A Fighting Chance

Louisiana's cockfighters face a new battle: a federal farm bill that could turn them into felons.



A strong breeze rolls off Bayou Teche and through Magnolia Park in St. Martinville. 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. 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, cradling a rooster with his right arm and stroking the bird's feathers with his free hand. Behind him is a smaller man, dressed in denim and cowboy boots, holding another rooster and stroking it the same way. The roosters have small gloves, one pair red and the other yellow, 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 beaks can almost touch -- and then quickly bring them back to their chests.

They do this several times, letting the birds get a good look at each other. Then they place the roosters on the ground behind the lines and let them loose. The roosters flare their hackles (neck feathers), spread their wings and go at each other, striking with their beaks and their miniature boxing gloves.

As a Lenny Kravitz song blares from the flatbed trailer, a bald man yells, "C'mon, Red! C'mon, Big Boy!" A younger man yells, "Put him in the gumbo!"

Donnie Landry has brought his wife and two young children out to the park. He isn't a cockfighter. He's a 37-year-old diesel mechanic, a slender man with blond hair and a thin goatee, who's hoisting his 1-year-old son onto his shoulder to see the action.

"You see 'em?" he asks.

The child nods his head.

"That bird's got a lot of heart," Landry says to no one in particular.

Cockfighters call it gameness: 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. You don't want to be in it, but you love to see the action."

That action is under a new threat by a farm bill that, if signed by President George W. Bush into law, 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.

On Feb. 13, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that in part prohibits the transportation of roosters. 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 into and out of Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico, where cockfighting is still legal.

Both Sen. John Breaux and Sen. Mary Landrieu voted to pass the farm bill. But both say the matter of cockfighting should be decided state by state. "I believe this issue should be resolved by the people of Louisiana, not by people in Washington," says Breaux. "I voted in favor of the Senate farm bill, however, because this kind of legislation is critical to sustaining farm programs that are so important to Louisiana and our farm families."

At La Grande Boucherie des Cajuns, Landry is not aware of the bill. But he doesn't think its passage would wipe cockfighting from the face of the earth. "You know how long this has been going on?" he says. "This is one of the first forms of entertainment they ever had."

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. Fighting spread from ancient India to Persia and China. Around the sixth century B.C., young Greeks were required to attend fights to learn about courage and fortitude.

In 186 A.D., St. Augustine wrote about a cockfight in De Ordine, wondering why the birds fought with one another and why humans were so fascinated with the spectacle. The philosopher concluded that without evil, there would be no good. The ugly confirms the beauty in our lives.

In England, under the reign of King Henry VIII, cockfighting flourished as a rich man's sport. In 1834, Parliament declared cockfighting illegal. "In the long run it made little difference," write Smith and Daniel. "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.

Cockfighting was widespread throughout the southern United States by the early 1700s. It's rumored that Presidents George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson raised game fowl, and that President Abraham Lincoln's nickname, "Honest Abe," came from his fairness as a referee of cockfights.

Today, the town of Sunset, just north of Lafayette, is considered the cockfighting capital of the United States. And not far from there, Nolan Dugas is one 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. Dugas, 65, 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.

He is a man of few words. Dressed in a black hat and flannel shirt, he yells to be heard over the 25 cocks crowing in his backyard, each in a separate cage. Dugas spends about $300 a month keeping the birds healthy, feeding them vitamins, deworming medication and 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."

He admits he's lucky if he breaks even in the long run. The enjoyment he gets out of raising, training and fighting the roosters is compensation enough.

Dugas knows that there are those who object to his hobby. "I don't have nothing to hide, me," he says. "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 prefers 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. "It's too much," he says.

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. There are about a dozen more medium-sized pits and at least 60 community cockpits throughout Louisiana.

The M&M, a gray metal building outside of Rayne, is one of the smaller, community pits. And on a Sunday afternoon in Lent, a couple dozen men -- white, black and Hispanic -- stand around sipping beer and soft drinks at the bar just inside the front door. Dugas is one of them.

"We're all color-blind out here," Dugas says. "We come to fight our roosters."

The doors are open, and a breeze stirs the air under fluorescent lights. Hand-lettered signs on the walls warn 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, waiting to help ready the birds for the fight.

The cockpit is entered through a doorway in the bar. 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 could pay anywhere from $100 to $600 in entry fees to enter four birds. It's winner-take-all, and if there's a tie, the pot is split in half between the two winning cockfighters.

This afternoon, Dugas has brought only one rooster with him. 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."

He 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 jeans checks the weight. This man's brought four roosters with him and one of his birds is 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 more cruel not to use them. Natural spurs vary in length and hardness and could give one cock the upper hand in a fight.

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.

Commonplace with Hispanic cockfighters, the knife has gained popularity in Louisiana in recent years. 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." Some cockfighters believe that knives are corrupting the sport, placing less emphasis on gameness and more on betting.

The roosters are placed into two smaller cages inside the pit. A judge enters the ring and sets a 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 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 good.

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. At first, Dugas' rooster flies over his opponent and hooks him several times with his gaffs. Then a quick lick blinds Dugas' rooster. It's a decisive blow. 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, there's a song titled "Chante Pas, Petit Rouge!" ("Don't Crow, Little Red!"). Sung in both French and English, it's billed as the story of "a Louisiana boy's efforts to save his pet rooster from being entered into a cockfight." One of the verses goes:

"Today is your day at the bloody cockfight.

Parrain and Papa, they'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 tune's authors. He's protested against cockfighting on three different occasions in Sunset and says he co-wrote the song 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, 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.

"It doesn't speak well of one's character when one is intentionally cruel to any living creature," says Wood. "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 a controlled act of nature. Talk to a cockfighter long enough and a common perception becomes clear: 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.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has opposed cockfighting since the organization's inception in 1954, but increased its political pressure in 1998 to ban cockfighting nationwide. A ballot initiative in Arizona and Missouri led to the outlawing of the sport in both states. HSUS is currently pushing for the ban of cockfighting in Oklahoma, and supports "felony-level penalties for people who perpetrate these acts of cruelty," says senior vice president for communications and government affairs Wayne Pacelle.

In 2001, HSUS spent about $100,000 lobbying against cockfighting, says Pacelle. According to the U.S. Senate Office of Public Records, the two primary organizations trying to keep cockfighting alive -- the United Gamefowl Breeders Association and the American Animal Husbandry Coalition -- spent between $120,000 and $160,000 (records are incomplete).

Pacelle acknowledges that he is widely disparaged among cockfighters for promoting a "vegan agenda." He disagrees that cockfighting should be respected as an integral part of a culture.

"It's a pretty good indication that it's unacceptable activity when 94 percent of the states and the Congress deem it illegal activity," he says. "We have made a collective judgement in society that [cockfighting] violates our basic standards of decency towards animals and should be outlawed.

"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."

In a famous 1972 article titled "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight," cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes 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 writes.

With the cockfight, says Geertz, a group of people interpret their own experiences and retell 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.

Those against cockfighting focus on the cruelty of the sport, first and foremost, and add that it fosters unhealthy traits in human beings. Cockfighters are quick to point out that other pastimes have elements of cruelty. What's at issue, they say, is freedom: not allowing someone else to tell you what you can't do with your own property.

Cockfighter Jim Demourelle says he learned this the hard way. Demourelle says he can't prove it, but he believes that animal rights activists set the fire that burned his company, Evangeline Psychiatric Care in Ville Platte. The fire, which started in three different places, was ruled an arson; Demourelle's insurance had lapsed by the time of the fire and he was left with nothing.

Demourelle served in the Navy for 21 years. It was in the Philippines in 1960, he recalls, that he went to his first cockfight. "They told us cockfights were off limits," he says, "so that's where we all directly went."

During those first fights, he says, he came to appreciate the sport. "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, he adds, "we're talking about a chicken." He says the Humane Society is harassing people who are raising animals and, in many cases, are pet owners. "I don't want to be engineered," he says.

Demourelle argues that he doesn'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."

Emanuel Massa, president of the 6,000-member Louisiana Gamefowl Breeders Association, says that cockfighting has a $1.3 billion annual impact on Louisiana. The money, he says, comes from a number of sources: 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 hotel rooms, meals and souvenirs purchased by visiting cockfighters.

If the farm bill is signed into law, says Massa, fewer cockfighters from other states will attend local cockfights, and the breeders who ship fowl out of Louisiana would be felons. "I think this bill walks all over our constitution and our freedoms," he says.

"The Humane Society and the animal rights people have big bucks and we're little fish," adds Massa. "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."

Pacelle says he knows that if the farm bill is signed into law it won't eradicate cockfighting, but he believes 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."

The farm bill, passed by both the Senate and the House, is currently in conference.

CORRECTIONS: In last week's Commentary, "Vote April 6," our endorsement of Jeffrey Arnold and Demetrie Ford for the House District 102 seat erroneously reported that Arnold is a lawyer and an assistant city attorney. As an assistant to the mayor for intergovernmental relations, Arnold specializes in lobbying the Legislature on economic development projects; he also acts as the mayor's liasion to the City Council and to the armed forces in the city. Also, we stated that Arnold supports a proposed off-ramp from the Crescent City Connection to increase access to Mardi Gras World. In fact, Arnold says that, while he believes the project would enhance property values in the neighborhood, "I would not support the off-ramp without the support of the neighborhood." Demetrie Ford, who shares Gambit Weekly's endorsement for the seat, also opposes the off-ramp, citing neighborhood opposition. Gambit Weekly regrets the errors.

Nolan Dugas spends about $300 a month keeping his birds healthy. 'A rooster will only give you in the pit what you give him at home,' he says. - TERRI FENSEL
  • Terri Fensel
  • Nolan Dugas spends about $300 a month keeping his birds healthy. 'A rooster will only give you in the pit what you give him at home,' he says.

Add a comment