Nearly 20 years after Oklahoma made cockfighting and the possession of chickens used for cockfighting a felony, the state is one of the largest exporters of game fowl used in illegal cockfights in the country, according to a national animal rights group.
Avian shipping records obtained from the Guam Department of Agriculture by the group Animal Wellness Action showed that between 2017 and 2019, around 8,800 birds were illegally shipped from the U.S. mainland to Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific Ocean, for cockfighting, said the group’s founder and president Wayne Pacelle.
Of the 71 people who exported those birds to Guam, the top five exporters were responsible for more than half of the birds sent, and three of the top five shippers were based in Oklahoma, Pacelle said.
“We basically found that over this two year period, there were 8,800 fighting birds shipped to Guam from the United States, and Oklahoma was by far the number one shipper to Guam,” Pacelle said.
Two of the three Oklahoma-based breeders listed in Animal Wellness Action’s top five shippers list told The Frontier that someone else was using their name to ship birds or the birds being shipped were for breeding or show purposes only.
Cockfighting became illegal in Guam and other U.S. territories in December, a year after President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law, which contained a provision known as the Parity in Animal Cruelty Enforcement Act, which extended the federal bans on dogfighting and cockfighting to the U.S. territories.
Cockfighting was made illegal in Oklahoma in 2003, following passage of a ballot initiative a year earlier known as State Question 687. The measure not only outlawed cockfighting, but also made it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $25,000 to possess, own or train birds for the purpose of cockfighting.
Following passage of the measure by Oklahoma voters, its constitutionality was challenged by individuals and companies involved in cockfighting, but the law was upheld in 2004 by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case when those challenging the law attempted to appeal.
Pacelle, who was CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, was deeply involved with getting Oklahoma’s anti-cockfighting law passed, as well as the new law prohibiting cockfighting in U.S. territories.
“It’s been a personal crusade of mine to eradicate dogfighting and cockfighting in the United States,” Pacelle said.
In addition, federal law passed around the same time as Oklahoma’s anti-cockfighting law went into effect prohibits the shipping of fighting animals across state lines, as well as to U.S. territories and other countries.
Pacelle said the shipping records from the Guam Department of Agriculture show tell-tale signs of shipping birds for the purposes of cockfighting — the male to female ratio of birds shipped was around 100-to-1, prices for two or three birds ranged from $500 to $1,500 and Guam’s lack of major poultry laying and broiler operations.
“People aren’t going to pay $1,500 to get three birds for meat or for eggs,” Pacelle said. “The fact that it is basically the least agriculturally-oriented part of the United States, they import almost all of their animal products, showed that this is exactly why they were shipping the birds from Oklahoma.”
Pacelle said the group also background those they suspected of shipping fighting birds, using social media posts and Google Earth images to confirm their suspicions.
“We are basically making the argument, and we have the facts to support it, that there is a brisk trade in illegal fighting animals coming from Oklahoma,” Pacelle said.
To be able to sell their chickens, breeders have to first show that their roosters are good fighters, Pacelle said. And to do that, they have to fight them, he said.
“They don’t just breed them and ship them, that’s a felony. No breeder can sell the animal if they’re not fighting their birds, without showing they are robust game fowl,” Pacelle said. “Basically, you have cockfighters who make their money by being a good breeder and selling their birds to others. But the only way you can demonstrate you’re a good breeder is if your birds win fights.”
The number one shipper to Guam, according to the records obtained by Animal Wellness Action, was John and Brenda Bottoms of Heavner, who operated under the name Gunner Game Farm and shipped 1,719 birds to Guam over the course of three years.
The Bottoms told The Frontier that they ship game fowl for other breeders as a broker through Brenda Bottoms’ company Brenda’s Shipping, so not all of the birds that were shipped were theirs. The birds being shipped, the Bottoms told The Frontier, are not for fighting, but for show and breeding purposes only.
“I ship chickens for several people. There’s not many people who are legal to ship, but I am,” Brenda Bottoms said. “Everything I ship is for breeding purposes only. It says that on the certificate.”
John Bottoms estimated that his wife’s company has probably shipped between 3,000 and 4,000 male and female birds over the past few years.
“We ship roosters for people all over, but we’re not anywhere near the biggest game farm,” John Bottoms said.
John Bottoms said he has raised game fowl since 1980. And though he “100 percent disagreed with the law” banning cockfighting in the state, once it went into effect, he stopped fighting them.
“I still raise them just for breeding purposes only,” he said. “We quit fighting them and started shipping brood fowl only, for show purposes only,” John Bottoms said. “That’s what it (the shipping certificate) says.”
Since the ban on cockfighting in U.S. territories went into effect in December, their shipping business has fallen from around 1,000 birds shipped per year to around 150, John Bottoms said.
“Her shipping business is almost cancelled,” he said. “They really hurt Puerto Rico and Guam.”
Bottoms said, cockfighting is deeply ingrained in the heritage of many people in those territories, as well as in other countries like the Philippines.
“Over here they have football and basketball players,” he said. “Over there, they have people who have game fowl. It’s a different culture.”
Though the records obtained by Animal Wellness Action only cover shipments to Guam, the large volume of chickens coming from Oklahoma likely means that birds are being shipped to other places as well, including the Philippines, Thailand and Mexico, where cockfighting is still legal.
“It’s indicative. There’s no way their business is entirely predicated on Guam, which is a territory of 170,000 people out in the western Pacific Ocean,” Pacelle said. “This is a global industry, and frankly, they’re shipping birds to other states.”
The third largest shipper with 839 birds shipped during the three years, Bill McNatt of Cherokee Game Farm in Stigler, did not respond to a phone message by The Frontier. McNatt, who was an elementary school principal in Keota, was arrested in 2007 when authorities raided a cockfighting ring in southeastern Oklahoma.
However, the fifth largest shipper on the list, Darrell Trammell, owner of of Moody Farm in Tahlequah, said that he did not ship any birds. Rather, another individual had used his National Poultry Improvement Plan number to ship birds.
That person died of a heart attack during a trip to the Philippines in January 2018, he said. The shipping records provided to The Frontier by Animal Wellness Action show the last shipment in Trammell’s name was made to Guam in December 2017.
“I’ve never shipped a chicken to Guam, but there was a boy who was a friend of mine who was a shipper,” Trammell said. “He shipped some chickens once to Hawaii for me and he had to have my NPIP number and I think he just kept my NPIP number handy and used it to ship chickens to Guam.
“I’m not a shipper. I don’t ship to people at all. Probably ought to be, there’s good money in it, I think. But there’s a lot of legalities to it too. I just don’t want to do that.”
However, in a Nov. 7, 2018 post on Moody Farm’s Facebook page, customers from Mexico are advised on how to have brood fowl from Moody Farms shipped to them.
Trammell said he still owns chickens, but only for breeding and show purposes.
“I’ve got a few, but I just do it for breeding and if they want to take them to show them, I let kids take them and everything else. But shipping animals to Guam, that’s not my cup of tea,” Trammell said. “For me, it’s kind of a hobby deal, but some of these guys used to get really into it.”
“I don’t try to fight them. I just abide by the law. When the law says ‘you can’t raise them no more,’ I’ll get rid of all my pens and everything I have and quit,” Trammell said. “I’ll go to raising cows, I guess.”
Since the ban went into effect in Oklahoma, Trammell said he does not attend fights. And though the law prohibits owning chickens for fighting, authorities do allow game fowl to be owned in “brood trios” — a male and two females, he said.
“That’s what the law told us when they shut us down,” Trammell said. “They were going to shut us down originally — you couldn’t even own a feather on one. You couldn’t own a string, you couldn’t own a pen, you couldn’t own a water cup. We all got together and talked to the senators about it, and they were going to have to buy us out if they shut down the business. So, they said ‘you can raise them and sell them, but you can’t fight them.”
Pacelle said he hopes the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will step up its enforcement of the anti-animal fighting laws, and hopes to see the U.S. Department of Justice form an animal cruelty crimes unit.
“They’re very lax in enforcing the federal law, which is one of the big things we’re concentrating on,” Pacelle said.
The issue is also one of public and agricultural health, Pacelle said. The state of California and the federal government are spending tens of millions of dollars and have euthanized millions of chickens to try and contain an outbreak of Newcastle disease, which is highly contagious and deadly to chickens, thought to have been spread in part by cockfighters. The often-bloody sport of cockfighting could also increase the chances of a virus such as bird flu jumping from chickens to humans, he said.
“It’s not just an issue of animal cruelty. It’s also, and especially now after the COVID-19 crisis, I think people understand that dangerous mishandling and mistreatment of animals can promote zoonotic diseases,” Pacelle said. “The situation is multi-dimensional in terms of the problem. And it warrants aggressive federal action to stop cruelty, to stop disease spread in the agricultural industry, to stop the potential of a disease jumping to humans.”
Trammell took issue with the idea that anti-cockfighting laws are saving or causing chickens to be rescued.
“They’re always trying to do something. The sad part is, when they go in and raid chickens, they kill every one of them,” Trammell said. “You can’t do anything with them. You can’t rehabilitate these chickens. They’re bred to fight and that’s what they do.
“They start fighting from a day old. That’s in their genes.”