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Of Chickens, Gays and the Arizona Legislature

Arizona-sign-022714

We were a motley crew, to say the least. And we were laughed right out of the Arizona State Legislature.

It was 1978, and we weren't lobbying for gay rights, as they're doing in Arizona this week. (That would have been unthinkable back then.) No, in our case we were trying to persuade the state to ban cockfighting.

Our group was led by Richard Negus, a big, gruff Englishman who'd been working with the equally gruff columnist Cleveland Amory, founder of the Fund for Animals. At a time when bumper stickers were proclaiming "Support Your Right to Bear Arms", Amory was countering with "Support Your Right to Arm Bears."

Negus ran Amory's Southwest office, and when I met him, they were campaigning to save the wild burros of the Grand Canyon from being shot by the National Park Service. The burros were descendants of the donkeys who had helped Europeans colonize the West and had then been abandoned. Now they were overgrazing the land, and Amory had stepped in with a plan to save them by helicoptering hundreds out of the Grand Canyon and having the others neutered.

amory-burro-022714The two men were a match for each other ... Negus always complaining that he was doing all the work while Amory took all the credit, while Amory complained that Negus was freelancing. But they never argued over the mission, and they got the job done.

My first outing with Negus was when he and his wife, Daphne, the editor of Cat World magazine, invited me to dinner at their home in North Phoenix. The phone rang ... a cat needed rescuing ... and dinner was abandoned. Richard had an animal ambulance, complete with flashing lights and a siren. It was 10 o'clock at night as we climbed in and went barreling off down North 7th Street, lights flashing and siren blaring.

"Richard," Daphne was shouting, "you'll wake all the animals." (No point in telling him he'd wake up all the humans; he couldn't have cared less!)

A few days later, Richard called me to ask if I'd join him on his annual visit to the state legislature to lobby for a ban on cockfighting. Only a handful of states still permitted this "sport", and Richard had been working on trying to get it banned for years. But in Arizona any bill that was introduced was voted down almost unanimously.

I had a nightly radio show, and when I announced that I'd be joining Richard at the legislature, we got a few calls from people who wanted to help. And so it was that our motley crew (less than a dozen of us) gathered at the state House of Representatives. The team included:

  • The very English Richard;
  • A quintessential little old lady in tennis shoes, who gave us all a pep talk saying that all would be well "if we just make like Jesus";
  • The minister of the newly born Metropolitan Community Church (the first gay church) in Phoenix;
  • A few animal rescuers from around town;
  • ... and me (also English and not yet a U.S. citizen).

Across the aisle sat a crowd of good-ole-boy legislators, none of whom, judging by their bulging waistlines and beer-pickled faces, would probably have lasted very long in the pit up against a fighting chicken. A crowd of good ole boys, none of whom would probably have lasted very long if they'd found themselves in the pit with a fighting chicken.

Of course, we were laughed out of the building. But that was nothing new for Richard. Unfazed by hostility or ridicule, he'd been trying the same thing for several years already, and would continue for several more before retiring and joining others of us who were setting up Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Southern Utah – and bringing two of those Grand Canyon burros with him.

But 20 years after that day at the legislature, Richard's work finally bore fruit. In 1998, Arizona banned cockfighting.

A wild cockfighting rooster chickenBy then, most states had already banned it. Missouri passed a law the same year; Oklahoma followed in 2002. In 2007, New Mexico took the plunge. (Governor Bill Richardson had tried to avoid the whole subject for years. But when he decided to run for President, and Jay Leno mocked him on The Tonight Show for saying that there were good arguments "on both sides of the issue," Richardson realized that his sound bite would not play well on TV during the primaries.)

That left just one state where cockfighting was still legal: Louisiana. And in 2008 a similar ban finally took effect there, just before Richard Negus passed away. Whether we're denying rights to each other or to our fellow animals, it's always a sign of how weak and vulnerable we really feel.

Incidentally, the Metropolitan Community Church of Phoenix, whose pastor joined us on behalf of the chickens in 1978, now reaches out on behalf of LGBTQ people all over the world with 222 member congregations in 37 countries. And this week, the whole country joined them in condemning the state for its latest shoddy exercise in discrimination.

Whether we humans are denying rights to each other or to our fellow animals, it's always a manifestation of how weak and vulnerable we really feel. That day when I looked across the aisle at the men who were laughing us out of the state legislature, and when I then looked at the faces of our own motley crew, it was obvious who were the weak and who were the strong – and that the handful of semi-outcasts whom Richard Negus had brought together would ultimately prevail.

4 comments
SMT
SMT

What a lovely - and spot-on - memory of my uncle and aunt, Richard and Daphne Negus.  I remember this time well.  Richard always stood up for weak and defenceless, and didn't care what anyone thought, even at personal cost.  He intervened in a cockfight in Phoenix and unsurprisingly perhaps was beaten up by the players, but he wasn't deterred.  I miss them.  Thank you, Michael.

MerrittClifton
MerrittClifton

As of 1933, cockfighting was illegal in all 48 states, including Arizona, and had been illegal in Puerto Rico for 30 years as well. The Ku Klux Klan, which had great influence within Southern law enforcement, funded itself in part by running cockfighting, dogfighting, and moonshining as protection rackets. Unfortunately, among Franklin D. Roosevelt's early misjudgments was helping several cockfighting enthusiasts to get elected to Congress and appointing several others to politically influential positions. This was not because Roosevelt favored cockfighting, but because he was oblivious to it in his quest to find allies for abolishing Prohibition, which he expected to break organized crime, including the KKK as well as the Mafia. (This was well before Roosevelt engineered the New Deal, when he courted humane support, since humane societies at that time ran many and perhaps most of the public orphanages.) Most notoriously, Roosevelt appointed Kentucky-born cockfighting enthusiast Robert Hayes Gore (1886-1972) to become Governor of Puerto Rico. James R. Beverley, a Texan who had served two terms as Governor of Puerto Rico, undid the Puerto Rican ban on cockfighting as one of his last acts before leaving office, and then Robert Hayes Gore in his July 1, 1933 inauguration speech declared his intent to boost the Puerto Rican economy by promoting cockfighting. Less than a week later he attended a cockfight organized in his honor. Robert Hayes Gore was removed from office due to corruption and incompetence within less than eight months. Unfortunately, his legacy and that of the other cockfighting enthusiasts who came to power with Roosevelt was that much of 50 years of progress toward abolishing cockfighting was undone, and has had to be redone in our own time.

Donna Lusthoff
Donna Lusthoff

One can never know what your actions might do down the road. if they don't work right away. Thanks to you all for what you have done-and still will!