By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2003
LAKELAND - All the proof Verbon Goble needs that his hobby - his passion - is moral and just and defendable is what happens when he untethers the leg of a prized Old English red.
In a flash, without any urging, the rooster attacks the nearest male bird, his broad red breast thrust out, his powerful wings thumping his rival's tiny red head, his spiked heels arching toward his underbelly.
The other bird fights back fiercely, in a whirling flurry of feathers and rush of air. The assault lasts just five seconds before Goble deftly gathers the loose rooster and strokes his reddish feathers. Any of the 80 roosters on his farm would launch the same attack, Goble explains, or they wouldn't be "game."
It's the difference between a chicken and a gamecock.
"Grown roosters don't like other roosters," Goble, 37, said after returning the red to his tether at his Polk County farm. "They'll kill them. It ain't about feed, it ain't about hens, it's about domination. Superiority. Survival of the fittest."
It's tough to love gamecocks these days, and getting tougher to love them legally. Goble and other enthusiasts feel frustrated and maligned. They feel misunderstood. "We're not about blood, guts and glory," he said.
Cockfighting, like dog fighting, has been on the run for two centuries, and American states began outlawing it in the early 1800s. Now legislation awaiting Gov. Jeb Bush's signature could crush the remnants of legal gamefowl breeding in the state. Meanwhile, a new federal law will bar thousands of gamecock breeders across the nation from legally selling their birds.
The federal law, which took effect last month, bans breeders like Goble from exporting roosters for fighting purposes to other countries or states. It also bars them from trucking their own birds to legal pits in the two states where the sport remains legal: Louisiana and New Mexico. (Recently, Oklahoma voters chose to outlaw cockfighting, but several court challenges are pending.)
The Florida legislation goes one step further: It would ban raising cocks with the intent to fight them, or to knowingly sell them for fighting.
It also would make watching a cockfight a felony, a provision animal rights groups say will help stamp out the illegal matches still common in the Hispanic communities of South Florida and in some hamlets of Central and northern Florida.
The gamecock industry fought fiercely against both measures, and a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the federal law has been filed in Louisiana. But the chances look dim, and the new laws mean this slice of American life, already on the fringe, will be driven even deeper underground or to extinction.
Wayne Pacelle, the top lobbyist for the Humane Society of the United States, won't mourn the loss. "It's a violent world," he said. "People watch birds hack each other to death."
Then there are those who spend each dawn casting feed to their flocks, choosing precisely which hen to pair with which rooster. They decry the attack on a centuries-old tradition, deeply rooted in rural and Latin American cultures.
Florida has an estimated 2,590 gamefowl farms, with annual sales of more than $70-million, according to a survey by the United Gamefowl Breeders Association. For years they have sold their birds in the legal states and Puerto Rico, as well as the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and other Latin American spots where gamecock fighting is legal and popular.
Many, like Raymond Byrd of Crestview, trucked their own roosters to legal pits in Louisiana, "to make sure that they're still game chickens and that they're still as tough and pure as possible."
"To me it's like having your own Olympic team, or your own boxing team," said Byrd, 71, who has bred cocks since he was 13. "You raise them up, you keep them in the best health, you keep them in the best flesh. You don't get them too fat. You enter them."
Finding William Torres' place means following a maze of twisting two-lane blacktop past pastures and farmland, to a one-lane sand road that cuts through stands of pine and oak dotted with signs warning "No Trespassing" and "Beware of Dog."
The road ends at his home, in a clearing filled with the symphony of six dozen roosters. The air is rich with the smell of manure and feed dampened by a recent rain and muddled in the sand by the biddies that peck and hunt for bits of scratch.
Torres, 42, grew up with gamecocks in his native Cuba, then learned from an uncle who raised them near Orlando after the family immigrated. His father raised them, his grandfather raised them and now his two oldest sons are learning.
Torres is a hospitable man with seven children. He lost his right arm and shoulder to cancer 14 years ago and has learned to do everything with his left, handling the feisty birds easily as he pulls them from their pens to show off their size, color and temperament.
He recently started the Latin American Gamefowl Breeders Association to represent breeders' interests, and it now has 92 members from Central Florida. He says he sells or trades a few birds each year, primarily to Puerto Rico or Latin America, mostly to support his hobby.
The prime commodity in this corner of Sumter County, about 100 miles north of Tampa Bay, is space; his nearest neighbor is the length of seven football fields away. Torres came here to be left alone with his family and his birds. Like many in his business, he resents the government's intrusion and portrays himself as the victim of animal rights extremists and a nation with contradictory feelings about animal welfare.
The Humane Society destroys dogs and cats that aren't adopted from its shelters. The lawmakers who outlawed breeding fighting cocks aren't against fundraising barbecues sponsored by the pork or poultry industry. It's okay to race greyhounds, then kill those that can no longer compete.
"You've got people here who want to run everybody else's lives," Torres said. "And why start with us? Why don't you start with the poultry industry?
"They don't take those people on because that's a big industry. The government isn't going to back them up on that one."
But the demise has been long and persistent. Massachusetts was the first to outlaw gamecock fighting, in 1836. Most states would ban it within another 100 years, although Florida waited until 1986.
Joe Mac Skinner, a breeder in Gaffney, S.C., and editor of Grit and Steele, a nationally distributed gamecock magazine, said rural traditions are falling victim to the nation's suburban sensibilities.
"As the country progresses and there are less and less farms, (people) get away from slaughtering our cattle and slaughtering our pigs and chickens. They just go to the grocery store," Skinner said.
"The ones that are really making their living doing this, they'll have to do something else, I guess."
Breeders say the gamefowl industry is split generally into two camps, although one feeds off the other. In one camp are the gamblers who crowd the legal pits in Louisiana, or flock to illicit fights like those raided in recent years in Hendry, Citrus, Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties.
In the other camp are professional breeders who raise and sell the birds, either for extra income or to support their hobby. They liken themselves to horse or dog breeders.
"People who are just fly-by-night chicken people ... they don't ever get in touch with what they're doing," Goble said.
Gamecock breeding came to America with the colonists, and two distinct strains have persisted: The English fowl, which run 4 to 7 pounds, and the smaller Spanish fowl, favored by Hispanic breeders.
Breeding is a science, often painstaking and time-consuming. Many breeders participate in the federal government's Poultry Improvement Program, which is designed to prevent devastating diseases. Torres frequently consults the poultry scientists at the University of Florida.
Torres' records for the past 12 years detail each rooster's lineage, medical history, characteristics and fight history. Breeders trade information about disease, medication and politics over the Internet on sites like www.pitmaster.com www.gamefowlnews.com and www.thegamerooster.com They subscribe to magazines such as Grit and Steele, The Feathered Warrior and The Gamecock.
But raising the best gamecocks requires more than just getting the right color, size or stature. The roosters must also possess the prized inner strengths of their wild ancestors, the jungle fowl: mettle, territoriality and aggressiveness.
The only way to check that is to "test" them against other birds.
Often to the death.
An untested bird or bird from an untested line is virtually worthless. At his farm last week, Torres reached into a cage and pulled out a magnificent Old English red, age 11, whose offspring are interspersed throughout his farm.
This bird is a producer, and his children and grandchildren look and fight just like him: the sturdy yellow legs, the reddish-orange hackle feathers, the red eye, the black and white tail, the four white feathers at the leading edge of each wing.
He is one of Torres' most prized birds, and it's easy to see why. But the bird also was well-tested before he became a brood fowl, winning at least seven matches, mostly in Puerto Rico.
"He had to be tested. He had to be. You can't have a bird that will turn tail and run when confronted with the enemy," Torres said. "There's no other way to tell.
"To be honest, I like to see them tested: Am I wasting my time? Am I going backward here? Am I being true to the ideals I want here? It answers a lot of questions."
After retying the Old English red after its brief battle in the chicken yard, Goble walked to a sweater gray rooster he showed this spring in the Florida State Fair.
"I poured everything I know into him," Goble said.
He said he'll never fight this bird, but he does want to test its offspring.
"I can't tell you if he's a success. He looks like a success - he's got everything that a gamecock should possess," he said. "He's got good leg length.... He's got good heavy plumage, he's got good redness to the head. He has a deep red eye. The final test will be to see if he's still game. If I lose the gameness, I have failed as a breeder."
Goble, a technician for Verizon for the past 16 years, lives with his wife and daughter on the same land where he was raised, in a tidy brick ranch house off U.S. 98 north of Lakeland. He is also president of the Florida delegation of Game Bird Breeders Inc., which unsuccessfully lobbied against the new state law this year.
Goble says he won't break the law, but he has not given up hope. Gamecock enthusiasts, like their birds, are a defiant sort, and Goble's group has asked the governor to veto the new Florida law. Breeders also are cheering for the federal lawsuit filed in Louisiana, which claims the new federal provision discriminates against Hispanics and Cajuns, for whom cockfighting is part of their cultural identity.
It's also unclear how the new laws will be enforced. The Humane Society has sent letters to the U.S. Customs and Postal services, asking them to enforce the new antiexport law. It also has asked Congress for $800,000 for more agriculture agents to target trafficking.
To enforce the new state law, authorities must prove folks like Goble and Torres are raising birds to fight, not just to show or have. The presence of gaffs, stimulants or pit schedules would certainly help the case against them, but breeders say they have no control over how a buyer uses one of their roosters.
"If an individual approaches me and wants to buy a rooster, and tells me straight out that he's going to take it around the corner and fight him, I won't sell to him," Goble said.
But otherwise, he added: "Where's the intent? Who are they going to call for a witness? The chicken?"Gamecock laws
Floridians breed and raise gamecocks for sale in states, U.S. territories and countries where cockfighting is legal, including Louisiana, New Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Haiti and other nations of Central and South America.
A change in Florida state law will reduce the ability of gamecock breeders to operate, and a new federal law bans shipping the birds across state lines. Here's a rundown:The Federal Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act
Bans the sale or transport of fighting cocks to other states or countries, including those where cockfighting is legal.
Penalty: Up to one year in prison and a $15,000 fine.
Status: Effective May 14. Federal suit filed in Louisiana last month charging the law discriminates against minority groups, especially Hispanics and Cajuns, for whom cockfighting may be culturally important.Florida Animal Fighting Act
New legislation bans raising cocks or other animals with intent to fight them, or to knowingly sell them for that purpose. It also would prohibit the possession or sale of paraphernalia for animal fighting, such as leg gaffs or leg knives commonly used in cockfighting.
Increases charge for watching a cockfight from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Penalty: Up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Status: Passed by the Legislature. Awaiting Gov. Jeb Bush's signature.
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