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'God's chickens'

"'God's chickens'" Continued...

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

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."

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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