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John Partipilo/The Tennessean/AP

'God's chickens'

Crime | Harking back to William Wilberforce, some evangelical leaders are joining efforts to crack down on cockfighting

Issue: "The GOP and Hispanics," May 19, 2012

COCKE COUNTY, Tenn.-Tom Farrow, a former FBI agent, is driving through the hollows, hillocks, and cow ponds of Cocke County, on the Appalachian side of Tennessee. Cell phone service blinks in and out between the hills. It's a beautiful place, an interplay of mountains and farmland, but several years ago it teemed with corruption. Back in 2005, Farrow led an undercover team that busted a large cockfighting operation in the aptly named county.

Several cockfighting pits in Cocke County hosted hundreds of gambling spectators. The owners of what Farrow calls the "white collar pit" told the FBI they paid off law enforcement-after all, Farrow explains, a pit that big can't exist for 60 years without law enforcement knowing about it. A few miles away, at what Farrow calls "the blue collar pit," the owners stacked bleachers to the ceiling of a large metal shed for the fights. Farrow remembers, "The [body odor] would be so thick you could cut it with a knife."

We pass a small cemetery outside a church where Farrow would meet informants at night-because "there's not, like, a 7/11," he explained. Farrow said the FBI found that local law enforcement was involved in prostitution, illegal liquor stores, stolen cars, and drugs. The FBI and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation eventually charged more than 200 people connected to the corruption case, including some members of the law enforcement.

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"The animal fighting side of it-it starts at such a low level," said Farrow, adding that people think to themselves, "It's illegal, but it's not really illegal." That thinking, he said, "is like rust-a slow, insidious eating away of ethics and law enforcement."

The eating away of ethics is what has drawn some Southern Christians into joining efforts to crack down on cockfighting. They evoke British statesman and devout Christian William Wilberforce, who is known for his work abolishing the slave trade but who also supported laws against bullbaiting, another animal fighting sport. Wilberforce was one of the founders of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and he saw animal cruelty as an example of a violent society that would be cruel to humans.

Today, top members of the Southern Baptist Convention as well as family values groups like South Carolina's Palmetto Family have put together ad campaigns explaining the nastiness of cockfighting and outlining a biblical perspective on caring for animals. Cockfighting is a "pornography of violence," and "needless pain for frivolous reasons" said Richard Land, the head of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, in a recent ad. He said he would dare anyone who defends cockfighting as a cultural tradition to say he would take Jesus to a cockfight. Land calls the cocks "God's chickens."

Cockfighting isn't two roosters wrestling in a farmyard, but two roosters fighting to the death. American cockfighters cut off the nub on the back of the rooster's leg and attach a sharp curved blade, called a gaff. The cockfighters sometimes drug the birds to make them more aggressive. The lingo of cockfights reveals its grotesque side: "blinkers" are roosters whose eyes have been punctured. "Rattlers" are roosters with punctured lungs, which fill with blood and make their breath rattle.

John Goodwin, the Humane Society's point man on animal fighting, went along with law enforcement to raid a cockfighting operation in Virginia. He remembered going up to one pit and finding one rooster dead, and the winner with a punctured chest. "I could see his internal organs move every time he took a breath," Goodwin said.

At another pit in central Tennessee Goodwin recalled finding a rooster with its intestines hanging out, tangled around its opponent's foot. Farrow said on his undercover operations at cockfights, he's seen his fellow "tough guy" FBI agents become physically sick watching. Aside from the animal cruelty concerns, Christian groups are worried about the high-stakes gambling that goes on and the regular presence of children at cockfights.

The sport is illegal in all 50 states and under federal law, but federal law enforcement can only bust cockfighters that cross state lines. In Southern states especially, cockfighting remains a strong tradition with few legal penalties. (Dog fighting, by contrast, is a felony in all 50 states.) In Tennessee, for example, cockfighting is a misdemeanor punishable by a $50 fine. Efforts to up the fines or make this type of animal fighting a felony (as it is in 39 states) have failed over the last few years. "I don't go to rooster fights and I don't have fighting roosters but I have friends that do. They pay their taxes. They're not bothering anybody," explained Tennessee state Rep. Frank Niceley to the Chattanooga Times Free Press last year, after his subcommittee voted down the heavier penalties.

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