Longform

Out, Out, Damn Sport!

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Many of the suits and gowns inside the Ritz-Carlton ballroom cost more than most of the cockfighting fans at the quarry take home in a week. The predominantly white men and women who wear them sip $7.50 cocktails and snack on hors d'oeuvres, served by people who are almost all brown, as they preview the art, which includes a movie poster for The Horse Whisperer autographed by Robert Redford.

Working the crowd is Citizens Against Cockfighting campaign manager Jamie Massey, who's worked for nine years to outlaw the sport in Arizona. Massey says he's been to one cockfight in his life.

"The crowd was terrifying," he says. "Just the absolute glee and the expression on their faces when a bird scored a hit. That's what I despise about cockfighting: the mentality it represents. My idea of nice competition is a game of Scrabble. I don't understand people who like to gamble on a fight to the death, and I don't think they should be allowed to do it.

"Cockfighting brings out the worst side of human nature, the barbaric side."
Outside the Ritz-Carlton, about 40 pro-cockfighting protesters--barbarians at the gate--exercise their First Amendment rights, carrying placards with slogans such as, "You can have my cock when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers."

The demonstrators disperse long before the auction begins, in time for several of them to race down the highway and get a few bets down at the quarry cockfight, most likely one of the last legal events of its kind in the Great State of Arizona.

Like the Gray Toppie in the final seconds of its life, Arizona cockfighting devotees are down and fighting to the last breath for the sanctioned existence of their avocation. And from all angles, it looks like they're going to lose.

Badly, and finally.
Twenty-three times in the past 45 years, the cockfighting crowd and its conservative backers in the Arizona Legislature have spiked measures to outlaw the sport.

This election season, however, anti-cockfighting activists--backed with big bucks from animal rights organizations outside Arizona--caught the cockfighters unaware.

Polls on Proposition 201 show up to 90 percent of Arizona voters favor a ban on cockfighting. A similar ballot initiative in Missouri is also predicted to pass, which would drop to three the number of states with legalized cockfighting--Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

What happens then? A few Arizona cockfighters will quit in disgust, probably, while most will just go underground, breeding their birds in secret and fighting them in legal territory--New Mexico, or Mexican border towns like Nogales and Agua Prieta--or in covert arenas like the quarry pit, which already has the feel of an illicit operation. (New Times was not permitted to photograph the fund-raising cockfight.)

But they'll be breaking the law. Ken White, executive director of the Arizona Humane Society, says enforcement of Proposition 201 may follow "the California model," under which officers from the Humane Society--a private, nonprofit organization--are contracted by the state to enforce animal-cruelty laws, and given full police powers to carry firearms, conduct undercover operations and searches, and make arrests.

And, if Proposition 201 passes, Arizona will discard yet another vestige of its Western frontier roots. Old Arizona is fading like one of the millions of sepia-tone photographs given over to the sun as glass plates for greenhouses around the turn of the century. The passage of an anti-cockfighting law will be an additional dose of bleach.

"Having spoken to over 8,000 people on this subject, I have heard these adjectives used over and over: 'sick,' 'cruel,' 'barbaric,' and 'backward,'" Citizens Against Cockfighting chairman Massey wrote recently in an essay titled "What Cockfighters Don't Understand."

"More times than not, the people uttering these words have never seen the blades . . . and don't know that small children are often taken to these spectacles. What little they do know is enough for them to wonder how in the world cockfighting could still be legal in Arizona!"

The answer is easy, says cockfighter Eileen Curran: freedom. "That and a tolerance for other people's way of life that's supposed to be an important part of democracy."

Curran raises and fights roosters with her husband, Tom, an immigrant from Ireland, where the government banned cockfighting in 1986, primarily because cockfights were popular meeting places for the Irish Republican Army.

Her libertarianism is stretched by questions about the personal freedoms of, say, marijuana users or homosexuals, but she makes a point nonetheless: a poll commissioned last year by Citizens Against Cockfighting showed that few Arizonans knew that cockfighting was legal.

If they didn't even know, Curran asks, then what can it matter?
"If this thing passes, how's it going to change their lives? Not much. But my husband and I, our livelihood is construction, but our way of life is raising and fighting birds. That's what we stand to lose."

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse