Clarence "Wooly" Bunch has been a cockfighter for more than 40 years and is the proprietor of the Little Rebel Game Club in this small town east of Baton Rouge. But these are the last days of legal cockfighting in Louisiana, and Bunch, an affable fellow with an easy laugh, feels "lost as a bat" as he contemplates his future. The former pipe fitter subsidizes his $600 a month in Social Security with derby winnings, but like other pit owners, he sees the blood sport as being about something more.
"It's my heritage," he says. "I guess there are other people that want to be president of the United States or senators or whatever. Me, I want to be a cockfighter. ... I would rather do it out in the wide open where everyone knows it and sees it because I am not ashamed of cockfighting."
Cockfight aficionados argue that the new law, which went into effect Friday, will merely drive cockfighting underground, like dogfighting rings. Sitting on an armchair in his mobile home with his dog TooToo nuzzling his chin, Bunch says cockfighting isn't in the same category as dogfighting. "Dogs are your friend. ... Not to say I don't like my chickens, but they are not my friend," he says.
Louisiana is the last state to outlaw cockfighting. In 33 states, it is a felony. Virginia recently toughened its law to make even attending organized fights a felony. The sport, still popular in countries including Mexico and the Philippines, remains legal in the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa.
Animal advocacy organizations applaud the closing of the final legal venue in the United States for a blood sport they view as cruel and barbaric.
"It has been a monumental struggle involving lots of people and very many protests, economics, twists and turns," says anesthesiologist James Riopelle. A past president of the state's humane society coalition, he organized protests at the Sunset Recreation Club, which he calls the "Super Bowl of cockfighting." The doctor is considered by animal welfare groups to be a hero of Hurricane Katrina for refusing to abandon the dozens of animals left in his care by residents during the evacuation of New Orleans. Riopelle thinks the national focus on the state after the storms gave the legislature more incentive to take action against an activity perceived as unacceptable by the rest of the country.
But there is a sentiment among cockfighters that being sanctioned for their pastime by those who dine on chicken from factory farms is hypocritical.
They raise their roosters for two years, vaccinate and feed them and say the birds at least have a fighting chance of remaining alive. Enthusiasts insist they simply perpetuate the inherent nature of the species, that it would be impossible to stop this jungle breed from fighting.
To prevent carnage in the yard, the birds must be tethered apart. Some of those engaged in cockfighting view themselves as a dying breed and will reluctantly let go rather than hide their activities. Others insist they will find a way to fight their fowl.
"We ain't barbaric and we ain't hurting nobody," insists Bunch's longtime friend Chris Stewart. He feels outsiders don't understand a culture that is centuries old and had been a hobby of presidents. The story is retold countless times about how "Honest Abe" Lincoln got his name as a cockfight referee.
"They got us down like we outlaws and, well, if we are, Washington, Jefferson, Jackson -- all of our presidents -- they had them, so they must not have been low-life trash or they wouldn't have been presidents of the United States," Bunch says. "Changing your heritage, well, I don't see where they should think about nothing like that. Now if it's something immoral or improper, I can understand it."
Carter Kinchen, of Tickfaw, La., declares: "Religion and cockfighting built this country." Faith, heritage and patriotism are often uttered in the same breath with cockfighting as Kinchen discusses Louisiana's ban.
"First cockfight I saw, all I could see was me. ... That was me fighting for what I believe in," says Kinchen, who was introduced to the sport in 1965 after serving in Vietnam. "The love for a game fowl is just deep in my heart, just as much as it is for my wife," he says.
This night's fight in Holden is a Three-Cock Gaff Derby. Friends gather at dusk, exchanging pleasantries and weighing their birds. There is a festive air, with families bringing their children, and there is free food, compliments of Chris Stewart's wife, also named Chris, who proudly describes how her young grandson just bagged his first deer.
Weapons are usually strapped to the legs of each rooster. Some prefer razor-sharp knives, but with gaffs that resemble three-inch ice picks, the fights last longer, Bunch explains.
As roosters face off in the circle, hoots and hollers echo throughout the bleachers sprinkled with spectators. Gambling at cockfights has been illegal since the passage of a state Senate bill last year, but the winner of the derby collects a purse from entry fees.
The spectacle begins, and a flurry of feathers flashes as the birds engage in a furious, fatal dance.
Men try to revive the faltering roosters by sucking from their beaks the blood pooled in their lungs. Some wounded birds continue to drag themselves around the pit until, finally, with a mortal stab, the bird dies. The limp body is carried to the trash.
"In a way, it's a loss and you feel for the bird itself because you know he did the best he could," Bunch says.
The victor may live to fight again. The exultant winner of this night's derby is Richard Sparks, who brought his two sons with him. They pose with Bunch and the trophy that will adorn their home.
Chris Stewart has spent many Friday nights at this small country pit. She's decided to replace the fighting roosters she bred on her land with pigs raised for food. She is concerned about raids once the ban is enforced. "I'm afraid it's going to get really ugly. They know where we fight," she says.
Kinchen and his wife, Barbara, ran an establishment called the Milkdairy Game Club until they were raided last year after an undercover investigation by state police and Livingston Parish sheriffs and arrested on illegal gambling and other charges. A grand jury later indicted the Kinchens only on drug possession charges.
They were acquitted but couldn't breathe life back into the business. Kinchen's daddy raised him to be strong, he says, so they view this as simply another obstacle in their road together.
They already have faced a parent's worst tragedy, losing two sons. Their 16-year-old died in a car wreck and their 21-year-old son deployed to Iraq never returned, dying in his bunk.
That has not rocked their faith. Kinchen believes part of that faith tells him God gave humans dominion over animals.
Their home is filled with memorabilia and knickknacks of the spectacularly plumed birds that endlessly crow from the tin tepee shelters that dot their land.
A solid gold rooster hangs around Kinchen's neck, a gift from Barbara. He now considers turning the pit into a museum but staunchly refuses to give up his roosters.
"I'm going to just go underground," he says, "fight them here and yonder. If they come to take them, I'm going to die."
Over in Sunset, La., Herman LaGrange has a yard full of game fowl and a flag on his carport with the image of a rooster that appears to fade away as it flaps in the wind. It serves as a metaphor for these dwindling days of lawful cockfighting.
"It's a tradition. My grandfather, my daddy, myself," LaGrange says. His tidy home is deep in Cajun country and just down the block from the Sunset Recreation Club, a large organized pit that closed after gambling on cockfights became illegal. Weary of the political maneuverings and uneasy with the thought of doing anything illegal, he has decided to get out of the business. He ponders the future:
"Well, I guess I'll have to get some fishing stuff."