: "The first thing the communists do when they take over a country is to outlaw cockfighting."
Besides Oklahoma, the sport remains legal only in Louisiana and nine counties of New Mexico.
In Arkansas, where cockfighting is popular despite being banned in 1879, a proposal on Tuesday's ballot would reclassify it as a felony. Polls suggest the vote will be close; the tougher law is opposed by the state Farm Bureau, not to mention two of the nation's biggest cockfighting magazines, the Feathered Warrior and the Gamecock, which are published in the state.
The intensified attacks on cockfighting "represent a triumph of suburbia and the decline of small-town and rural America," said Fred Hawley, a criminal justice professor at Western Carolina University in North Carolina who has studied cockfighting. If the ban is approved, "it's part of the passing of archaic and anachronistic pastimes that go along with the 19th century."
The federal government has also taken steps to restrict the game fowl business. A bill signed this year by President Bush will ban interstate shipments or exports of fighting birds starting next May. In theory, that would stanch the flow of game fowl breeders streaming into Oklahoma from Arkansas, Texas and Kansas.
In fact, say their lobbyists in the United Gamefowl Breeders Association, it is more likely to drive a decades-old, legitimate pastime underground. Raising game fowl is a $4 billion industry employing 300,000 family farmers, UGBA officials say. Legislating it into oblivion is a pipedream, they argue.
"There'll always be cocking," said Phil Church of Ozark, Mo., who stepped down as president of the UGBA in 1998. Church, who is 84, saw his first cockfight as a 6-year-old boy in West Virginia in 1924, and he doubts he's seen his last. "It's been outlawed in England and Ireland forever and they have quite a few cockfights," he said.
In Oklahoma, where the pastime is heavily concentrated in the southeast -- an area of the state known as "Little Dixie" -- cockfighters and game fowl breeders acknowledge that the trend is against them. But that hasn't stopped them from waging a major battle to preserve what they insist is a rural way of life under attack by arrogant city folk and suburbanites.
They insist that cockfighting is simply a soft target of opportunity for the animal rights lobby, whose advocates they deride as out-of-state "humaniacs." They portray the opponents of cockfighting as enemies of Oklahoma's way of life and foes of liberty itself. Next time, they warn, the attack will come against hunting, fishing -- even rodeos and zoos.
Gov. Frank A. Keating (R), like many Oklahomans a recreational hunter, ordered the question be placed on this year's ballot, and he came out strongly in favor of a ban. "Cockfighting is cruel, it promotes illegal gambling and it's simply embarrassing to Oklahoma to be seen as one of only a tiny handful of locations outside the Third World where this activity is legal," he said.
Much of the state's political, business and law enforcement establishment fell in behind the governor, as did Oklahoma's major newspapers. To the state's Union of Police Chiefs, cockfighting promoted gambling and attracted an unsavory criminal element. To chambers of commerce, especially in the major urban centers of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, cockfighting was more "Hee Haw" than high-tech, and sullied the Sooner State's image.
"I don't know anyone who goes, and I've never been to one," said Richard Burpee, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. "I picture a bunch of guys in a crowded feed lot where they make all these bets and throw a couple of roosters in there and let them have at it . . . It's not very progressive -- you've got to get into the 21st century and that's not part of it."
Still, in southeastern Oklahoma, formerly Chickasaw Indian land where peanut farms, cattle ranches and wood pulp factories dot the flat landscape, cockfighters are digging in their heels. Starting in 1999, when they tried to block the signature petition drive promoting the ban, they've spent more than $700,000 on their campaign, nearly as much as animal rights advocates from the Humane Society of the United States and other groups.
It is absurd, they insist, that people who raise gamecocks would be subject to longer prison terms than those convicted of child sex abuse or assault and battery on a police officer. "To me, fishing is just as natural as apple pie and baseball, and rooster fighting is as well," said Hamilton.