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In Oklahoma, there’s a push to lower penalties for cockfighting.


The practice of cockfighting, where two roosters battle each other, has been around since the Roman Empire. In the U.S., it's illegal at both the federal and state levels, but thousands of game fowl roosters are raised across the country. And now in Oklahoma, there's a push to lower penalties for cockfighting. From Harvest Public Media in Kansas City, Anna Pope reports.


ANNA POPE, BYLINE: There are hundreds of roosters on Troy Thompson's farm in southern Oklahoma. They are housed in row after row in tent-like, small, white structures and are tied with foot tethers to prevent them from fighting each other.

TROY THOMPSON: You know, some people like pigs. Some people like horses. I like chickens.

POPE: These chickens are particular breeds. Colorful Hatches and Kelsos historically bred for cockfighting, the lethal sport where two birds are put in a ring to battle. It can be big business, often tied to illegal gambling, but Thompson says he runs a legal business, selling the birds for breeding purposes, and he says there's a lot of interest around game fowl.

THOMPSON: There's hardly a town you can go to in the state of Oklahoma or any state or any town in Texas where somebody doesn't know something or owns some game foul in one of those towns.

POPE: Oklahoma was one of the last places to ban cockfighting. For the last two decades, it's been illegal. Federal law makes it a crime to transport roosters or paraphernalia for fighting. There have been busts across the country of illegal cockfighting events with officials called in to seize injured birds. After a raid last year in Oklahoma, a former district director of the Oklahoma Game Fowl Commission was fined and charged with a felony for facilitating a cockfight. The felony charge was later dismissed.

The commission, which lobbies on behalf of game fowl owners, says it does not promote, condone nor participate in illegal activities but calls the penalties under the state's law excessive. In Oklahoma, it's a felony to own, possess, keep or train birds for the intent of cock fighting. It can bring a prison term up to 10 years in prison and fines as high as $25,000. Game Fowl Commission president Anthony DeVore says the Oklahoma law is too vague.

ANTHONY DEVORE: We want to be able to own and raise and sell the game fowl without interpretation of people trying to say that we're trying to fight them and just not have to look over our shoulders because, you know, they're flying drones over and saying, you know, hey, you've got illegal activity and we're like, we're just raising chickens.

POPE: DeVore says the game fowl industry contributes millions of dollars to Oklahoma's economy. And he argues even teenagers involved in the Future Farmers of America could be prosecuted under the law. But prosecutors, like Drew Edmondson, Oklahoma's former attorney general, says it takes evidence of fighting for people to be charged - for example, having steroids for the birds on hand or spurs, the sharp metal blades that can be attached to a rooster's legs.

DREW EDMONDSON: There is a big difference between having roosters because you're raising chickens and having roosters for fighting - just a world of difference.

POPE: Edmondson is now the co-chair of the National Law Enforcement Council of Animal Wellness Action, a nonprofit animal wellness advocacy group. He and other activists say fighting birds are being sold for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. They're often going to international buyers in places like the Philippines, where cockfighting is legal and popular. The bills introduced in the Oklahoma Legislature to lower cockfighting punishments have gained little traction so far. Even so, supporters of the game fowl industry say they will continue to push for change.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Pope in Oklahoma City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Anna Pope
[Copyright 2024 KOSU]