By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
Crowing roosters can be heard through the open back door as Badger Burden leans forward in his easy chair to talk about cockfighting. It’s a sport he says has been a way of life for him and his family for most of his 80-plus years.
A cigarette dangling from his lips, Burden is upset about the turn the latest battle over cockfighting has taken in the New Mexico Legislature.
“It makes me mad,” Burden, of Portales, said. “I get so agitated, I sit here and watch them belittle the sport,” he said, motioning to the TV set. “Eighty-five percent of the people against us have no idea what they’re talking about.”
As an example he and his wife, Ruby, say they saw state lawmakers on TV recently holding a rooster of a breed that was not even a gamecock while making their pitch to ban cockfighting.
Cockfighters and game fowl breeders around the state and locally are acknowledging the handwriting is on the wall for the sport they love. For years, the issue has been debated hotly in the Legislature. This year those seeking a ban were emboldened by the support of Gov. Bill Richardson, who is testing the waters of a presidential run. In previous years he had threatened veto of any cockfighting ban, saying New Mexico had more important business on which to focus.
That support led to quick passage of a bill banning cockfighting in the state Senate. The House has not yet taken up the issue but it has passed there in previous years.
Locally two out of the three senators representing Curry and Roosevelt counties voted against the recently passed bill. Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, and Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis, voted no, while Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, voted for it.
“I basically voted that way because I had more calls and letters in favor of killing that bill than I did for passing,” Ingle said. “That’s how I vote on issues like that. Those issues are decided by my constituency.”
Burden notes Richardson used to be the cockfighters’ secret weapon on the issue.
He says the governor’s stand will cost him support of cockfighters and rural residents throughout the United States.
Jackie Grubbs of Portales, who said his family had raised gamecocks and fought them for more than 50 years, agrees the sport is on its way out in New Mexico.
“I would like to see it stay alive because it’s been here since the beginning of New Mexico,” Grubbs said. “It’s a part of our history.”
He says he no longer keeps any game fowl because he doesn’t have the time. But he says his father keeps a few because he loves the birds so much.
Grubbs and others with a history in the sport say what upsets them most about the attacks on their sport is when people with little knowledge about it say human handlers somehow train or goad the roosters to fight.
“These roosters are bred that way,” Grubbs said. “If you turn them loose in a yard, they’re going to kill each other. Anyone who doesn’t believe that needs to spend time with people who’ve been around them.”
The Burdens agree, and say it’s important when raising them to keep the birds separated.
“They come out of that egg as little warriors,” Ruby Burden said.
The Burdens say they condition the birds in various ways, including making sure their diet is the best possible. The Burdens also work with them so they can be handled, and even play a stereo in the coop where they’re conditioning roosters so they’ll be used to a cockfighting pit where music and human noise might frighten them.
“They’re just like an athlete,” Badger Burden said. “You put him in condition, you don’t force him to fight. They’re taken better care of than the old man sitting here,” he said, referring to himself.
Ruby Burden says the sheen of a fowl’s feathers are a good indicator of how well cared for they are.
“We take good care of our roosters, because if you don’t, they’re not going to win,” she said.
Badger Burden says that until recently, there were six legally licensed pits in the state. Texico, Hobbs, Jal, Socorro and Los Lunas all have pits. Farmington recently passed a local ordinance against cockfighting, he said. He guesses there may be as many as 50 people who raise gamecocks for fighting.
At the bigger events, a handler might pay an entry fee of $200 to $300, which allows him to fight four roosters in a tournament-like setting. The winner is the handler with the best record. At a recent event they attended, the Burdens say four fighters split a $50,000 pot.
Badger Burden, a former rodeo rider and horse racer, says if the sport is outlawed it will go underground with fighters getting together in creek bottoms or other secret locations. But he won’t be there because he is suffering ill health. He’s hopeful nothing happens in the Legislature to criminalize raising the birds though. He says he hopes to continue raising game fowl.
Grubbs says with the recent turn at the Legislature, his family’s game fowl operation will likely be sold.
“Even though I love it, I’m not going to risk going to jail for it,” Grubbs said.
Both the Burdens and Grubbs say animal rights organizations won’t stop with cockfighting. They fear that rodeo, hunting, fishing and horse racing could be their next targets.