BLOOD SPORT

COCKFIGHTING IS ILLEGAL IN 46 STATES. SIXTEEN OF THEM CONSIDER THE PRACTICE A FELONY. IN ARIZONA, IT'S ENTERTAINMENT.

Another reason that cockfighting continues here is the vague language of the state's animal-cruelty statute. The first (and last) serious test of whether cockfighting constitutes animal cruelty in Arizona came in 1958, when three men who had been arrested at a cockfight in Scottsdale won a decision before the state Supreme Court.

The high court ruled that under Arizona law, birds, including gamecocks, are not "animals." The court ruled that in order for cockfighting to be illegal, there must be a specific statute that makes it so--and there is no such state law.

Cockers say a third reason their activity has yet to be banned here is its strong ties to Mexican culture, ties they are admittedly not above exploiting.

"They use that excuse all the time, and it works," says Jaime Massey of the Arizona Lobby for Animals, an organization that has labored for years to get a cockfight ban passed. "Any legislator would rather be called antianimal than racist."

Not all Hispanics think cockfighting's place in Mexican culture means the activity should be legal, of course. The late Cesar Ch vez, for one, was an outspoken opponent of cockfighting.

Still, the cultural tie has had its effect in the legislature.
To counter arguments touting the historical pedigree and cultural significance of cockfighting, animal-rights groups have come up with some slings and arrows of their own. Even in states where it remains legal, they say, cockfighting attracts a criminal element. Prostitution flourishes around cockfights, the matches offer a haven to drug dealers, and illegal gambling is practically the gamecock's raison d'àtre, the activists claim.

It is a fact that in several other states, definitive links have been made between cockfighting and drug activity. In the Deep South, Drug Enforcement Administration policy calls for undercover agents to frequent cockfights. The DEA has had a reasonable amount of success finding large-scale drug traffickers from Central America and South America at the events. Raids on illegal cockfights regularly turn up at least small quantities of drugs. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reports that illegal weapons are often found at cockfights, presumably because of the large sums of money participants and spectators routinely bring. Humane Society investigators have been threatened with guns at illegal cockfights, and disputes over rooster matches have been known to escalate quickly into gun battles.

And it is true that without gambling, there might not be any cockfights. At bigger tournaments, thousands of dollars change hands, sometimes on every match. Side bets between spectators may be as small as $20 or as large as several hundred, and most owners wager at least $50 or $75 on their own bird before stepping into the pit. Raids on cockfights in other parts of the country regularly result in the seizure of tens of thousands of dollars.

All of the claims of criminal activity around cockfights, however, have fallen on deaf ears at the Arizona legislature. There, despite more or less annual attempts, no cockfighting ban has ever made it to a committee vote, let alone onto the House or Senate floor. Frustrated animal-rights activists vow that they'll try just one more time to pass a measure in the legislature. If that fails, they will push a ballot referendum on the issue.

A statewide voting drive would be a very expensive undertaking. But after having lost time and time again, cockfighting opponents feel they have no other choice. On the referee's order, Fontana and his opponent release their roosters' tail feathers. Gamecocks are often compared to boxers, facing off against each other in the ring. As these two approach each other, however, they might more aptly be likened to wrestlers. Crouched over, heads held low and bodies squared off with one another, they move quickly but not recklessly. Just as they seem about to run into each other, both jump into the air.

Fontana's bird seems to be a better leaper, and makes it into the air perhaps three feet. It is while the cocks are airborne that they swing their legs out and try to "hit" each other with their knives. The other rooster, a black with gray markings, has not jumped as high, and must turn over backward in the air to slash with his legs. Despite their wildly flapping wings, the roosters do not stay airborne for long, and quickly fall to the ground.

Neither one scores a hit, which is unusual. Many knife fights do not last even this long. As they peck at each other with their beaks, the black manages to turn over; Fontana's red is on the bottom. Holding the upper position, the black rooster scores the first hit of the match, sinking his knife into the red's left wing.

Both birds' handlers have been hovering over them. As soon as they see that the cocks are stuck together, they rush in and hold them to the ground as they pull them apart. The black's knife has driven completely through his opponent's wing; its tip is sticking out the other side.

As the two handlers back away and prepare for the next release, blood oozes through the red's wing feathers from the hole left by the other rooster's knife. In a gaff fight, the damage to the wing would not be so severe; there would be less blood.

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