New Mexico's secret sport

Cockfighting in the land ofenchantment

  • Ronnie Barron's farm where cocks lead a "life of luxury"

    Robyn Morrison photo
  • Ivis and Raymond Arenivas, cockfighters for 17 years

    Robyn Morrison photo
  • Cocks dead from fighting

    photo courtesy Animal Protection of New Mexico
  • Cover of the magazine Grit and Steel

  • Cover of the magazine The Feathered Warrior

  • Cover of the magazine GameCock

 

ARTESIA, N.M. - There's a lot of crowing, and chickens scatter as their scratching is interrupted. The ruckus comes from Ronnie Barron's roosters, a colorful collection of plumed birds, each housed in a spacious pen.

"These are the roosters I'm getting ready to fight," says Barron, the president of the United Gamefowl Breeders Association in New Mexico. Barron loves to watch his roosters fight in the ring - usually to the death.

Cockfights are hard to find these days: New Mexico is one of only three states, along with Oklahoma and Louisiana, where cockfighting is still legal. Nine of New Mexico's 33 counties and numerous municipalities have outlawed it, but in rural counties cockfighting is as entrenched as the creosote bushes that twist from the desert soil.

"Cockers," as breeders and aficionados call themselves, cite tradition and culture to defend their sport. Cockfighting dates back nearly 3,000 years in Asia and the Middle East, historians say, and they believe it was one of the first spectator sports.

Barron, a retired oil-field union man, says that today, cockfighting is just another misunderstood part of rural life.

"City folks want to dictate what goes on out in the country, and it's like beating your head against the wall to explain the tradition of cockfighting to them."

Compared to chickens bound for the supermarket, Barron says, his roosters lead a life of luxury. He feeds them a high-protein diet twice a day and waters and de-bugs them. Exercise is part of the routine, says Barron. "I make sure they have plenty of room to stretch and move around. The best thing I can do is keep them happy and healthy."

There's a lot of money in the breeding of fighting birds. Barron points to a rooster and says he offered a breeder who is a friend of his $2,000 for the bird. "The guy wouldn't sell the bird to me," says Barron. Later, the friend gave him the bird, he says.

Beyond the enclosure of wire coops, nearly 120 additional roosters occupy a field, flashing slick and shiny hues of brown, rust, deep red and the darkest of green. Some crow from the top of the large, overturned plastic barrels that serve as coops. Others strut around on five-foot tethers, occasionally stretching to the end to glare at a neighbor. The tethers keep the birds from killing each other, says Barron. "It's in their blood to fight."

Ruffling feathers

To a growing number of opponents, this blood sport isn't a sport at all. Lisa Jennings, the executive director of Animal Protection of New Mexico, calls cockfighting an "archaic and hideous ritual" which New Mexico is lax in erasing. "The bottom line is that it's cruel," says Jennings. "Across the board, all animal fighting should be illegal."

Massachusetts, in 1836, was the first state to outlaw cockfighting. Most Western states outlawed the practice in the early 1900s. Voters in Arizona, one of the last holdouts, passed a referendum in 1998 making the sport illegal. But New Mexico is a non-referendum state where everything must go through the legislature, and that, says Jennings, is more of a challenge than collecting enough signatures to get on the ballot.

Many New Mexicans don't know cockfighting is legal, says Jennings, but as people learn about it, opposition will grow. "It's a tradition that will eventually die out, and we're just helping to make that happen faster," she says. "These people are going to have to change."

Jennings also argues that cockfighting is nothing more than a vehicle for gambling, drug-trafficking and other illegal activities. "There are all kinds of unsavory activities that go on at these events," she says.

Jennings isn't alone. At the national level, Republican Sen. Wayne Allard, Colo., a veterinarian, introduced a bill last winter that would close a loophole that allows fighting roosters to be transported from states where cockfighting is illegal to states where it's legal.

Allard spokesman Sean Conway says that not only is cockfighting cruel, but it's also a law enforcement issue. "Because of the loophole, it's very difficult to enforce the laws in states where cockfighting is illegal," he says.

Last spring, the bill unanimously passed the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman voiced his support of the measure.

"Whether it involves dogs or birds, animal fighting is inhumane and, rightfully, is also illegal in most of the country," Glickman wrote in a letter of support to Allard.

The rooster ritual

Perhaps it's the knowledge of this growing opposition that keeps cockfighting a secret world, even where it is legal.

Although cockers list the economic benefits of keeping it legal - from the millions of dollars spent on chicken feed, and the millions made in the breeding business, to money spent at hotels, restaurants and gas stations - cockfighting arenas aren't easy to find. Most are "members only" clubs, and the little advertising that's done is limited to the three national publications dedicated to gamefowl breeding and fighting: The Feathered Warrior, Grit and Steel and The Gamecock.

Fighting clubs, such as Tommy's Club several miles outside Hobbs, N.M., keep a low profile. Outside, a crooked, hand-stenciled sign simply reads "Tommy's Game Fowl Farm."

Inside the corrugated metal building, the smell is immediate, like irrigated dirt steaming in the heat. Several tiers of theater-style seats surround three 10-by-10 dirt-floored "pits," enclosed by wire fence. Behind the scenes are the rooster locker rooms - dozens of small rooms for holding the birds until their fight.

Club owner Tom Booth is a tall, grandfatherly figure with a soft Texas drawl and a crooked baseball cap. He says that the English introduced cockfighting to the colonies and that it's a historical fact that the gamecock lost out to the bald eagle as the national symbol by only a few votes. He's especially proud of his fowl's bloodlines, which he says were passed down from his great-grandfather's fowl. On Sundays during the Civil War, Booth's Confederate ancestor took time out to gather with the enemy from the North for cockfighting.

It's also a pastime that many immigrants from Asia and Mexico have brought with them. Although Tommy's Club draws a large Hispanic crowd, Booth says it's a misconception that the sport is favored mostly by Hispanics. "It's a sport that includes just about everyone," he says.

Booth says he worries about what will happen if Sen. Allard's bill passes. A large number of his patrons come from Texas and other states where cockfighting is illegal. He doubts it will put him out of business, but, he fears, it could mean a lot less business. "It won't stop people from raising and fighting roosters; it will just turn them into law-breakers." He says that many breeding operations that export chickens around the country could go under.

As the afternoon heats up, men stop to pay entry fees and drop off their roosters. Tommy Longshore, Booth's daughter, sits behind a counter, filling out note cards with entry information and collecting money while she explains the appeal of cockfighting. "It's not for everyone. There are people who come to see what it's about and after five minutes have had enough," she says. "But, there are always people that come for the first time with their buddies, get hooked and start raising their own birds. Then we see them every weekend."

Later that evening, the parking lot is full of big pickups sporting shiny chrome. Men wearing everything from jeans and baseball caps to polished cowboy boots and pressed shirts sit on tailgates drinking beer before the derby begins. Ivis Arenivas, a breeder from Texas, says that the larger derbies draw cockers from around the U.S. But tonight, judging from the license plates, the crowd is mostly New Mexicans and Texans.

Ivis and his father, Raymond, have bred and fought roosters for 17 years. Ivis says they come to Tommy's Club nearly every weekend and on a winning night can bring home anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars. They speculate in hushed voices about who breeds the best birds and who will be the big winners of the evening.

Inside, the seats fill while roosters are weighed and randomly paired by weight and weapon. Rooster paraphernalia is spread out for sale at a counter: vitamins, penicillin, other antibiotics and an assortment of razor-sharp knives and pointed gaffs. Before the birds are placed in the ring, the weapons are strapped to their natural spur, a boney point that has been filed down and blunted.

Spectators surround the pit as the first match is called. Two handlers with roosters under their arms enter the ring and a flurry of betting ensues. Patrons flash money and call out their favorites, ignoring the "no gambling" signs on the walls. The handlers make a couple of passes with the birds and then place them about a foot on either side of a line drawn in the dirt.

This is where the ritual preparation ends and the fight begins.

The first fight of the evening is fast and bloody. With neck feathers fanned and wings whirring, the birds jump and parry at each other. They kick and duel in mid-air, striking at each other with feet and beak. After several minutes, the round is over. One bird is lifeless in the dirt.

The next match is a stalemate: The birds sit and glare, waiting each other out with only an occasional peck or kick. Through a complicated system of scoring and timing, the impasse is decided and a winner declared.

Several rounds later, Raymond Arenivas brings his rooster to the pit. The betting reaches a furious level. Someone leans over and says he breeds winners.

But instead of Arenivas' rooster quickly dispatching the other, the birds settle into what resembles the calculated moves of two boxers, each sizing up the competition and waiting for a chance to strike. Arenivas' bird strikes with several swift kicks to the chest and then trades a pecking beak to the back with his opponent.

Throughout the fight, at the signal of the referee, Arenivas and his opponent scoop up their roosters and blow on the birds' backs or tug at their beaks, to rev them up before setting them in the dirt to continue the fight.

Eventually, though, neither cock is willing to carry on the fight. At the end of the 15-minute round, although his rooster looks to be in worse condition than the other, Arenivas is declared the winner. Money changes hands, and the men clinging to the fence move to the next pit. A new match quickly gets under way.

As for the dead, they're unceremoniously tossed in a barrel behind the building, too tough and sinewy to end up on the dinner table. No ordinary poultry, the winners will return to their pens, tended by their breeders in preparation for the next fight.

Back at his farm in Artesia, Ronnie Barron wonders how long there will be a next fight. If animal-rights activists have their way, he says, he'll probably trade in his rooster tending and take up fishing to fill his time. "Until that becomes illegal, too."

Robyn Morrison, a former HCN intern, is development director for High Country News.

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