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REGIONAL REPORT / CUSTOM SURVIVES : Cockfighting Dies Slow Death in Tradition-Bound Louisiana

June 14, 1990|GARRY BOULARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BATON ROUGE, La. — Animal rights activists in this state where traditions die hard have given up for now a battle to pass a bill banning the centuries-old practice of cockfighting.

"We've been trying to get this thing passed for years, and we'll probably try again--but not in (this) legislative session," said state Rep. Garey Forster (R-New Orleans), who sponsored two bills, one banning cockfighting and the other requiring that chickens be labeled as animals instead of fowl so Louisiana's cruelty laws can be applied to cockfighting.

Both bills were defeated recently by 2-1 ratios in the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee.

Proponents of a ban on rooster fighting, who may bring their cause before the Legislature again if it meets later this year, argue that, not only is the practice inhumane, it is bad for Louisiana's image.

"Only three other states besides Louisiana--Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico--allow cockfighting," Forster said. "It's an archaic practice that sets a bad example for our kids and makes our state appear backward."

But cockfighting supporters, many of whom traveled to the Legislature from remote areas of Louisiana, said rooster fighting is a way of life that pumps about $2 million a year into the state through the buying and selling of roosters, feed sales and the money spent at hotels, restaurants and bars near the sites of organized cockfights.

"People who are involved in it feel very strongly about it," said state Rep. Raymond (La La) LaLonde, a Democrat from Sunset. "This is part of their culture and heritage, and they're not going to give up on this issue without a fight."

Although cockfighting dates to ancient Persia, it was not introduced into North America until the late 1700s. Massachusetts was the first state to ban the breeding and training of gamecocks, in 1836. In the next century, more than 35 other states followed Massachusetts' example.

But, in Louisiana, cockfighting has proved to be a particularly sacred tradition because of its widespread popularity among the state's Cajuns, who settled in the fertile bayou lands of southern Louisiana after leaving the French colony of Acadia in the mid-1700s. They have celebrated cockfighting as a part of their culture almost ever since.

"It's not the sort of thing that was introduced from the outside as a commercial venture," said Patricia Rickels, an English professor and folklorist at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette. "It's as much a part of Cajun life as festivals and dancing."

But Nita Hemeter, a lobbyist with the Coalition of Louisiana Animal Activists, said the argument that cockfighting is a cultural tradition just doesn't wash: "It's part of our culture? Well, so was slavery, so was not giving women the right to vote. But that doesn't exactly make it right."

Hemeter said cockfighting is "nothing more than a bloody spectacle that celebrates cruelty to animals."

When buttonholing undecided lawmakers, Hemeter invariably pressed into their hands a sharp, steel-edged spur like those attached to roosters' legs in cockfights. In small cockpits, usually found in small towns, dozens of such roosters battle in matches that can be attended by hundreds of spectators, many of whom wager $10 and up.

Because of the wide attention given to the proposed ban on cockfighting in Louisiana, many of the fights have become "word of mouth" affairs, said Rickels, who added that spectators are afraid of being arrested because they usually also gamble.

Forster and Hemeter said the era of the cockfight in Louisiana may be drawing to a close despite the most recent legislative setback. "It's inevitable, and they know it," Hemeter said. "The majority of the people in this state are not cockfighters, they don't go to cockfights and wouldn't want to go to one even if invited. Eventually we're going to win this battle . . . . It's only a matter of time."

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