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Archives: Volume 2 - April 2001
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Cock Fighting - 5,000 Years of Mean Chickens

"...Alexander the Great would stage cock fights the night before battle to rile up his troops..."

Catherine Krantz

Cock fighting is possibly the world's oldest spectator sport. There is some speculation about its exact origins and age, from as old as 6,000 years to as new as 1,000 years old, cock fighting has been around for awhile. 

Reportedly first begun in Persia over 5,000 years ago the practice quickly spread to India and Asia. One of the first known fighting grounds for game fowl was along the Sindhu River in India 4,500 years ago. In Thailand at the famous ruins of Angkor Wat there is a stone carving of a cock fight held over one thousand years ago. Proving beyond a shadow of a doubt, we've been killing chickens for a long time.

Roosters have been bred specifically to fight for human amusement since the red jungle fowl was domesticated 3,000 years ago in Southeast Asia. The activity quickly spread across Asia, became established in Greece and Rome, and moved through Europe, then into the Americas where it is still extremely popular to this day. It is said, Alexander the Great would stage cock fights the night before battle to rile up his troops with images of courage and valor. Cock fighting was the national sport of England until it was outlawed in1850. In America, founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson, all raised and fought birds. It was controversial even at the time and from the early 1800's onward has been steadily outlawed in almost all states. 

At present, cock fighting is only legal in America in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and parts of New Mexico but the export of chickens has become a huge industry. American commercial game fowl breeding operations export to the main cock fighting regions of the Philippines, Mexico, and Hawaii and with prices in excess of $1,000 US per bird, it is a substantial industry. Cock fighters and breeders in America have incredibly strong lobbyists groups that have been fending off animal rights legislation for years. And commercial poultry breeders are increasingly interested in game fowl for their ability to restore strength and virility to other breeds.

Personal opinions of blood sports aside, some contend that, given the cramped quarters, debeaking, growth hormones, and production-line slaughter that are part of the commercial poultry industry, game chickens have the better life and that opposition by anyone who eats meat is hypocritical. They are housed in their own separate pens, you have probably seen these chicken farms along the highways of Mexico (and the southern US), they are the wide stretches of land dotted with small fenced in tee-pee like sheet metal enclosures, one per chicken. They have their own patch of grass and because of their value are usually pampered, fed and treated quite well. That is, until they are killed. But as one Kentucky cock breeder so rightly said, "Chickens dying is part of cock fighting just like chickens dying is part of me getting a chicken on my table for supper." And well, there's money to be made. In Mexico where cock fighting is a legal long standing tradition, there are no similar animal rights controversies. Here it is a dignified sport highlighting tough proud animals that are bred for strength and endurance. 

With or without controversy, roosters do fight. You don't need handlers or pits or bets to get them started, you just need two roosters. They fight for turf and dominance, they do it naturally in chicken coops and country front yards across the globe with a good amount of blood and death. This is one of the main reasons roosters are kept separate from one another, in with the hens. Competitive fighting roosters fight to the death in human organized cock-fighting matches. In fact, the whole exhibition is based upon game cocks not giving up ... fighting to the death. Fights are decided by one rooster dying, or through a system of counts when a rooster can't fight back as determined by the referee. For this reason, cock fighters breed their roosters for traits that will give them an advantage in the pit -- size, speed, power, disposition and smartness. In a cock fight, each rooster wears either a needle sharp gaff or razor sharp knives, which are tied by string or strapped onto the birds' legs. Cock fighting enthusiasts say these weapons make a quicker and much more humane fight than letting the roosters fight with their natural spurs. 

Unlike the clandestine cock fights most commonly found in the US, in Mexico cock fights are held at carnivals and state fairs across the country. The bigger matches are quite organized and held in large arenas and have a very serious atmosphere where serious amounts of money changes hands. There is a fighting pit that is painted red on one side, green on the other and usually has a dirt or saw dust floor. The birds are brought before the judge to be weighed and examined to determine the odds, then betting tickets are sold based on the odds. As in most betting sports, animal or otherwise, betting on the underdog brings a much higher return, sometimes double what you'd win if you went with the favored bird. The judges get 10 percent of the ticket price sold and sometimes tips from the winners who bought the ticket from them. Minimum bets are usually around $100 pesos per match with the judge and much higher bets being placed among individuals in the back. I wouldn't suggest getting into any back room bets with the fighters or breeders, it goes without saying they probably know more than you and in the home court advantage, where high emotion and alcohol runs freely the stranger can't really afford to lose... or win for that matter. 

The handlers introduce the birds by tossing them at one another in a mock attack, letting them get in a peck or two, to get them agitated. This gives the audience an idea of who to bet for, bets are placed, then the fight begins. The covers are removed from their spikes, the spikes are cleaned with lime, to make sure they don't have poison on them, and then the roosters are set down in the dirt and let go. There are a series of rounds, like boxing but much shorter in duration, where the roosters are disengaged and checked for fatal wounds. Between rounds, the handlers stroke the birds and blow on the back of their necks to warm them and murmur words of encouragement, and then rip out a feather or two to make them mad and toss them back in. Its bloody and disturbing or exciting and riveting depending on how you look at it, but either way it only lasts about a minute or two, then its on to the next bird. 

For North Americans, cock fighting is a little hard to understand, it has been stigmatized in our culture for so long. In Mexico it is pretty common much like weekend baseball games or picnics and families do bring their children, although the audience is largely male. A certain seedy atmosphere does seem to prevail, but whether that is indicative of the sport or merely ones preconceived notions walking into the arena, it's hard to say. Whatever your feelings on the matter, cock fighting is one of the world's oldest spectator sports and is actively pursued here in Mexico on at least a weekly basis and there doesn't seem to be any interest in stopping it. It's an age old tradition with many serious enthusiasts and professionals, but if its all animal cruelty to you, you might not want to go, cause they definitely don't want to hear about chicken's rights here. For an introduction to cock fights pick a large organized event where you can blend into the crowd (as much as possible) and you don't have to bet or understand it, to soak it in. Or if like me, you prefer the archeological studies over the live action, at least now you might understand why you occasionally see grown men on the bus or walking about town cradling a brightly colored chicken like it's his first born.

April 2001

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