Nearly 20 years after Oklahoma voters outlawed cockfighting, gamefowl breeders and other advocates believe they have the political momentum to push for decriminalizing it next year — a first step toward potentially overturning the ban.

Following a failed attempt last legislative session at reducing the penalties for cockfighting, gamefowl breeders this summer have begun a push to better organize politically. The breeders believe recent measures that lowered the penalties for drug and property crimes in the state highlight what they see as uneven punishment. And Gov. Kevin Stitt signed legislation in April that makes performing an abortion in the state a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, which is the same maximum penalty for cockfighting. 

“Rooster people vote,” said Robert Turner, a Stigler gamefowl breeder and treasurer of the Oklahoma Gamefowl Association. “We’ve been dormant for 20 years. We thought that with the situation with decriminalization of illicit drugs and everything else, we just thought we would give it a shot.”

Proponents of the ban are skeptical whether the push by the gamefowl industry will be successful.

“I don’t think the people of Oklahoma want to see cockfighting make a comeback,” said Cynthia Armstrong, senior state director for the Humane Society of the United States. “I don’t think they (gamefowl breeders) have any momentum going in. They’re deluded. They would love to see cockfighting come back, but that ship really has sailed.”

Oklahomans voted to ban cockfighting in 2002, but fighting gamefowl is still an underground sport in the state. Law enforcement have raided numerous cockfighting rings in Oklahoma in the years since the ban.

The new drive to decriminalize cockfighting in Oklahoma comes as animal rights groups are pushing federal and state regulators to clamp down on birds being shipped from the mainland United States overseas, often for fighting. Oklahoma is one of the largest gamefowl exporters in the nation, according to a 2020 report by the national animal welfare group Animal Wellness Action. The group has asked the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry to stop signing off on gamefowl shipments. Federal law prohibits shipping birds across state lines or out of the country for the purpose of fighting. The department responded to the letter in May, saying that it has no authority to stop the shipments. 

Advocates for the sport and sympathetic Oklahoma lawmakers have launched several  unsuccessful attempts over the years to challenge the law or lower the penalties for cockfighting and owning fighting birds. 

Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, authored a bill this past legislative session to reduce the penalties for cockfighting, maintaining a cockfighting pit and promoting cockfights from felonies to misdemeanors. The bill would have also allowed people to legally conduct cockfights, as long as the birds are not outfitted with artificial spikes or blades. But the legislation was never brought up for a vote on the House floor. Humphrey later attempted to bring the language back in other bills, but those attempts were unsuccessful

Humphrey said he plans to introduce similar legislation again in 2023.

“We feel that we’ve got a really strong chance at getting that bill through next year,” Humphrey said. “That bill is not about legalization. That bill is about equalization in criminal charges.”

Humphrey was one of several state legislators and legislative and congressional candidates to attend a fundraiser meeting on June 12 in McAlester hosted by the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission. The group formed a state political action committee on June 17 to “support candidates who support reform of gamefowl laws” and oppose those who don’t. 

The political action committee has yet to file paperwork showing donors and contributions to candidates, but has issued a list of campaign endorsements. The group has raised around $70,000 in the past few weeks, Turner said. 

One of the group’s strategies is to show the disparity between penalties for drug possession and other crimes compared to those associated with cockfighting. Under state law, it’s a felony to raise, keep or train birds for the purpose of fighting, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000. State law also makes it a misdemeanor to attend a cockfight as a spectator. After a State Question 780, a measure Oklahoma voters passed in 2016, simple drug possession and property crimes under $1,000 were reclassified as misdemeanors in the state. 

“So here you have drugs that are killing people, and they’re misdemeanors,” Humphrey said. “And if you bought a chicken, you’ll receive 10 years in the penitentiary. There’s no way that the average person can agree with that. A prudent person would have to admit that’s upside down. And so I think we got a really good chance of getting that deal through.”

Turner, a retired Air Force officer who has been involved in the gamefowl industry for 42 years, said the group’s immediate focus is on decreasing the penalties for cockfighting.

“We just think the punishment is excessive,” Turner said. “They passed a bill on abortion that carries the same penalty as we have for gamefowl owners.”

Armstrong said she believed that the attempt to lower the penalty is a way to open the back-door to the shadow economy around cockfighting.

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“Whenever you have cockfighters that are actively lobbying for a penalty for cockfighting, you have to know that they consider that penalty just a meager cost of doing business,” Armstrong said. “They’re more than willing to accept a misdemeanor penalty of $500, or $1,000 on the second arrest, or $2,000 on the third arrest. It’s ridiculous. I mean, the felony penalties are an important deterrent.”

Even with the ban in place, Turner said gamefowl breeders add about $4.5 million annually  to the state’s economy, according to a study the group conducted.

“That money coming in from the broodfowl stays in Oklahoma and it’s all spent locally in our feed stores and hardware stores,” Turner said. “It’s not cheap to raise them.”

While cockfighting is banned nearly everywhere across the United States, it’s still a huge sport in many parts of the world, Humphrey said. 

“People don’t realize how big of an industry this is,” Humphrey said. “You take Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Philippines, fighting chickens is almost as big as the Super Bowl there. It’s like the NFL or the NBA.” 

Oklahoma gamefowl breeders can sell their birds overseas for $200 to $1,000, he said. 

Anthony DeVore, president of the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission and a third-generation gamefowl breeder, said there are more reasons than money that people raise gamefowl.

“A lot of people raise horses and cattle and dogs, they have bloodlines they maintain. I’ve got bloodlines I’ve had and kept since I was 10 years old,” Devore said. “We take a lot of pride in our birds. It’s a multi-generational hobby.”

However, the Humane Society’s Armstrong said most Oklahomans do not support the brutality of cockfighting.

“The fact of the matter is, cockfighting is a terrible activity,” Armstrong said. “It’s a brutal blood sport. It’s not only animal cruelty, but it’s associated with a lot of other criminal activities and drugs, narcotics. It’s very unsavory, and it’s something that does not reflect who we are as humans in this day and age.”

DeVore said the Gamefowl Commission has endorsed both Republicans and Democrats who support gamefowl breeders, and has support from legislators in both rural and urban areas, a fault line that proved crucial in the 2002 vote to ban cockfighting. 

While 56% of Oklahoma voters approved outlawing cockfighting in 2002, it was urban voters who supported the ban. Rural parts of the state saw more of a split on the issue and most of southeastern Oklahoma overwhelmingly voted against the ban.

The group also hopes to push back against stereotypes of gamefowl breeders in the state as being backwards or uneducated, said Turner, a former commissioned Air Force intelligence officer.

“We’re not that. We’re not what they portray us to be,” Turner said. “I understand that (stereotyping) is human nature, I guess. It doesn’t make it right.”

Pressure on the Oklahoma gamefowl industry from national animal rights groups has helped push the  breeders to organize, Humphrey said. 

“These pukish animal activist groups are frauds, they're charlatans, and they don't care anything about animals,” Humphrey said. “But at the end of the day, they're coming in and trying to push and force our law enforcement to go after these guys. So that's a big reason.”

Animal rights groups have not only been active in alerting law enforcement to illegal cockfights and offering rewards for reporting, but are also pushing state and federal agencies to clamp down on shipping gamefowl overseas, where many are used for fighting.

One group that has drawn the ire of Humphrey and other activists is Animal Wellness Action, which has spearheaded an anti-cockfighting campaign for years.

Animal Wellness Action found that only a handful of farms make up most of the shipments from Oklahoma, which accounts for roughly half of all gamefowl shipments to Guam

In April, former Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who serves as co-chair for   Animal Welfare Action’s National Law Enforcement Council, wrote to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, asking the agency to stop signing off on gamefowl shipments. 

The department responded in May, stating that it only certifies that a licensed veterinarian has checked the animals and that the shipper is a participant in the National Poultry Improvement Plan, a federal-state partnership to help reduce and prevent diseases in poultry flocks, but that the agency does not have the authority to stop the shipments.

James Rucker, general counsel for the Department of Agriculture, said the issues that Animal Wellness Action pointed out are concerning, but the agency has no regulatory authority to stop shipments.

“It's not that we're not completely sympathetic with the issue, but we have no authority there,” Rucker said. “We've haven't been granted any authority. It's kind of a hole in the statutes.”

Humphrey said he views the path for decriminalization of cockfighting similar to that of medical marijuana in the state if it is decriminalized — people in power will see the economic benefits of legalizing and taxing the industry.

“Oklahoma's missing a huge amount of money by not doing that,” Humphrey said. “It'll take several years, but I figure that, eventually, it might lead to that (full legalization).”

Armstrong said her group and animal welfare advocates will be ready to oppose that.

“They just never want to give up,” she said. “They think that they're going to bring this back. I don't think they will be successful, but if that's how they want to spend their time, I’ll spend my time stopping them.”