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.
"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.
The Cocke County case was an extreme example, but it's not exceptional that cockfighting goes hand-in-hand with other criminal activity and violence. Last fall in southern California, deputies raided a cockfighting pit where they discovered 100 roosters, $1 million in methamphetamine, firearms, and seven children ages 4 to 17 living in dilapidated buildings. In March, a man was beaten to death at a cockfight. In April, masked gunmen killed three people and wounded eight at a cockfighting pit.
On online cockfighting forums, users commented on the April attack, with one Kentuckian writing it would "only help the activist groups with their portrayal of all us cockfighters being drug dealing, gun toting, low life human beings!!" Another user lamented that cockfighting wasn't legal so the fighters could have had police protection.
The online forums are peppered with threads on how the harsher laws would trample on a cultural tradition. Some state legislators have also opposed attempts to turn cockfighting into a felony on the grounds that prisons are already bursting. Some agriculture lobbies also oppose these state laws. "They don't want the Humane Society to win on anything because if they win on cockfighting, maybe they'll win on cage-free poultry farms," Farrow said.
Jim Akin, regional vice president of the Alabama Cattlemen's Association, alluded to that in a February letter on cockfighting to Alabama's TimesDaily. He wrote that he did "not condone animal cruelty," but "... when you see the Humane Society or some other animal rights group is trying to get some law passed, just remember there is always much more there than meets the eye, and it is almost never good for the people in the agricultural community and the public." The Humane Society's Goodwin said the agriculture lobby has supported measures against cockfighting in the past because of how the bloody sport tends to spread diseases among chicken populations.
The Humane Society began a faith outreach office about five years ago, and the Clapham Group's Mark Rodgers, who was most recently a top adviser in Rick Santorum's presidential campaign, has been working with the organization to connect with Christian leaders.
For evangelicals wary of animal welfare taking over other pressing matters like human rights, the Humane Society acknowledges there is more to life than animals. "I know it's one issue among many, many, many serious issues," said Christine Gutleben, a Lutheran who heads up the Humane Society's faith outreach. "My hope is that people within the [Christian] community will see the animal issue as just part of their daily choices. That it doesn't take away from these other issues."
Palmetto Family, a South Carolina group affiliated with Focus on the Family, is primarily focused on pro-life and religious liberty issues, but the group has worked on educating its constituency about cockfighting and supports higher penalties for cockfighters. In South Carolina cockfighting is a misdemeanor punishable by up to $1,000 in fines, though state legislators have introduced bills recently to make the sport a felony.
In a state where the University of South Carolina's mascot is a gamecock, depicted with gaffs on his legs, the bills haven't found success. "There are some that think anything that has the odor of animal rights is bad," said Oran Smith, Palmetto Family's president. Smith said he perceived two views on animal issues: that humans and animals all evolved together and "one is not above the other" or, on the other side, that "animals are here for us to do with however we pleased."
"We didn't feel like there was any middle ground, a biblical approach to it," Smith said. So his group put out a short book four years ago on the biblical relationship between humans and animals. "Mankind is here as stewards of the earth," Smith summarized. "We stand in place of God himself. ... [T]hat means no wanton cruelty."