Two animal rights groups along with a former governor and former state attorney general criticized Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt today for recording a video message supporting a game-fowl organization that backs legislation to reduce the criminal penalties related to cockfighting.

Former Republican Gov. Frank Keating called the governor’s message of support last weekend to the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission an embarrassment, while former Attorney General Drew Edmondson said Stitt is “associating himself with lawlessness, and that’s not proper for any statewide elected official.”

Stitt’s video, which lasted just over one minute, was shown Sunday during the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission’s annual legislative meeting in McAlester. In the video recording, Stitt told the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission he wanted “to cheer you on from the sidelines.”

“We need to protect the nearly 5,000 game-fowl farmers across Oklahoma and lift up our rural and municipal economies,” Stitt said. “I can’t wait to see what we accomplish together in the next legislative session.”

An attendee of Sunday’s meeting, who spoke during the animal rights groups’ press conference Wednesday, said 300 to 400 people from Oklahoma and other states and countries were in attendance.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Animal Wellness Action president Wayne Pacelle released a statement from Keating, a former U.S. attorney who served two terms as Oklahoma governor, from 1995 to 2003, and left office months after voters criminalized cockfighting activities by passing State Question 687 with 56.2 percent support.

“Cockfighting is every bit as cruel and backwards now as when I actively supported the ballot initiative 20 years ago, when voters decisively outlawed knife fights between animals,” Keating’s statement said. “Recent polling shows that Oklahomans are nearly unanimous in their opposition to this form of intentional cruelty to animals. It is an embarrassment to me that any elected official seeks to turn back the clock on this morally settled issue. Talk of decriminalizing cockfighting is toxic to the idea of economic development and forward progress for our great state.”

Blake Pearce, the secretary and policy chairman of the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission, said the purpose of the 501(c)(4) group is to promote the interests of game fowl breeders in Oklahoma. He said the estimated 5,000 game fowl breeders in the state raise the birds and sell them mostly to buyers in other countries who breed them or show them. The birds they sell cannot be used for fighting, Pearce claimed, but their offspring can.

“Some of them do compete with the offspring, and that is completely legal in federal law, state law, any state,” Pearce told NonDoc. “It would be illegal if I shipped them to these countries and then they would go fight with them.”

Pearce, of Sallisaw, also said his group is not trying to legalize cockfighting, which Oklahoma voters outlawed 21 years ago. A proposed measure that remains active in the Oklahoma Legislature would reduce cockfighting from a felony to a misdemeanor for the first two offenses, but it would remain a felony for the third offense, he said.

“While we don’t condone any illegal activity of cockfighting, we still don’t believe it should be a felony on the first two times,” he said. “This used to be legal here. (…) If you haven’t learned your lesson by the third, you deserve a felony.”

Authored by Rep. Justin “J.J.” Humphrey (R-Lane), the bill advanced halfway through the legislative process this year after two attempts on the floor of the House of Representatives. The measure was sent to the State Senate, where it did not receive a hearing this year. It can be considered by the Senate during the 2024 regular session, which begins in February.

HB 2530 began as a proposal to reduce cockfighting-related penalties from felonies to misdemeanors, and House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) stood near the door of the meeting room during a 5-2 committee vote, according to several people in attendance.

Prior to its floor hearing, the bill was amended in the House to allow county-specific elections on the topic. On March 20, HB 2530 initially failed by one vote, 50-47, on the House floor, but it passed the next day, 51-42. The measure proposes lessening cockfighting crimes from felonies to misdemeanors if 5 percent of a county’s voters sign an initiative petition and then a majority of voters approve it on a ballot.

Arguments against the bill, however, focus on the barbaric nature of the “sport,” which pits naturally aggressive birds against one another in what can often be a fight to the death. Spectators most often gamble on which bird will be victorious. Sometimes, metal spurs are added to the birds’ legs.

In 2002, Oklahoma voters criminalized hosting, attending and raising birds for cockfighting events. Turnout for SQ687 in rural Oklahoma remains one of several factors often referenced for then-Sen. Brad Henry’s surprising victory over then-U.S. Rep. Steve Largent in the state’s 2002 gubernatorial election.

Pacelle said during the press conference that Stitt’s message was a mildly coded direct-to-camera message that praised the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission for its contributions to rural Oklahoma and signaled he would support its efforts in the upcoming legislative session.

Abegail Cave, Stitt’s communications director, told NonDoc the governor “is not in favor of any sort of animal cruelty. He is in favor of the agricultural community in Oklahoma, so he records these videos for groups like this all the time to promote things that are important to Oklahoma such as agriculture.”

The governor’s video was posted Monday on the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission’s Facebook page, where it received more than 400 likes and more than a dozen positive comments.

“Amen thank you for fighting for our heritage,” posted Mike Starmer.

Brian Collins posted: “Good job this guy knows what he’s talking about.”

Kevin Chambers, of Tulsa, told media Wednesday that he attended the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission event. He said attendees came from Oklahoma — mostly from the southern and eastern sections of the state — and other states such as Texas and Arkansas. He said some people were from other countries, including Guam and the Philippines, where cockfighting is popular.

‘Cockfighting is barbaric and bound up with other crimes’

Cockfighting and raising roosters for the purpose of cockfighting carry felony penalties in Oklahoma, but a bill advanced out of the state House of Representatives in March 2023 attempted to create a way for counties to reduce those penalties to misdemeanors. (WikiCommons)

Edmondson, who served four terms as attorney general, from 1995 to 2011, defended SQ 687 in front of the Oklahoma Supreme Court when cockfighting enthusiasts challenged it in 2003 and 2004.

“Cockfighting is barbaric and bound up with other crimes,” Edmondson said Wednesday.

Pacelle said opposition to cockfighting has increased since voters made the blood sport illegal. According to an April 2023 Sooner Survey, fewer than 10 percent of Oklahomans think cockfighting should be legal and nearly 90 percent of voters favor the existing statewide ban that makes cockfighting a felony.

Louisa McCune, treasurer of the Kirkpatrick Policy Group in Oklahoma City, said Oklahoma is a business-friendly and family-friendly state.

“It is embarrassing for me as a native-born Oklahoma to have our governor warmly embrace a group that is engaging in illicit acts of animal cruelty,” McCune said.

Few criminal cockfighting charges filed through the years

Despite broad public opposition to cockfighting, enforcement actions have historically been few. According to the District Attorneys Council, from 2004 to 2022, there were only 29 law enforcement actions resulting in the arrest of individuals involved in cockfighting, an average of 1.75 busts a year for 76 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties. Pacelle said there has not been an arrest in counties known to have extensive illegal cockfighting, including Atoka, Coal, LeFlore, and McCurtain counties.

In August, Carter County prosecutors charged seven men, including a leader of the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission, with felony offenses related to illegal cockfighting, stemming from the bust of a cockfighting pit in Ratliff City. According to The Ardmoreite, “deputies broke up the illegal cockfighting event” in June, “confiscating [about 60] fighting roosters and equipment while impounding 20 vehicles and trailers.” There were 170 to 180 reportedly people present for the cockfight, which occurred in the Fox/Graham area.

In May, Oklahoma County District Attorney Vicki Behenna filed 59 felony counts related to cockfighting against a Newalla couple caught with “a large number of roosters,” some tied to stakes outside their home. Investigators with the Oklahoma City Animal Welfare Division confiscated 93 game-type birds — 50 roosters and 43 hens — along with 158 eggs from the property, along with a large number of vitamins, antibiotics and leg tethers, according to affidavits filed in the case. The case is pending.

The Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission, a pro-cockfighting political action committee whose name confusingly implies some sort of government association, donated more than $40,000 to Oklahoma politicians in 2022. Although the group did not report its 2022 donors as required, records indicate that Stitt received $2,000, as did Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-OKC) and Senate Floor Leader Greg McCortney (R-Ada). Humphrey accepted $1,000 himself, and he is listed on one report as receiving support from the organization when it spent $178.12 on a checkbook from First United Bank in Durant.

Most donations went to rural Republican lawmakers. In January, the Oklahoma Senate Republican State PAC received $2,500 from the gamefowl group, and the Republican State House Committee received $5,000 in March.

(UpdateThis article was updated at 6:35 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 15, to include comment from Abegail Cave.)