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Clay Brittle breeds gamecocks, the birds used in the sport—or whatever you want to call it—of cockfighting. He’s been a cocker for most of his 75 years. An army of animal-rights activists and a good-guy pro wrestler recently drafted to help wipe out cockfighting would paint Brittle and others of his ilk as more evil than even Col. Sanders. Brittle pays them no mind. But he does have some advice for anybody who thinks cockfighting is on its way out: Don’t count your chickens.

Brittle raises his birds in The Plains, Va., an area better known for equine endeavors—he also breeds thoroughbred horses. Brittle maintains that he develops bonds with all the animals he raises, although he ascribes names to only the horses. He favors the chickens in other ways: You can tell he gets more juiced betting that his game fowl will survive a fight to the death than he does from wagering that one of his nags will turn in the fastest 5 furlongs in a race at Charles Town.

For wholly legal reasons, Brittle, like essentially all modern cockers, has grown wary of letting strangers in on where or when his next cockfight will take place. But without hesitation, he’ll tell you that he will be throwing some home-grown game fowl into a dirt ring somewhere, some time soon.

“I still go to cockfights,” Brittle says, “and so do a lot of other people.”

Because so few cockers are open about their involvement, it’s hard to tell just how many are out there. According to Wayne Pacelle, president of the furiously anti-cockfighting Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), more than 40,000 Americans own and breed fighting birds. That statistic seems inflated. But it is true that three national publications—Grit and Steel, The Feathered Warrior, and Gamecock—and a host of regional ‘zines are serving a significant audience. Readers are offered breeding and training tips, opportunities to buy eggs fertilized by champion fighters, and gaffs, the razor-sharp spurs that cockers strap to birds’ legs before a match

to speed up

the denouement.

Much of Brittle’s relative openness can be attributed to his age and the length of time he’s been in cockfighting. He was there back when cockers had no reason to stay underground. And long before he took it up—about, say, 300 years before—his home state had already acquired a reputation as fine cockfighting territory. Back in the 17th century, the powdered-wig set in Virginia and throughout the colonies regularly hosted fights. (That’s why the major public universities of two original states, South Carolina and Delaware, have sports teams named after members of the poultry family—Gamecocks and Blue Hens, respectively.)

Brittle knows all about the Old Dominion’s past, and he frequently uses a historical defense for his breeding habits. (Those on the other side of cockfighting like to point out that slavery had a pretty good run in Virginia, too.) He also is well aware that opposition to cockfighting has been growing for some time, even there. The state took some steps to ban cockfighting in the 1970s, but it left several loopholes in its prohibition—loopholes that allow Brittle’s breeding operation to retain an air of legitimacy. Brittle, like all citizens, is allowed to possess and breed game fowl specifically for cockfighting, and even attend cockfights, but police can use a variety of gambling and anti-animal-cruelty statutes to lock up cockers if they catch them at a match. Cockfighting still has some strongholds abroad, particularly in Mexico and the Philippines, but isn’t exactly welcomed in many domestic locales anymore: In November, voters in Arizona and Missouri approved referendums making cockfighting a felony, leaving it fully legal in only Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Louisiana. Brittle’s Virginia-bred birds can be legally shipped to any of those three states for fights. For now.

But maybe not for long. Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), the only veterinarian in Congress, wants to take the cockfighting question out of state lawmakers’ hands. Just two weeks ago, before a packed U.S. Senate hearing room, HSUS officials introduced the pro wrestler Goldberg to testify in support of Allard’s bill, which would, among other things, make transporting gamecocks across state lines a federal felony.

“When I fight, I choose to step in the ring, but animals are forced to fight and suffer and die” in cockfights, Goldberg said. According to HSUS, Goldberg will deliver much the same message in a series of public service announcements slated to be shown during wrestling shows on cable channels.

Goldberg’s emergence as the figurehead of the anti-cockfighting movement burns Brittle, and not just because of the attention the Capitol Hill appearance brought to the issue. Brittle maintains that the wrestler revealed his ignorance about game fowl simply by saying the birds are “forced to fight.”

“Goldberg should stick to his fake sport and leave mine alone,” he says. “What he said just shows he’s never even been around any of these birds. I just lost three of my chickens this week, just because they got loose from where I had ’em and they tore each other to pieces. I didn’t want that to happen, but that’s how they are. But all these stupid people who say that it’s drugs and training and all that crap that makes the birds fight—well, they’re all wrong. Yes, it’s a blood sport, but, the truth is, all game chickens want to do is fight. I don’t have to do anything to ‘force’ ’em. Tell you what: I’ll give Goldberg some birds and then say, ‘OK, stop ’em from fighting!’ He can’t. I can’t. Nobody can. That’s nature, not me. So as long as there are two birds on the planet, we’ll still have cockfighting.”

And as long as he’s on the planet, Brittle intends to keep breeding gamecocks and entering his animals in fights. The law be damned.

“I’m not going to stop doing what I do, not for anybody,” he says. “I like chickens.”—Dave McKenna