HARRISON, Ohio -- Bob Hilsercop owns 30 gamecocks, roosters bred for their aggression in cockfighting pits. For Hilsercop, it's just a hobby.
He no longer participates in cockfighting, which is banned in all but two states. But like other members of the Ohio-based United Gamefowl Breeders Association, he has sold many birds to buyers in places such as Guam, where cockfighting is legal.
Now the association, with about 15,000 members in 28 states, is in a battle to retain its tax-exempt status as a federally sanctioned agricultural organization. Animal rights groups opposed to cockfighting are urging the government to revoke that status.
"You cannot separate the breeding from the fighting," said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. "The purpose of raising the birds is to fight them. There is no legitimate agricultural activity occurring."
The Internal Revenue Service says agricultural organizations include groups that cultivate land, harvest crops or aquatic resources, or raise livestock. The agency confirmed it had received the Humane Society's complaint but couldn't say if it was investigating.
Larry Mathews, United Gamefowl's founder and spokesman, said the group doesn't see anything wrong with cockfighting where it's legal.
Besides fighting, he said, the birds can be used for show, sold as brood fowl to foreign breeders, slaughtered and sold as organic poultry or Cornish game hens, or harvested for their feathers.
"We've been audited by the IRS as recently as last year and came through with flying colors. We are what we say we are," said Mathews, of Silverton, Ore.
In a cockfight, two roosters -- sometimes drugged and wearing steel blades on their legs -- are placed in a pit. During a typical tournament, one-third to one-half of the birds are killed. Many suffer broken wings, punctured lungs and gouged eyes.
People who fight their birds argue that the sport is part of a long-standing American tradition. They say the birds don't feel pain during the fight.
"They are trying to come up with a way to justify their activity in the face of massive public opposition," said Karen Davis, head of Virginia-based watchdog group United Poultry Concerns. "Cockfighting is not an agricultural practice. It's a blood sport."
The practice is barred in every state except Louisiana and New Mexico. Voters in Oklahoma banned the activity last year, but the ballot measure is being challenged in court.
United Gamefowl was formed as a tax-exempt group in 1975 while Congress was considering animal-fighting legislation. A law passed that year banned the shipment of gamecocks to states where cockfighting was illegal.
A new law makes it illegal to ship gamecocks anywhere to fight. Shipping birds for breeding is allowed. Still, association leaders have challenged the regulation in a lawsuit that is pending in the U.S. District Court for Western Louisiana.
Pacelle said the lawsuit bolsters the Humane Society's claim that the United Gamefowl is a cockfighting organization.
Still, some gamefowl breeders insist that raising the birds is not related to cockfighting.
"When I was a young man, I was into fighting chickens. Now, I just raise them," said Hilsercop, 72. "I enjoy every moment of it. It keeps me off the couch."
Don Perdue, a past president of United Gamefowl and state legislator from Prichard, W.Va., said he raises a strain of frost gray gamefowl because it was something he and his father did together while he was growing up.
"The real breeders spend far more time just looking at those chickens than they do fighting them," he said.
On the Net:
Humane Society: http://www.hsus.org