BREAUX BRIDGE, La. – Spectators shake their fists, scream out wagers and cheer on their roosters, the air swirling with cigarette smoke and chicken feathers.
Saturday night in Breaux Bridge means rooster fights at the Atchafalaya Game Club, one of dozens of cockfighting venues in Louisiana — soon to be the last state where the practice is legal. Fans from around the country pay $10 and settle into padded seats overlooking the pit, where two roosters peck and claw each other, often to the death.
"I still go to the rooster fights on a regular basis because it's something I enjoy," said Billy Duplechein, 37, of St. Martinville. "And I'm trying to get my sons involved. It keeps our kids out of trouble."
But this Louisiana tradition — long decried by animal rights activists as cruel and barbaric — may be coming to an end.
Worried about the state's long-standing image as a corrupt backwater at a time when hurricane-stricken New Orleans desperately needs money from Capitol Hill, Gov. Kathleen Blanco and other politicians want cockfighting banned.
That is an unpopular idea at the Atchafalaya club, where enthusiasts consider it harmless fun. They say Louisiana has plenty of other problems to solve, including the stagnant recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"I just don't see how it's going to help the state to get rid of cockfighting," said Dale Barras, owner of the Atchafalaya club.
The Atchafalaya Game Club — home to the Christmas Derby, the Mardi Gras Cup and other cockfighting tournaments — is an unmarked warehouse in Breaux Bridge, a small Cajun town about 120 miles west of New Orleans.
Hundreds came to the fights on a recent Saturday night, and they were not unlike the typical high school football crowd: teenagers on dates, kids with their parents. They ate burgers and chili dogs and drank sodas and beer.
"We don't make no one come to the fights," Barras said. "And we don't make the chickens fight," he added, echoing the cockfighters' oft-repeated argument that roosters battle instinctively.
The birds are fitted with sharp metal blades or curved spikes on their legs, and tear into each other. Blood soaks the animals' feathers and their handlers' clothing. A match can end in minutes or an hour, when one bird is dead or refuses to fight.
Men tidy up the pit between fights, like groundskeepers on a baseball diamond. One dampens the dirt with a watering can, another rakes up feathers. Gamblers settle their bets, and another fight begins. By the end of the night, a trash can in a back room is full of dead roosters — the losers.
"The bottom line is, we have standards in society on how animals should be treated, and this activity violates those standards," said Wayne Pacelle, head of the Humane Society of the United States. "It's just not morally sensible to stage fights between animals for the purpose of gambling and entertainment."
That argument succeeded in Oklahoma, where voters approved a ban in 2002. A cockfighting ban takes effect in June in New Mexico, the only other state where the blood sport is legal. Gov. Bill Richardson signed the ban earlier this year, with some residents speculating that the Democratic candidate for president turned against the sport for fear of looking as if he comes from a backward state.
In Louisiana, pro-cockfighting politicians have blocked the animal rights movement for years. Some lawmakers say it should be a local matter: Towns and parishes can outlaw cockfighting if they choose.
State Sen. Donald Cravins Jr. said he will oppose a ban. "In my district, cockfighting has been a part of life forever," said Cravins, a Democrat whose largely Cajun area has several pits.
While cockfighting itself is legal in Louisiana, running a cockfighting operation that makes money off gambling is not. And in a measure of how political opinion has turned against the sport, state police have begun raiding cockfighting pits.
A husband and wife were arrested last month. That same night elsewhere in Louisiana, a Texas man was arrested on similar charges.
The governor and House speaker once tacitly approved of cockfighting but have come out against it more recently.
Because of the hurricanes, Louisiana relies on money from Washington to rebuild New Orleans and other areas. State leaders say they believe Congress will not want to send billions to a state where bloody animal fights are legal.
"It's not a positive perception about out state," House Speaker Joe Salter said.
On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers are trying to toughen the penalties for transporting fighting cocks across state lines.
Barras and others said the state should keep cockfighting legal but make money off it by licensing the owners of fighting roosters, or by taking a cut of the winnings in tournaments like the Christmas Derby.
"This idea is like our life jacket, to keep from being drowned," Barras said. "We're trying to find anything to keep us afloat."