Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Cockfighting—a blood sport in which at least two roosters are placed in a ring and forced to fight to the death for the “amusement” of onlookers—is illegal throughout the United States. As the Orlando Sentinel commented, “Cockfighting is a cruel sport that has gone on far too long.” (1)
Forced to Fight or Die
In their natural environments, birds fight over mates, food, or territory and to establish their dominance or position in a flock’s pecking order. According to Paul Siegel, a Virginia Tech expert in fowl genetics and behavior, birds rarely fight to the death because the weaker bird generally flees. “If there’s a way to escape,” Siegel said, “they’ll just get the heck out.” In cockfights, Siegel says, roosters continue fighting because they cannot escape.(2)
There is nothing natural about the manner in which birds who are destined for the ring live or die. “Battle stags” (roosters under the age of 2) and “battle cocks” (roosters 2 years of age and older) are born, raised, and trained to fight on properties known as “game farms.”(3) Breeders (also called “cockers”) kill the birds they deem inferior so that their flocks will have genetic lines filled with birds who are “game,” i.e., willing to fight.(4)
Many of these birds spend most of their lives tethered by one leg near whatever object is intended to serve as their shelter, such as an overturned plastic barrel or a small wire cage placed directly on the ground. When they’re not chained or in the ring, the birds are conditioned to fight through a combination of physical work, including being forced to walk with weights attached to their legs, and “practice fights” with other roosters.
Before they are thrown into the ring, many birds have their feathers plucked out, and their wattles and/or combs (the flesh at the top of the head and under the beak) are hacked off, usually with shears. These mutilations are performed as an offensive measure—in other words, so other roosters don’t do it in the fighting ring. Because roosters do not have sweat glands, the loss of these body parts deprives them of the ability to cool themselves. Some cockers cut off the birds’ spurs, which are the natural boney protrusions on the legs that serve as roosters’ natural weapons, so that more deadly weapons can be strapped to their legs.
What Happens at Cockfights
Many cockfights are held in round or square enclosures known as “cockpits,” or simply, “pits.” Once birds have been paired according to their weights and weapons, their owners and spectators place bets on which bird will win each fight.
A bell, whistle, or the signal of a referee marks the start of the fight. At that time, the handlers “pit” the birds, placing them on the pit’s floor to fight. According to one eyewitness, “With neck feathers fanned and wings whirring, the birds jump and parry at each other. They kick and duel in mid-air, striking at each other with feet and beak.”(5) Blood stains the pit’s floor. If the fighting fades, handlers pick the birds up and blow on their backs, yank at their beaks, or hold them beak-to-beak in an attempt to “reignite the frenzy.”(6,7) The birds are then re-pitted. According to one official, one rooster must be killed or nearly killed for the fight to end, because the alternative is to “have one of the cockers pick up his rooster and give up the fight, but nobody wants to do that ’cause then you’re saying, ‘Hey, I’m a loser, I don’t train good birds.’ They would rather have them die in the pit than pick them up.”(8)
“Losing” birds often end up discarded in a barrel or trash can near the game pit. One visitor to a cockfight found a trash can where “two fighters had been discarded. The rooster on the bottom was dead. The one on top of him had a huge chest wound. He was still alive, but barely.”(9) Even birds who “win” cockfights are frequently disfigured.
Roosters who are rescued from game farms or cockfights are typically euthanized because, as one official explained, “[T]he only thing they’ve been trained to do is fight other roosters … euthanasia means a humane death—it’s not the barbaric, brutal activity inside the pit that they’re being raised for.”(10)
The Tip of a Criminal Iceberg
Cockfighting usually involves other crimes in addition to cruelty to animals. Gambling—frequently illegal and involving large sums of money—is found at many cockfights, as are firearms and other weapons that are sometimes used in violent, interpersonal crimes, including murder, as seen in a triple homicide that occurred at a Northern California cockfight.(11)
Illegal drugs are also commonly found at cockfights, and criminal investigators have happened upon roosters and fighting pits while searching for other illicit materials. In one instance, officers raiding a California marijuana farm allegedly found more than 150 roosters and cockfighting paraphernalia “amid the 4,000 pot plants they expected to find ….”(12)
Young children are often present at cockfights; exposure to such violence can promote insensitivity to animal suffering and an enthusiasm for bloodshed.
The chance of a bird flu pandemic is only increased by the presence of cockfighting, which has been tied to at least eight cases of the disease.(13) Bird owners regularly come into contact with the birds’ blood during the fights. The Washington Post reported that at one cockfight, “[bird] owners scrubbed the blood off their birds with bare hands … then … stitched the wounds around their eyes,” and “sometimes … the injuries are so severe that owners relieve the swelling by sucking out the blood by mouth.” The paper warned that “the intimacy of the owners and trainers with their birds also poses a profound danger.”(14)
Illegally transported birds have already caused an outbreak of disease in the United States. For example, the smuggling of roosters into the country for cockfighting was responsible for a 2002 Exotic Newcastle disease epidemic in California.(15) Even the National Chicken Council lent support to federal legislation designed to crack down on cockfighting in light of the “continuing hazard for the dissemination of animal diseases” associated with the trafficking of animals for use in this cruel activity.(16)
What You Can Do
Many states have made cockfighting a felony. Even attending a cockfight is illegal in most states, as is possessing roosters for the purpose of fighting. In 2002, President George W. Bush signed legislation that made the transport of roosters across state lines to engage in fights a federal crime.(17) Albuquerque, New Mexico, Mayor Martin Chavez has said, “The idea of putting razor blades on the feet of these birds and allowing them to tear each other up is obscene.”(18) His state banned cockfighting in 2007, and a ban in Louisiana took effect in August 2008.(19)
If you suspect that this illegal activity is happening in your neighborhood, contact local law enforcement authorities.