Jones, who lives in Gatesville, has been raising game chickens for almost fifty years. He sells his birds to clients around the world, and in April he testified in Austin before Senate and House committees to oppose a bill that would outlaw the raising of game birds in Texas. Cockfighting, or “harvesting,” as it is often called by breeders, has been illegal in Texas since 1907, but there is no law against raising birds or attending fights.
I began raising birds when I was twelve years old. It was more or less a hobby for years. But by 1977, I was traveling with my birds to states where game fowl harvesting was legal. That, along with construction, was how I made my living. In the late eighties, when the economy was bad, I started a business, Bobby Jones Hatchery. I raised as many birds as the market could stand: Sometimes it was 600 or 700 a year; other times it was 1,500. Soon the birds became my sole source of income. â€¨I began getting invitations to countries where harvesting is widely accepted, like the Philippines, Guam, Saipan, and, of course, Mexico.
The reason my birds were an overnight success is that in 1970 I secured two bloodlines from a famous breeder in Killeen, Joe Goode. He was a mentor of mine. He was breeding his fowl the way everyone does today, except he was thirty or forty years ahead of his time. Back then, breeders focused on pure bloodlines—the chicken business has as many as the cattle industry does, with its Holsteins and Herefords and Brahmans—but what Goode did was find a quality rooster, then breed the rooster’s sisters to another quality, tested rooster. If he found a bird with particularly desirable characteristics, he’d take him out of fighting and focus on breeding him.
Breeding game chickens is like breeding racehorses. I mean, think of how many foals Secretariat sired. You can’t tell if a bird is promising the moment it hatches; you have to watch it over time. Ultimately what makes a good bird great is the way you care for it. It’s a 365-day-a-year job: overseeing what kind of feed your birds get, their water, their nutrients and vitamins. This animal husbandry is where it’s all at; the harvesting is just a small part of a bird’s life. I now own five bloodlines: a straight-comb red, a straight-comb dark-legged, a pea-comb, a black, and what we call a gray—it’s actually more or less yellow. Most of these breeds are referred to by their colors.
Politics often gets in the way of my livelihood. There used to be a few small harvesting facilities around Texas that I’d visit in my early twenties. But Governor Dolph Briscoe formed a crime prevention task force to control, among other things, the drugs coming across the border—this was in the seventies—and I guess law enforcement got tired of chasing drug dealers, because they started shutting down our facilities, which were labeled organized crime. That sent me on visits to Oklahoma. In 1963 a judge on Oklahoma’s court of criminal appeals had ruled that a chicken was not an animal, so harvesting was alive and well across the state line. Then, in 2002, voters in Oklahoma banned cockfighting in their state too.
This spring I spoke at the Capitol against a bill that would outlaw game fowl breeding, to defend my right to own and sell birds. John Goodwin, of the Humane Society of the United States, testified in favor of the bill. He had gone undercover and filmed some so-called illegal fights, and then he said that harvesting is associated with crime, gambling, and prostitution. But it’s not like that. The women he filmed at the fights were nothing more than sisters, mothers, and daughters; his remarks are really unfortunate. I remember one time at a facility in Louisiana, some ladies of the night did show up. It took the owners all of fifteen minutes to tell those gals they weren’t welcome.
As for gambling, what goes on at harvesting facilities is no different from what you see at a golf course, the rodeo circuit, or a bass tournament. It’s a gentleman’s wager, like betting on a football game. The governors of Texas and Oklahoma bet on the Red River Shootout every year, and there’s no discussion about that. The law comes after us even though all the golf, rodeo, and bass people are doing the same thing.
I’m not the least ashamed of what I do. People try to make comparisons to harvesting—how it’s no more or less moral than a boxing match, say—but I don’t think those comparisons are apt or necessary. Gamecocks are an agricultural commodity. No, what I’d like to see is a law that gives rural counties the power to decide what they want, instead of being told what to do by people in cities. Why are people in areas like Houston and Dallas, where there’s practically no morality, able to dictate what we do in rural areas, when they know nothing about it?
Cockfighting came over on the Mayflower. It’s part of our nation’s culture. All your plantation owners in early American history, they had their racehorses and their game fowl. There are instruments that we use in game harvesting, like the slasher and the gaff, which is like an ice pick that is fitted onto the spurs on the fighting bird’s feet. Well, the gaff originated in England; it came over on the Mayflower. And the slashers—in Mexico they are about one inch long, and in the Pacific they are longer—are comparable to what Pilgrim’s and Tyson use to harvest their birds commercially. The difference is that we have rules that govern our harvesting. When a rooster has had enough, he’s had enough, and he’s counted out just like a boxer is.
A lot of breeders, their birds have been in their family for two or three or four generations. I’m completely outside that, because I fell in love with them as a kid for their tenacity and their looks. I checked both sides of my family tree, and nobody even knew what a gamecock was until I came along.