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Arizona, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma are the last four states that allow cockfighting. Everywhere else, the fights are prohibited, either by special statute or broader animal-cruelty laws. In most of those states, being a spectator at a cockfight or possessing a gamecock for fighting purposes is likewise illegal. In 13 states, law enforcement officers do not even need a warrant to enter a property as long as they think a cockfight may be taking place there.

In 16 states, cockfighting is a felony.
Arizona animal-rights groups have spent years trying to get a cockfighting law on the books, but have failed for a variety of reasons.

First, and probably most important, is this reality: Cockfighters--a lot of them, anyway--are not the dimwitted, toothless hillbillies some people imagine. If there is one thing they have learned while watching the number of legal venues for their sport decline, it is how to work the system. In 1993, the last time a cockfighting ban was introduced in the Arizona State Legislature, Senator Ed Phillips of Scottsdale said he received more than 700 calls against the measure from cockfighters all across the country.

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 Chvez, 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.

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Dave Plank