Massachusetts was the first state to ban cockfighting, in 1836, and has
been followed by 47 others. But New Mexico's "galleros," as cockfighting
practitioners here call themselves in Spanish, are determined that their
state will not be next, even as they face their strongest challenge yet from
animal rights activists and some celebrity friends.
"I oppose abortion, but I'm not going to tell Pamela Anderson or even my
daughter not to get one - it's their choice," said Louisa Lopez, who
operates one of New Mexico's largest cockfighting pits, the Gentlemen's
Arena Game Club, on the outskirts of Socorro, a small town south of
Albuquerque. "So who are these outsiders telling me what to do? Who are they
to come here with their ideas of what's right and what's wrong?"
Even the most fervent galleros - or cockers, as they are called in
English - acknowledge that their opponents are on a roll. In November, the
Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to Oklahoma's cockfighting ban,
enacted in 2002. That choice by the justices placed New Mexico and Louisiana
in the cross hairs of groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals and Animal Protection Voters.
The activists' efforts appear to have touched a nerve, however, with
people in New Mexico's cockfighting pits, its Legislature and even the
governor's office. Many are unhappy with what they perceive as meddling by
"I'm officially undecided on the issue, but I don't believe it merits the
attention it's received," Governor Richardson said in an interview. "Every
time it's introduced it distracts from pressing issues like access to health
care or drunk-driving fatalities, serious problems affecting our
"But it goes beyond distraction sometimes," he said. "Some of the implied
threats coming from these Hollywood personalities are condescending and
New Mexico's cockfighting season gets under way in December and usually
lasts through July. The new season coincides with what is expected to be the
reintroduction of a bill in the Legislature to ban the sport; hence the
noticeable increase in lobbying activity by Ms. Anderson, Mr. Maher and
Many of the estimated 10,000 New Mexicans who breed gamecocks describe
cockfighting as a part of the state's culture, dating from Spain's
colonization of this part of the Southwest four centuries ago. Ronald
Barron, president of the New Mexico Game Birds Association, noted that it
was a practice shared with other former Spanish possessions where it remains
common, like Puerto Rico, Guam, Mexico and the Philippines.
"We're a wild frontier kind of state," said Mr. Barron, a former oil
field worker, "and some of the people who come here like the physical beauty
of the place, but they frown on the people."
"I find this ironic and a little sad," he said, adding that cockfighting
generated about $50 million a year for New Mexico's economy.
Cockfighting has never been for the faint of heart. It is usually
associated with frenzied gambling, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz
pointed out in his classic essay on the sport, "Notes on the Balinese
Cockfight." Purses in New Mexico can reach more than $10,000, making the
loss of a prized gamecock, bred through generations of pedigree to fight to
the death, a risk that most galleros are prepared to take.
Nor is cockfighting the only practice involving roosters that some
outsiders would find shocking. Another, common in some Hispanic villages or
Indian pueblos until a couple of decades ago, was "correr el gallo," the
rooster pull, in which the bird was buried up to its neck in a dirt mound
and men on horseback competed to uproot it. The rooster was usually killed
in the process.
To be sure, many New Mexicans do not agree that cockfighting should be
preserved, or even portrayed as a part of the state's heritage.
Martin Chavez, the mayor of Albuquerque, has called it barbaric.
"The idea of putting razor blades on the feet of these birds and allowing
them to tear each other up is obscene," the mayor said.
Though Mr. Chavez supports a ban, he acknowledges that earlier efforts to
enact one have been accorded little importance, with the required
legislation handed off to freshman lawmakers as a way of testing their
mettle with one of the state's more fragile issues.
Some legislators suggest that a statewide ban is not needed, since
individual counties have the power to adopt their own. In fact, 13 of them
have already done so, making cockfighting a misdemeanor. Making the practice
a felony, which would be expected under a state ban, might prove too
delicate a matter in the 20 counties that now consider it legal,
particularly along the Mexican border, where it is most prevalent.
"I've seen rooster fights used to determine who's running for school
board or who's coming out on top in a disputed cattle sale," said Benjie
Regensburg, a legislator from the northeastern town of Cleveland who is an
outspoken opponent of a ban.
Mr. Regensburg said a poor state like his had issues far more important
than whether to forbid cockfighting.
The sport's critics, he declared, "say it's brutal, but these are people
who value the life of a rooster more than a human being."
NY Times 12/9/04:
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