Cockfighting craze takes wing

Isle (Hawaii), cockfighting persists despite laws against it

In Enclaves of Rural America, a Cockfighting Industry Thrives

Blood sport with chance to win big money attracts many in Philippines

Cockfighting craze takes wing:  The Philippine national betting pastime is going international

By Claro Cortez
Associated Press

MANILA -- As if partners in a ritualized slow dance, each rooster lowers a wing and circles nearer the other, neck feathers flaring. Suddenly, one attacks and the other leaps to meet the challenge.  They exchange kicks in midair, slashing with 4-inch-long, razor-sharp steel blades attached to the back of their left legs.  In a few seconds it's over. One bird lies lifeless; the other struggles, maimed on the dirt floor of the pit. Hundreds of roaring spectators settle their bets.

To many foreigners, Philippine cockfighting is shockingly brutal -- far more bloody than cockfights in other countries, where the birds battle with sharpened natural leg spurs or ice pick-like steel gaffs attached to their legs. Filipino roosters fight only one or two matches because of injuries or death.  Despite this twist, the Filipino national betting pastime is becoming internationalized.

American breeders now supply most of the best fighting roosters, and about 30 American cockfighters regularly fight their birds in the Philippines.  Canadians, Japanese and Taiwanese also occasionally compete, although so far with less success.  In January an American, Carol NeSmith of Fulton, Miss., teamed up with two Filipino breeders to best 65 other entries in the Philippines' leading cockfighting competition, the "World Slasher Derby."

"We feel very lucky to have won," said NeSmith, who has been competing in the Philippines on and off for eight years. "The competition here is so tough."

Many countries outlaw cockfighting, but the allure of the gambling results in illegal bouts being staged around the world, often in rural areas.  Cockfighting is legal in the Philippines, Mexico and parts or all of five U.S. states - Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Matches also can be found in Ireland, Colombia, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico.

While competition is fierce inside the arena, the arrival of foreign bird breeders has ruffled very few feathers among Filipino aficionados. They share cockfighting secrets and even space in their farms for foreigners to raise birds for local tournaments.  "You have to fight the best to be the very best," said Jun Santiago, the defending Philippine cockfighter of the year and husband of Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who narrowly lost the 1992 presidential election. "We welcome all comers."

Some of the foreigners are drawn by the thrill of a blood sport not practiced in their home countries.  Ryoichi Saito, a businessman from Tokyo, came to the Philippines six years ago for a business meeting and was taken to a tournament by his hosts. Since then he has bought 600 roosters in the United States and has returned each year to fight his own birds, which he raises on a farm outside Manila.

For others, the attraction is simply money.  Estimates of the number of roosters fought - and killed - each year in the Philippines range from 7 million to 13 million, making the country a bird seller's dream market.  Although poor Filipinos use cheaper native birds, imported "trios" - a rooster and two hens for breeding - usually go for $1,300. A prize rooster can be worth up to $2,500.

The best way for foreign bird breeders to build a reputation is to win local competitions. For them the prize is not the awards, which are generally small, but steady future orders from Filipino cockfighters.  Fighting cocks are bred for aggressiveness and live a privileged childhood. Instead of ordinary chicken mash, they are fed grains, ground meat, fresh vegetables and milk, often with vitamin supplements.

Rich enthusiasts hire full-time veterinarians, farmhands and trainers to exercise their birds and build their muscles.  Among the sport's many well-known participants are former House Speaker Ramon Mitra, House Majority Leader Rodolfo Albano, the brother of former President Corazon Aquino and many governors and mayors.


Isle cockfighting persists despite laws against it

By Jean Christensen - Honolulu Star-Bulletin

Cockfighting in Hawaii, depending on whom you ask, is: a thriving underworld activity or a rich cultural practice threatened with extinction.

The sport and gambling associated with it remain illegal in the state despite its popularity, dating to early plantation days and, some experts say, ancient Hawaii.

Alton DeGama sees similarities between the missionaries who forced the activity underground a century ago and today's "powers that be" who insist on keeping it illegal. The Maui firefighter has been a cockfighting enthusiast since he was introduced to the sport while growing up on the sugar cane town of Puukoli.

"We are a dying people in the sense of what we do," he said.

"I tell all the young guys, 'I hope you understand you are the new generation.' When it's gone, it's too late."

DeGama served five days in jail in 1989 after he was arrested at a cockfight and convicted of animal cruelty. In the years since, he has written letters to lawmakers urging them to allow the sport, just as they do high-stakes jackpot fishing tournaments and hole-in-one competitions in golf.

"When I bring up golf, all the politicians shake," he said. "They say, 'Don't mention golf.' The small man, the poor man, he cannot go golf."

But to state Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland (D, Palama-Alewa Heights), the entertainment comes at too great an expense for the animals. She introduced legislation this year that would have outlawed the sale, manufacture and possession of gaffs, the razor like blades attached to the roosters' legs that make the till-death battles quick and bloody. The bill died in committee.

"They're putting unnatural things onto the chicken and having them fight with that," she said. "I know there are ethnic values there that in some way we need to be sensitive to, but also, just any kind of situation that involves the pitting of animals against one another for recreational purposes has not settled well with me."  Police on Oahu and the neighbor islands say they'll keep cracking down on the fights, which sometimes draw hundreds to secret rural locations.

A raid in a remote area of South Kohala on the Big Island last month netted five arrests. The fight was attended by more than 200 people from throughout the island, said Capt. Morton Carter, commander of the Criminal Investigations Division.  "It's no longer a friendly little gathering when you have that kind of activity," Carter said. Organized crime clearly has a hand in some of the events, he said.

Sgt. Alan Matsumura of the Honolulu Police Department's gambling detail said police made 23 cockfighting arrests in February and 14 in January. The numbers have stayed relatively steady over the years, he said.  Police monitor known cockfighting sites in Waipahu, Ewa, Ewa Beach, Waianae, Waimanalo, Kahaluu, Aiea and Kalihi, and rely on tips from the public, he said.


In Enclaves of Rural America, a Cockfighting Industry Thrives


Michael Wyke for The New York Times

ELLYVILLE, Okla., June 5 -- In urban America the blood sport of cockfighting survives only furtively, in seedy pits like one that the police raided in the Bronx on Saturday night.  But the game remains far more entrenched in many rural communities like this one, where in a carnival atmosphere on Friday night 200 people gathered at the local cockfighting club to watch roosters tear each other apart and to bet on their fates.

Cockfighting classes, instructional videos and books, newsletters and magazines help fuel a subculture and enterprises across the country.  More than half the 170 pages of the May issue of Gamecock, a 62-year-old monthly magazine that claims 16,000 subscribers, are advertisements intended for cockfighters. Breeders from Connecticut to California offer proven winners for $1,000, untested cocks for $75 to $300, and a dozen eggs of winners' mother hens for $100 to $200.  The magazines also run advertisements for drugs. A drug labeled Strychly Speed is the stimulant strychine, which the ad says "speeds up the bird's reflexes, making him quick on the draw." Another, called Pure Aggression, can "put an end to the fear of shock in those long, hard fights."

Through the advertisements and feed stores, a score of manufacturers sell gaffs and a wide variety of curved, razor-sharp knives, up to three inches long, for mounting on legs. The knives, costing up to $100, tend to kill faster than the cheaper, ice pick-like gaffs, because they rip as well as pierce. Cockfighters maintain that the weapons simply deal a quick death to birds that would die in much longer bouts were they to use their natural spurs.

Cockfighting endures legally in New Mexico, Louisiana and Oklahoma, which is home to more than 40 established back-road pits, and illegally in many other states. While betting is a misdemeanor, it is routine at the pits and ignored by most county sheriffs.  All states allow breeding of the birds, which are then sold to states where fighting is legal or to the Philippines, Guam, Mexico and other countries where the sport is popular or, in states where it is outlawed, are hustled out to the woods and urban back alleys for illicit lethal combat.

From coast to coast, farm-supply companies sell trainloads of vitamin- and nutrient-enriched feed for fighting cocks.  In the last few years, though, cockfighting has become a target of animal protection advocates, who call it barbaric and unambiguously cruel, the only sport since the states banned dog fighting decades ago in which animals are bred solely to kill one another.  Two years ago the Humane Society of the United States helped opponents of cockfighting in Arizona and Missouri win ballot initiatives that outlawed it.

Early this year the Oklahoma Coalition Against Cockfighting, largely with $100,000 in financing from the society, gathered more than 100,000 signatures for a referendum on a proposal to ban the fights and punish violators with fines of up to $25,000 and jail terms of up to 10 years.  And on Capitol Hill, more than 180 House members and more than 40 senators are sponsoring bills to prohibit the interstate shipment of fighting cocks.

But for now, anyway, the bouts continue. Here in Kellyville, some 30 miles southwest of Tulsa, only a sign showing the small silhouette of a rooster marks the turn off Route 66 up a dirt road to the corrugated metal home of the Kellyville Game Club. In the club's glass-enclosed pit, two men step onto the dirt floor from opposite corners.  Each cradles under one arm a fidgeting 2-year-old rooster with alert orange eyes.

These are strikingly majestic birds, one of the Hatch breed, the other a Roundhead, with shimmering manes of orange hackle feathers and arching black tail feathers. But their heads, shorn of wattles and haughty combs, have become bobbing red knobs. Bound like a thorn to the nub of each of their severed spurs is a curved, two-inch-long steel gaff that can puncture heart, brain or lungs with the thrust of a heel.  The birds are two of the 156, paired by weapons and weight, that will fight at the regular Friday night derby starting at 10 o'clock.

Admission, restricted to members of the breeders' association and their families, costs $11. The 39 men who have each entered the required number of four birds pay participation fees of up to $75. The fees go into the purse, which is sometimes as much as $5,000, that will go to the owners of the four winning birds.

In the pit now, the two men -- one in a red baseball cap, the other wearing a gray T-shirt -- begin the precombat ritual of thrusting their birds back and forth, beak to beak. The betting starts. "Ten on the red hat," shouts one of 200 viewers in the six tiers of seats surrounding the pit. "Twenty on the gray shirt," shouts another.  The referee shouts, "Ready, pit!" The birds explode from their handlers' grasps and collide breast to breast, a foot off the ground. Beak grabbing beak, hackles flaring like porcupine quills, they bounce apart and then collide, again and again.

The Hatch takes command. The Roundhead rolls over, then revives. He pounds the Hatch with a foot, spearing a lung. The Hatch fades, hunkering down and refusing to budge. As he coughs up drops of blood, his breathing sounds like footsteps on gravel. The Roundhead, fatigued but intact, wins. The Hatch is carried off, most likely to die.

No one knows the full dimensions of this business. Sandy C. Johnson, an Ohio breeder who is director of administration for the United Game fowl Breeders Association, with affiliates in 33 states, declined to disclose any specific figures but said cockfighting generated hundreds of millions of dollars a year in sales of birds, medicines, feed, and breeding and fighting gear.  Alabama, Ms. Johnson said, is probably the biggest producer, just ahead of Texas.  "We estimate that Alabama has 11,545 farms" that raise fighting cocks, she said.

And Mark Urbanowsky, president of Blue Bonnet Feeds in Ardmore, Okla., said he and his competitors sold fighting-cock feed worth $25 million to $30 million a year to stores in Oklahoma alone.

Among the industry's customers is Jeffrey Pearce, who has a fighting-cock farm on the outskirts of Sallisaw, Okla. Mr. Pearce moved to Oklahoma eight years ago from Oregon, where he and his father were breeders; his father-in-law is a prominent breeder in Texas.  Mr. Pearce raises Hatches, known for power, and Blacks, known for speed, and also crosses them. He has all but sold out this year's production of 200 2-year-olds, for $150 to $175 each, largely to the Philippines and Guam.

Starting at puberty, at 6 to 8 months old, Mr. Pearce said, each male bird (called a stag until its first molt, at the age of 2 years) is dispatched to its own two-sided, four-foot-tall metal A-frame hut. There it is tethered by a nine-foot cord, to keep it off the turf of neighboring males and so prevent injury from fighting.  Across Mr. Pearce's closely groomed field of huts, 200 stags strutted and crowed the other day, pecking at the grass and their feed.

Unlike inexpert breeders, Mr. Pearce said, he does not drug the birds to instill greater aggressiveness. Rather, he said, good care produces the toughest, healthiest fighters.  "We don't make them fight," he said. "Their sole purpose in life is to fight."  
Larry Oliver, lawyer for the 7,000-member Oklahoma Game fowl Breeders Association, said of the birds, "They just don't like each other." George R. Day, who raises 100 cocks on a 250-acre property near Mr. Pearce's, said the opponents of cockfighting did not understand the sport's meaning in many rural areas.

"You have people who have never lived a rural lifestyle trying to impress their values on us," Mr. Day said. "It doesn't mean they're right. It just means there are more of them."

To the Humane Society and the state's anti-cockfighting coalition, the sport is beyond justification, unlike killing for food. "We have this as a top priority," Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the society, said of opposition to the sport.

With their game and their livelihood under attack, members of the Oklahoma breeders' association are engaged in legal challenges against the coalition's referendum, trying to stall it for at least a year beyond this November and gain enough time to kill it through lobbying.  The coalition could succeed: opposition to cockfighting has become politically dicey. Cockfighters contribute to political campaigns, and, like most Oklahoma officeholders, Gov. Frank Keating, a Republican, has been staying out of the dispute.

"He really has not taken a position," said John Cox, a spokesman for Mr. Keating.  "I don't think he sees a lot of merit in cockfighting, but there are a lot of business interests in the state that have to be adhered to a little bit."

Blood sport with chance to win big money attracts many in Philippines

February 4, 2000
Web posted at: 11:33 a.m. HKT (0333 GMT)

CockfightingMANILA, Philippines -- Since cockfighting was first introduced in the 16th century by Spanish colonizers, it has become one of the most popular spectator sports in the Philippines.

And with the possibility of thousands of dollars changing hands during each fight, it's hard to tell which is the bigger attraction -- the thrill of combat or lure of gambling.

Before each bout, a sharp 3-inch blade is attached to the gamecocks, which are specially bred for ferocity and territorial instincts, making the fight even more deadly. After all the bets are placed, the gamecocks enter the pentagon-shaped arena where a referee awaits them. Each fight is usually over in a matter of minutes.

Those who regularly take part say given the nature of the sport, it's very much a male-only preserve. They also say cockfighting is the best vice one could ever have.

"Other vices you suffer, but with this vice... you can actually win. With other vices, you don't win at all. This vice is a sure win," says Henry Centeno, a bookie. "Here you can bring home cash, unlike other vices where you end up with nothing at all, like drugs, wine and women."

Cockfighting's popularity has gone from the legal cockpit arena out to the streets where it's still considered illegal. But there are still restrictions says lawmaker and gamecock breeder Ramon Revilla.

"Those who live far from the cockpit, they just gather in a corner of a street somewhere to cockfight. But that's illegal and the police usually arrest those who do this. But for me, they should not be arrested and should be left alone, and be given their entertainment and to satisfy their love for the sport," Revilla said.

Animal lovers have long been fighting to put a stop to the sport, saying it's brutal and cruel. But sociologists say fans are drawn to it nonetheless.

"It's exciting to watch. Second, it's a form of... it's a gambling activity. People get money out of it. And so, in many provinces, particularly if there are no other jobs, one way to get money is through cockfighting," says local Professor of Sociology Dr. Ricardo Abad. "It's a game of chance, and many Filipinos believe in chance, believe in luck, believe in getting money just like that, believing in miracles, it's a romantic notion of life."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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