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The Popularity of Cockfighting

Raising roosters for fighting goes back at least 6,000 years and, until quite recently, there were places in the United States where it was still legal to hold cock fights. Such blood sports may be illegal but they still occur to satisfy a popular demand for the activity.

Cockfight in the Philippines where the activity is legal.

Cockfight in the Philippines where the activity is legal.

Are Roosters Natural Fighters?

The cockfighting fraternity puts out the story that roosters are natural fighters—that they want to fight. Yes and no.

Today's domestic chickens are descended from Red Jungle Fowl found in southeast Asia. These birds were domesticated about 8,000 years ago. From these, selective breeding has produced hundreds of varieties from the Scots Dumpy to the Rhode Island Red.

Exotic breeds of chickens are far removed from the barnyard hen.

Exotic breeds of chickens are far removed from the barnyard hen.

The males of the wild species have ritual battles over food, territory, and mating. These showdowns involve pecking and attacks with the spurs on their feet and sometimes result in injuries. The males of many other species—lions, monkeys, deer—engage in ritual fighting for the same reasons.

When humans noted this tendency in roosters they started to breed them to enhance aggression. Barry Kent MacKay (United Poultry Concerns) writes that “Male birds who fail to fight simply are not bred. Indeed, they are not allowed to live. Those who 'fight' normally, are also avoided. It is only those who are truly abnormal in the manner in which they attack male competitors that have subsequently been used for breeding.”

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals adds that breeders use vitamins and steroids to make their birds more aggressive. Prior to fights, some of their feathers are plucked and the wattles below the beak are cut off. Razor-sharp knives, called gaffs, are attached to the feet to cause maximum injury to an opponent.

Combats last from just seconds to many minutes and the outcome is usually a dead looser; even the winner might die later from injuries. Apart from the spectacle of blood that excites many spectators there is the attraction of betting. Wagers of several thousand dollars are sometimes placed on fights.

A cockfighting gaff is attached to a rooster's foot.

A cockfighting gaff is attached to a rooster's foot.

Cockfighting in the United States

Fights between roosters happen all over America and a recent event in Alabama was closed down by authorities. This is where we meet the Easterling family that lives in Verbana, an unincorporated community smack in the middle of Alabama.

The family ran a massive game cock breeding operation and held regular fights between birds in an arena that had stadium seating that accommodated up 150 spectators.

WFSA 12 News of Montgomery, Alabama reports that “During the illegal animal fights, participants were charged expensive fees to enter their birds in the derbies—such as $1,500 to fight seven roosters—and were told what weapons to strap to the roosters’ legs, such as short knives, long knives, or spurs, the DOJ (Department of Justice) explained.”

In 2022, seven family members entered guilty pleas of violating the Animal Welfare Act and received sentences of up to 24 months, along with hefty fines. And, the Easterling family is not alone.

In March 2022, federal investigators indicted 17 people in Kentucky for involvement in cockfighting, including, allegedly, sheriff's deputies. Charges involved bribery, illegal gambling, and operating cockfighting pits.

The core of the Easterling family business was not cockfighting so much as breeding birds for the blood sport. On a couple of farms, they raised thousands of animals with fighting pedigrees that they sold. Many of the roosters going to countries where cockfighting is still legal, such as the Philippines and Mexico.

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The Dark Underworld of Cockfighting

U.S. federal authorities say the cockfighting rings attract the attention of organized crime. Alongside the fights go drug dealing, illegal weapons sales, and illegal gambling. The Humane Society says that “Because of the large sums of money involved, cockfight-related assaults, home invasions and even murders are not uncommon.”

What happened in Mexico in March 2022 is a cautionary tale about underworld involvement in the business. People were enjoying cockfights at a venue in Las Tinajas, in Michoacán state, when a group of gunmen burst in and opened fire. Within minutes 20 people were dead, including three Americans. Mexican authorities blamed the attack on criminal gang rivalries.

Nine months later, six people were arrested in the Philippines and charged with involvement in kidnapping others involved in cockfighting. Authorities say at least 27 linked to cockfighting in the country have disappeared and the chances of finding them alive are slim.

Red marks countries where cockfighting is legal and dark blue where it is not. Light blue and magenta indicate some bans. Grey means complex rules apply.

Red marks countries where cockfighting is legal and dark blue where it is not. Light blue and magenta indicate some bans. Grey means complex rules apply.

The World Slasher Cup

The activity (sport?) is immensely popular in the Philippines, which is the home of the annual World Slasher Cup. This is a five-day orgy of flying feathers that features 648 matches in a 20,000-seat arena in Manila.

Writing for Slate, Andrew Lawler notes that the main attraction of the festival of fighting is the betting. In the front row seats bets of up to $10,000 are made, farther back in the bleachers wagers are more modest. The punters favour birds bred in America, where they say the farms have fewer diseases, so the roosters are tougher.

It is, or was, a lucrative business for the likes of the Easterling family in Alabama. Through a quirk in the laws of several states it's not illegal to raise fighting cocks but it is illegal to have them fight. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

The 2022 World Slasher event produced a new champion, TJ Marquez. No, that's not the name of the winning rooster, it's the name of its owner. The report covering the contests in the Philipino Mirror makes no mention of the battle-scared winner, it's all about TJ Marquez who is quoted as saying “This is a dream come true for me. My victory here is really a huge blessing.”

And, that tells you all you need to know about cockfighting; roosters are entirely expendable for the entertainment of people who like to watch blood sports.

The typical end to a cockfight is one victor and one dead bird.

The typical end to a cockfight is one victor and one dead bird.

Bonus Factoids

  • Before steroids were found to be effective in increasing aggression in game cocks it was common for owners of birds to put cayenne pepper in the rooster's anuses.
  • According to the Humane Society, “The razor-sharp steel blades or 'gaffs' (which resemble 3-inch-long, curved ice picks) tied to the birds' legs are so sharp and dangerous that cockfighters themselves have been killed when accidentally slashed by their own birds.”
  • Chickens in a flock establish a social order among themselves by pecking. The more dominant fowl peck harder to establish their ascendancy over the other birds. Hence, the term “pecking order.”

Sources


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2023 Rupert Taylor

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