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The "sport" is centuries old, and in many countries it is considered honorable.

But in Utah, cockfighting is a crime.But it occurs every weekend in the Salt Lake Valley, according to police. Recently, a West Valley couple was charged with several criminal counts of raising gamecocks for the purpose of fighting, once again bringing to the fore the "sport" that, according to some, encourages cruelty to animals, gambling and a wide variety of illegal activities.

Yet those who raise roosters to fight show great pride and delight in their birds, even a kinship.

"One of the reasons that man feels a companionship with the gamecock is because the gamecock, like man, is one of the few inhabitants of this planet that kills his own kind," reads the foreword of a professional cocker's guide, "The Modern Cocker, No. 3," by Roy "String King" Bingham. "The gamecock kills to protect his territory, or to carry out Mother Nature's law of survival of the strongest."

On the other hand, law enforcement and animal-control officials say cockfighting is much more insidious than that.

"What it comes down to is destroying another living thing for their own entertainment," said Frank W. Crowe, public relations and humane education officer for the Salt Lake City Animal Control department. "It's a blood sport, and that's something our society says is not to be allowed. And it's something our law says is not to be allowed."

Cockfighting season

According to Crowe, cocks fight every weekend throughout the year and, with warmer weather, even more often. Investigation of the crime picks up as well.

"We know that it's here," Crowe said. "We know there are people in the city who are involved."

Crowe pulled out a wood carrying case used for caging and transporting the animals. He displayed items confiscated from cockfights, such as man-made spurs - sharpened metal devices attached as weapons to the leg of a gamecock - and medications for healing wounded birds. There are also ties to frustrate and tease the animals, making them meaner. Crowe also produced the legs of a dead gamecock, with it's natural spurs cut and sanded down in order for the man-made ones to fit over them.

Crowe explained that the wattle and comb, which act as air-conditioning for the bird and circulate blood, are cut-off in order for the bird to have more reserved endurance power. Feathers are also removed from the body of the cocks to make them sleeker and more fight-ready.

Cockers - those who raise and train fighting gamecocks - breed their birds with great care. Cocker manuals include explicit recipes for feed mixtures to raise stronger, healthier birds, and the cures for any number of ailments. For example, cockers are advised when to allow the birds to moult and how to avoid stiff toes.

Yet,"it's not unusual in a cockfight to find a pit full of dead or dying birds," Crowe said.

Cockers also look for certain qualities in their birds, Crowe said. "What they're looking for is a bird that's game - that will fight and not run - and has the strength and ability to carry on a long fight," he said. "And then they breed champions. If you can show a blood line of champions, you can get good money out of those chicks."

If those same birds, expensive or not, are confiscated during a raid or arrest, the law says they must be killed. "If they have been altered for fighting they have to be destroyed," Crowe said. Once they have been trained to fight that is all the birds will ever do.

In some states - Arizona, for example - cockfighting is legal. But in Utah, being a participant or a just spectator at a cockfight in Utah is a misdemeanor. In some states it's a felony and, according to Crowe, "there are legislators who are receptive to looking into making it a felony here."

Associated crimes

Crowe said there is a very legitimate reason for actively pursuing cockers in Utah. "When we get a cockfighter," he said, "we often get people involved in other crimes" - crimes like drug trafficking, burglary and tax evasion, to name a few.

Gambling is one of the most prevalent illegal activities that takes place at most cockfights. Due to the highly secretive and underground nature of cockfighting in Utah, law enforcement officials aren't able to even estimate the amount of money that is won and lost in any given weekend over gamecocks. However, Crowe said he has seen agencies who have "taken substantial sums of money off the participants."

Another problem associated with cockfighting, said Crowe, is the attitude of violence that develops. "In Texas, a husband and wife were executed - all over an argument over a cockfight," he said. "Even in the illegal blood sports not everyone likes everyone else."

Cockers also have a sense of being above the law, Crowe said. "There's a kind of ignorant arrogance about them," he said. "Like, `You can't do nothin' to me, man.' "

But each time his agency has gone after a known cocker, they've had satisfactory results, said Crowe. "Every case we've worked on has come to a successful conclusion. We get convictions on our people. We want to become a state unattractive to people who hold such events."