Out, Out, Damn Sport!

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Hodges keeps about 75 gamecocks and breeding hens on a ranch in Buckeye, and another 25 in his backyard. Every afternoon, he feeds them 30 pounds of powdered milk, yellow corn, green protein pellets, and some truly putrid-smelling soaked oats, mixed in a machine.

He sprinkles handfuls of feed to the hens, which run free, and fills the plastic bowls attached to the front of the three-foot-by-three-foot cages that house the fighting birds. Early fall is molting season for chickens, and the gamecocks sport ragged yet brilliant plumage of brown, white, red, blue and black.

One cock is tethered well away from the rest in grass, not the dirt, free of any cage. Hodges' prize bird. Traditionally, cockfighters don't name their fowl, yet Hodges calls this one Pretty Boy, and says he's a real ass-kicker. Pretty Boy lost his first fight, Hodges says. Just got knocked out somehow. Then he killed the next five roosters he faced.

"He gets in there and does the job quick," Hodges boasts.
If Pretty Boy emerges from the pit victorious three or four more times, Hodges says, he'll be retired as a battle-tested genetic model, a brood cock, allowed to live out his natural life span of eight to 15 years. Like most cockfighters, Hodges says he doesn't fight his roosters until they're at least 2 years old. One of his roosters won nine straight fights before he was retired to sire a line of battle cocks, and lived to be 12.

Before the typical broiler chicken becomes dead meat on plastic in the supermarket, it has been hatched, shot full of growth hormones, and kept alive for just 50 days in the equivalent of a poultry slave ship--unable to move, wallowing in excrement, often diseased--before it's clipped by its feet to a wire to have its throat cut by a minimum-wage worker who then ships its carcass down the line for dismemberment and packaging.

According to the National Broiler Council, Arizonans buy more than 90 million factory-slaughtered chickens a year. By comparison, the most liberal of estimates put the number of roosters that die each year in Arizona cockfights at 9,000 to 13,000.

"I don't know about you, but I'd rather live the good life for a couple years and die in a fight," Hodges says.

And that's another thing, he says. How many of the people who will vote for Proposition 201 eat chicken? And of those, how many have a clue as to the horrific treatment a factory-farmed chicken undergoes before it's slaughtered?

"We all live with inconsistencies," answers Massey. "And the truth is, in our society as it functions today, animals are going to die for our use. My concern is with how and why: Is it a question of sustenance, or joy?"

Hodges, care to retort?
"Hey, I'll tell you what: If you don't like cockfighting, don't go. I don't particularly care for golfing, but I don't think golfers should be put in jail."

Hodges has been in this fight since 1954, about a year after Tucson passed an ordinance that outlawed cockfighting within city limits. Hodges refereed a fight to provoke a deliberate test case, got arrested and appealed his case to the Arizona Supreme Court, which cleared him on the grounds that chickens were not protected under the animal cruelty law upon which the ordinance was based.

Since then, cockfighting foes have induced sympathetic lawmakers to introduce bills to criminalize the sport 23 times, and 23 times Hodges got the word out, packed a hearing room with cockfighters, and got the bill shelved.

The last skirmish was in 1996, when a bill sponsored by Representative Andy Nichols went before the House Judiciary Committee. It was February 14, statehood day. Massey and other animal rights activists remember it as "The Valentine's Day massacre."

Cockfighters outnumbered their foes five to one, according to the minutes of the hearing, and the bill's supporters blew off their own foot early when one cited a Yale University study establishing a link between animal cruelty and violent, felonious behavior. The lawmakers were reminded that many famous serial killers had tortured animals when they were children.

"It was pretty ludicrous," remembers Representative Tom Smith, then chairman of the House committee. "They came in and argued this illogical, quantum leap that cockfighters are turning their children into a bunch of John Wayne Gacys."

Among the flurry of cockfighters who testifed at the hearing was Frank Celaya Jr. of Buckeye, who removed a prosthetic leg and used it like a gavel to punctuate his testimony.

"Mr. Celaya testified that he fought for his country in Vietnam and was wounded while there," the minutes report. "He said that he was fighting for freedom, and trying to ban cockfighting is an attempt to take part of that freedom away."

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse