Cockfighting Is Illegal in the U.S. Why Does It Breed so Many Fighting Birds? – The New York Times

The long tradition of American game-fowl breeding has produced some of the world’s most coveted roosters.
A rescued rooster named Twister at Vine Sanctuary in Vermont. The staff members there say he has two speeds: mellow and 100 miles per hour.Credit…Andres Serrano for The New York Times
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According to some rooster men, the game fowl, or fighting chicken, was almost chosen to be the national bird of America. “And it should’ve,” a breeder once told me. “An eagle ain’t nothing more than a glorified buzzard.” Such game-fowl lore and sentiment abound: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were devoted rooster fighters. Union and Confederate soldiers put aside their differences on Sundays during the Civil War to pit their chickens against one another. Abraham Lincoln was given the nickname Honest Abe after he displayed impartiality as a cockfighting judge. Whatever the (dubious) historical merit of claims like these, they are meant to establish the deeply American identity of game fowl. “They fought them right out on the White House lawn,” says David Thurston, president of the United Gamefowl Breeders Association, a national nonprofit dedicated to the birds’ preservation.
Such conviction exists in stark contrast with the state of cockfighting in the country today. Taking part in the practice, which consists of strapping metal spurs to the legs of two chickens and confining them to a pit to fight each other to the death, is now illegal in all 50 states, and it has been since Louisiana was the last to outlaw cockfighting in 2007. It has been banned in all 16 U.S. territories since 2019. Federal law also makes it a crime to “knowingly sell, buy, possess, train, transport, deliver or receive” any chicken across state lines for fighting purposes.
As a result, the business of breeding these birds has gone largely underground, with a focus on international cockfighting, in countries like Mexico, Peru and Vietnam. In the Philippines, the selling of and gambling on birds generate billions of dollars a year in revenue. On Facebook, despite the platform’s prohibition against the sale of animals, thousands of roosters — Roundheads, Clarets, Asils, Blueface Hatches, Flarry Eye Greys, Spangled Butchers, Pearl-Legged Kelsos — are advertised for sale on any given day, though there is always some sort of disclaimer stating that the birds are “not for illegal use,” as one seller puts it. A quick private message will yield a price quote from one of hundreds of breeders across the United States. A Flarry Eye stag, from Feather-Cut Gamefowl in southeastern Texas, can be yours for $600, shipping included. A Mug stag from Coal Miner Mugs Gamefowl Farm, in northern Mississippi, for $600. A Ginn Grey Toppy stag, from Pinnon Hatch Farms in central Missouri, for $400. (Translation: Ginn is the last name of the breeder who created the blood line, supposedly in the 1800s; gray is the dominant feather coloring; “toppy” refers to a tuft of feathers on the head; and “stag” is a young rooster.)
The long tradition of American game-fowl breeding has produced eminent strains with histories of success in local and international cockfighting tournaments, which accounts for their demand abroad, even in countries where the government allows the breeding of game fowl. In recent years, a Filipino television personality named Joey Sy traveled from California to Oklahoma to Kentucky to Alabama to North Carolina, interviewing breeders about their birds — “We’re visiting the megabreeders here in the United States,” he says in one YouTube video.
In another, he and a co-host flank a man in Oklahoma named Kenny Jack. Dozens of roosters are bathed in golden sunlight behind them.
“How many do you breed?” Sy asks Jack.
“Usually 1,300 to 1,400 stags every year,” Jack replies.
He says that he sends birds all over the world — to buyers in Mexico, South America, Guam, Vietnam, the Philippines. Other breeders in Sy’s videos describe even closer ties to cockfights abroad, sometimes recounting their birds’ victories in international derbies.
“To be honest with you,” Jack goes on, “I never really wanted to sell chickens. All I like to do is raise them.” Then he adds: “People just keep wanting more and more and more, y’know? And it’s working me and my wife to death.”
Sy’s videos about American breeders were removed from the site in 2021, after an animal rights group publicized their existence, but most of the featured breeders — Muletrain Farm (Tennessee), Slick Lizard Farm (Alabama), Stoney and Sons Gamefarm (Hawaii) — are still active. Some of the proprietors post photos of themselves on social media, pictured on the covers of foreign cockfighting magazines or in attendance at the World Slasher Cup, the annual “Olympics of cockfighting” outside Manila. Viewers’ comments are often in Tagalog, Spanish or broken English, many asking if birds can be shipped abroad. They can, the breeders often respond.
Thomas Pool, who served as the territorial veterinarian in Guam from 2005 to 2022, says that over the last five years more than 11,500 fighting birds were shipped to Guam alone from American game-fowl farms — a number that activists say represents just a thin slice of the entire international trade, which is hard to track. Almost certainly the birds were used illegally in fights, Pool says. Every week, he told me, his department signed off on shipments of game fowl — labeled “brood fowl” — that were most likely destined for cockfighting pits. “It’s constant,” Pool says. The imports bothered him, but when he refused to sign for permission, the birds made their way into the territory anyway, with approval from other authorities. “We were filling out entry permits for those things every week, from Oklahoma, California, Arkansas.’’
Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, describes the United States as “the breeding ground for cockfighting for the world” and says that it supplies “tens and tens of thousands of birds” to 25 countries. Pacelle served as president of the Humane Society of the United States, one of the largest U.S. animal-welfare organizations, from 2004 to 2018. Soon after his tenure there ended, following accusations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct (which he denies), he founded Animal Wellness Action, through which he has continued to lobby for stricter laws and harsher punishments to curb cockfighting and the trade in game fowl. (Pool now works for Animal Wellness Action.) In 2001 and 2005, Pacelle testified before Congress in support of amendments to the Animal Welfare Act; the first banned the interstate or foreign transport of game fowl, and the second made cockfighting a felony and criminalized the sale of implements like blades that are attached to the birds’ legs if these activities involve participants in multiple states.
Limiting the interdiction to interstate commerce has meant that the states must take responsibility for combating cockfighting in their own variable ways. In seven states, the crime is only a misdemeanor, with fines as low as $50, and in Georgia, cockfighting can be prosecuted only indirectly, through laws against animal cruelty. Animal-welfare activists often contend that local law enforcement turns a blind eye to cockfighting and that stronger state and federal laws, as well as greater public awareness of the problem, are needed to go after the game-fowl breeders “hiding in plain sight,” as Pacelle puts it.
In turn, a number of organizations have popped up in support of the breeders. With names like the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission and the West Virginia Gamebreeders Association, these groups distinguish between “legitimate” game-fowl breeders and cockfighters, trying to separate the raising and selling of birds from the pitting of them against one another. In Oklahoma, where cockfighting carries up to a $25,000 fine and a 10-year prison sentence, the state game-fowl commission helped introduce a bill in 2022 that would reduce the crime to a misdemeanor, with a maximum punishment of $2,000. Though the bill didn’t pass, breeders continue to push their case with ardor, often drawing on philosophy, history, aesthetics and science to make their case. “Freedom will be lost if a species which is the result of thousands of years of evolution is legislated out of existence,” the website of the United Gamefowl Breeders Association says. “Please support our efforts to perpetuate the legitimate breeding and raising of this noble bird.”

Kenny Jack was raised in rural towns in Texas and Oklahoma and got his first fighting chicken when he was 7, in the late 1960s. A gift from his great-uncle, it was a small black Sid Taylor rooster, with a touch of red on its wings. Jack and some of the other boys in his neighborhood would ride their bikes around carrying miniature bantam roosters, or banties, which they would take under a shade tree and pair up for fights. The birds would set on each other, pecking and clawing, until they were pulled apart. Jack took his Sid Taylor to these sparring sessions. “And he whooped every banty in my school,” Jack says. “He wouldn’t quit. And he hit so hard — I mean, I thought that was something. I pulled that rooster around with me everywhere.”
By the time he was a teenager, Jack was hitching rides out to the farms of some of the best game-fowl breeders in the South. He hauled bales of hay one summer, for four cents a bale, to save up for a rooster and two hens that he bought from a breeder in Alabama. Jack had seen advertisements for the birds, Red Fox Greys, in a game-fowl magazine, and when he started school again, he would bring the rooster with him. At lunch, he and a couple of friends who had their own roosters would go to the school’s wood shop and turn the birds on one another. Jack owned a pair of gaffs (metal blades), and the boys flipped a coin to see who got the left one and who got the right one. If the two birds were still attacking each other when the bell rang, the fight was called a draw. Sometimes teachers came to watch. Sometimes the principal joined them.
When I first visited Jack on his game-fowl farm in Stringtown, Okla., in 2020, he recalled those days with a laugh. The fights at one large barn stood out. “On Friday nights — it wasn’t only us boys, it was grown men, everybody — there’d be 200 of us down there,” he said, the pitch of his drawl rising and falling with each word. Roosters were matched for fights based on weight, and small bets were placed on the birds. Win $20 here, lose $20 there. “And now, that would be on every news channel in the whole world,” Jack said. “But that’s all we grew up doing.”
Since then, Jack has spent most of his life raising game fowl for sale. It has been a demanding enterprise, beginning every day before dawn (and with a pinch of smokeless tobacco behind his lip — he would go through nearly a pound of dip daily). At any given time, there were thousands of birds on his farm, hatched in incubators in his garage. They needed their combs trimmed and to have their oats soured and their grains mixed for food; they needed to be vaccinated against diseases and parasites.
His farm consisted of two main areas: fenced-in fields around his house, where mature roosters were tied to upside-down blue barrels with a hole cut in them, providing shelter and protection from one another, and a meadow that led over a small river to a sloping wooded hillside, which was full of free-roaming young chickens for most of the year. As Jack drove me around the meadow in a golf cart, periodically tossing out bread scraps and pouring out corn feed, he told me that all his valuable bulls — he used to breed bucking bulls, too — had been sold off; his heifers, which sometimes looked like megalithic statues in the distance, still grazed the land. The fenced pastures for the bulls were now overrun with thousands of young stags and pullets, pecking at the trail of food he threw out from the golf cart. When they could, the chickens crowded closer to us, sometimes jumping onto the seats. Jack watched them intently, searching for males old enough to move to the barrels and for females that might be worth breeding or selling.
Game fowl have a messy genealogy. All modern-day chickens are thought to be descended from junglefowl, tropical birds native to Southeast Asia and China that may have been domesticated as far back as 6,000 B.C. Eight thousand years, though just a flicker of evolutionary time, can do a lot to an organism when humans are involved. Take modern hens on poultry farms: Docile and thick-thighed, they are sometimes harvested in as few as five weeks and bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors. Junglefowl are generally lean, territorial and temperamental, and the males’ plumage is splashed with vivid colors.
In modern game fowl, this aggression and flashiness have been accentuated. They have not been bred for the juiciness of their meat or the size of their eggs. Whether they can win a fight is what matters, and a certain pride is evident in the names of the breeds, which often honor the men who first developed them. One of the most popular breeds, for example, is named after Walter Kelso, a breeder in Texas who died in 1964. Jack told me, however, that “there was never such a thing as a pure Kelso. Everyone who got chickens off of Walter Kelso just called them Kelsos.” Jack said he looks down on breeders who try to get too scientific, who overlook the birds’ spirit. “You can breed them for appearance, but you can’t see inside them, you can’t see inside their heart,” he said.
Though game fowl share a common ancestor, the Kelsos, Clarets, Asils, Greys, Radios, Typewriters, Muffs, Hennys, Sweaters, Hatches and Roundheads — as well as the subtypes and crosses of all these breeds — are as different as dachshunds and golden retrievers to rooster men like Jack. In the meadow, we drove by two roosters strutting around past each other. One of them, a Grey, Jack said, had black wings, a white neck and a straight red comb. The other was a Double Right, one of Jack’s own creations, a cross of Black Henny, Mel Sims and Kelso. It had traces of green in its tail and streaks of fiery red on its back. The two birds were just old enough to start showing some aggression, and they began circling each other, raising their neck feathers like thorny collars around their heads.
“See, there’s almost a fight there,” Jack said. “I don’t think either wants it that bad, but if they did come together, it’d be a hell of a fight.”
The birds rushed toward each other, flaring their hackles, heads close to the ground, swaying slightly. They stared at each other, inches apart, then backed away. Jack, stocky and bullish, with a goatee and a ring of thick white hair around the crown of his head, was standing completely still. “You just watch that Grey right there, he’s just got a good attitude,” he said. “His wings are just how I like. He holds himself right.” Then the Grey lifted its head and crowed in the other bird’s face, the sound strident and loud, a roar from a tiny dragon. Jack laughed. “That makes it worth raising them,” he said, “just seeing that little sucker.”
In the summer of 2020, an organization called Showing Animals Respect and Kindness reached out to John Shearon, the sheriff of Chilton County, Ala., to notify him about an event being promoted on Facebook. The Call to Action BBQ, advertised over a photo of a game fowl, was being organized by a man named Brent Easterling, on his family’s farm in the small, rural town Verbena.
The group’s leader, Steve Hindi, had been making a name for himself as a vigilante in game-fowl communities, flying drones over farms and showing up at cockfighting events with a camera crew. He believes that illegal cockfighting and game-fowl breeding extend beyond a few rogue farmers to a countrywide subculture of legislators, police officers and judges, and he thought that the Easterlings’ barbecue would serve as both an occasion for cockfighting and an opportunity for breeders to brainstorm ways to defend against efforts by activists like him.
In its email to Shearon, Hindi’s organization claimed that the gathering would violate a number of Covid safety protocols. In response, Shearon said that he had spoken with Easterling, who assured him that Covid guidelines were being followed and that no cockfights would be held. He added that chicken fighting was a violation punishable by merely a $50 fine in Alabama, and he attached a copy of the state code to his email. “It is hard spending our citizens’ tax dollars on something that is only a violation,” Shearon wrote. “When and if it ever becomes a felony then we can deal with it and can be justified.”
In the summer of 2021, acting in part on tips from Hindi and Animal Wellness Action that connected the Easterlings to international cockfighting — which subjected their activities to federal jurisdiction — authorities from the United States Department of Agriculture, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice conducted a raid of their farm. They found and seized more than 2,000 game fowl. In October, seven members of the Easterling family were indicted on 23 separate counts in federal court, and by Aug. 5, 2022, all seven members of the Easterling family, including 77-year-old William Easterling (who goes by Big Jim) and 38-year-old Brent Easterling, had pleaded guilty to conspiring to engage in cockfighting or violating the Animal Welfare Act. They relinquished their game fowl to the federal government, and the authorities prepared to do what nearly always follows the closing of a case after a game-fowl farm has been raided: kill all the birds.
But instead, according to court documents, the Easterlings — three of whom were sentenced in October to probation and four of whom were sentenced in December to prison or home detention — discussed with the government the possibility of having the birds be “rehomed,” or sent to another farm or animal sanctuary, rather than euthanizing them. No rooster-rehoming effort had occurred on this scale before, leaving the government to figure out what could be done. Then VINE Sanctuary, which is in Vermont and specializes in rehabilitating game fowl, agreed to take in a hundred of them. Several other sanctuaries also offered their services. But when Cheryl Wylie, a longtime VINE employee, arrived in Alabama with a volunteer to pick up the birds, they found that the state veterinarian hadn’t given the game fowl the blood tests that would make it legal to transport them out of the state. Most of the hens were able to be shipped to nearby sanctuaries, but Wylie had to return to Vermont empty-handed, and hundreds of roosters remained on the farm.
“We thought they were all killed the next morning,” says Pattrice Jones, who founded and directs VINE. Instead, the defendants went to the judge, who accepted their emergency plea to save the birds.
When federal or state authorities end up euthanizing birds seized from a game-fowl farm, they usually do so via lethal injection or carbon dioxide; each method, if done correctly, leads to a fairly painless death. But there is nothing in the law that dictates exactly what should happen to the birds or, for that matter, any animal that becomes the government’s property after a bust. The only requirement is that, according to the Animal Welfare Act, animals “shall be disposed of by sale for lawful purposes or by other humane means, as the court may direct.”
Delcianna Winders, director of the Animal Law and Policy Institute at Vermont Law School, says that the meaning of “humane” in this context is widely debated. Some people argue for a painless and instantaneous death. Others contend that it is inhumane to kill animals that could otherwise be saved. Dogs rescued from dogfighting are often welcomed by sanctuaries around the country. Fighting chickens are a different story. “It’s really troubling that these birds are just being killed when these busts are happening,” Winders told me. “It’s something that’s just gone unquestioned for so long.”
Jones told me that the unchallenged killing of seized game fowl reflects our views of roosters in general: The notion that they are natural-born fighters is so prevalent that few people question it. When Jones first took in a rooster more than 20 years ago, she felt as if she was looking at him “through stereotype-colored glasses.” But, she says, “I don’t like being tricked by stereotypes, and I’m a feminist.” Game-fowl breeders, she says, “believe so sincerely that they are allowing these birds to express their natural masculinity — which, of course, is the most toxic masculinity possible.” Jones made this argument in a 2010 article in the journal Feminism & Psychology. “They feel shame when one of their roosters behaves in an evolutionarily sensible manner, by fleeing danger or declining to re-engage a retreating foe,” she wrote, referring to cockfighting enthusiasts. “They sincerely believe that an evolutionarily senseless level of aggression is the birthright of these birds and self-righteously reject any evidence to the contrary.”

Listening to Jones, I was reminded of how, one afternoon, while sitting in the shade of his garage, Jack turned to me and said that when a game fowl sees its reflection, it will attack its own image, injuring itself in the process. If you leave the roosters unattended, he added, they will seek out fights, slashing at one another with the natural spurs that grow on the backs of their legs. “I’ll tell you what’s cruel,” Jack said. “What’s cruel and bad is I could just bring them behind the house and leave them. They’ll just destroy each other, smash into pieces.”
Most of Jack’s arguments in support of cockfighting seemed to rest on this one claim: A game fowl’s purpose is to fight. In short, centuries of breeding have crafted game fowl into aggressive and murderous animals. They were brought into existence for cockfighting. He asked me to imagine that chicks at birth had a choice. “They could live in that crowded dirty warehouse and die a horribly early death, or they could be a gamecock and live a good life with all that freedom and have a chance to win all that glory,” he said. After a pause, he added, “What would they choose?”
Since she has taken in game fowl, Jones has received scores of notes from cockfighters telling her that the birds cannot live together without killing one another. “That’s how I really came to understand the degree to which the men who are engaged in this sincerely believe that they are the champions of these misunderstood birds, that they are inherent soldiers, and that we are the cruel ones, for emasculating them,” she says. But, she points out, game fowl are separated from their parents and frequently kept in sensory deprivation and social isolation. Their combs are often shaved off, making them less recognizable to one another (and themselves), and they are rewarded for savagely winning fights. They are not allowed to give up. Although game fowl are made out to be “icons of courage” by the rooster men, Jones wrote, “fighting cocks start to fight because they are afraid.” The aggression is learned, not inherent.
When Jones first tried to introduce a rescued game fowl to a community of chickens, she says she felt “his heart jump like an electric jolt.” She tried to calm him down, speaking in soothing tones and stroking his feathers. Then she slowly tried to bring him back to the community, exposing him for a little longer each time until she was able to leave him in a crate surrounded by the rest of the chickens. Over time, for longer and longer stretches, he would be allowed to move freely among the other birds. “If you’re talking in psychological terms, that’s the same thing you would do if somebody had a fear of riding an elevator,” Jones told me. First you show the person the elevator, then you get him or her to put a foot inside, then you let the person walk in and out. “This aggression is terror,” she says. “It’s the fight side of fight or flight.” In Jones’s 20 years of using this rehabilitation method, she says, almost every one of her game fowl have learned to live together, without restraints.
At VINE Sanctuary, which hosts a menagerie of rescued farm animals that run around on shaggy patches of grass, Jones sometimes sits on an old lawn chair and watches the roosters. “I have an opportunity, which very few people have in life: to watch them just getting along with each other,” she told me. “The behavior that they say is normal is not actually normal. It’s the behavior of traumatized birds.” She went on: “The consensus, just based on stereotypes, is that these are incorrigibly aggressive birds that can’t be rescued and have to be euthanized. But that’s not actually the case. We don’t see any more aggressiveness in the birds than in any other roosters.”
The Easterlings’ emergency appeal had given Jones enough time to organize another transport, and I spoke with her the day after the roosters had been moved to her sanctuary in October. This was the largest group of roosters VINE had ever received, and one of the few times the Department of Justice has worked to rehome rescued game fowl, and Jones was animated as she talked about the birds. About a fifth of them, she guessed, wouldn’t need any rehabilitation at all and could be released into the rest of her flock. About three-fifths already seemed to be responding to the first stages of their exposure therapy. And the rest, she said, “are just bonkers.” Jones was frustrated that the Easterlings’ roosters that didn’t make it to VINE — hundreds of them — had been euthanized. The space and resources dedicated to roosters at animal sanctuaries are often devoted to backyard chickens that were improperly sexed. But, all things considered, she was hopeful about the hundred she was able to save. “We’ll just, one by one by one, give each bird what he needs,” she said.
Jones was aware that, in a sense, she was working with the Easterlings to protect the birds. She noted wryly that the people who cared most for the roosters were her and the cockfighters. “So many of these men that engage in cockfighting seem to really enjoy the time they spend with the roosters,” she said. “It’s tragic, really, in every sense of the word, that boys that grow up wanting to be close with animals don’t have ways to do that that don’t involve hurting animals.”
When I last saw Jack on his farm, in September, he had recently been released from the hospital, where he was being treated for bladder cancer. He was largely confined to a soft brown reclining chair in his living room. His head had been shaved, and a layer of white fuzz was growing back over his scalp. His goatee was thinner, and the skin on his arms hung loosely. The chair seemed to be swallowing him up. (Jack would be rehospitalized a few days later.)
The farm was nearly empty, the meadow silent, the barrels mostly abandoned; almost all the roosters had been sold or given away. Whatever Jack had done in the past, it seemed clear that he was no longer involved in cockfighting. He still had hundreds of hens roaming around in the meadow, and he planned to keep them there. But as far as the roosters, he said: “I just don’t see how I could raise them and do them justice, and be able to take care of them right. So, it’s best that I don’t have them.” The 50 or so stragglers would be picked up soon, he told me. “I was sitting here, listening to them cocks crow,” he said, after his son let me into the house. “And usually I can’t hear them, but I was listening, and boy, I’ll miss them.”
When we first met, over patty melts at his favorite cafe, Jack told me that his grandfather used to instruct him to live his life as if it were a story he would one day tell to his grandkids. He took the advice to heart, I learned, as he narrated episodes from his past. Shooting hawks through the window of his pickup; a bar fight that ended with his city-slicker friend running down the road; his many romantic affairs — he could take anything even vaguely related to his experience and turn it into a story. And every story, without fail, could be traced back to cockfighting. He shot the hawks to protect his chickens. The fight started when he was meeting with potential customers. The women? “I’ve never met one that didn’t love those cockfights,” Jack said.
Oliver Whang is a reporting fellow for The Times, focusing on science. He last wrote for the magazine about the Reddit group r/antiwork. Andres Serrano is a photographer in New York known for his controversial photograph “Piss Christ,” which became the subject of a national debate on freedom of artistic expression in the 1980s.