Cock-a-Doodle-Die! – Manila, Philippines

Cock-a-Doodle-Die!
Manila, Philippines

Cockfighting often conjures up images of shady men in a secret alley behind a bodega, placing bets over two roosters going at it in a makeshift ring, like on that episode of Seinfeld when Kramer bought a fighting rooster and named it “Little Jerry.”

While these images may be reality in America where the secret “sport” is shunned by animal rights groups and is banned in forty-seven states, cockfighting is no secret in many Latin American and Southeastern Asian countries where it is a popular and profitable public spectacle. In the Philippines, it is a national pastime, a spectacle like America’s baseball, complete with big arenas and shouting fans. Curious about this phenomenon, I went to San Juan Coliseum, a huge “cockpit” in the middle of the bustling capital city of Manila.

Here’s my thought: the poultry industry slaughters over twenty million chickens a day for human consumption. These birds don’t even see it coming; one day they’re strolling around eating cornmeal, the next day they are decapitated, drawn and quartered, and covered in Colonel Sanders’ ten secret herbs and spices (I say ten and not eleven, because there’s no secret that one of them is salt). In cockfighting, at least the birds get a fighting chance for survival before being slaughtered, right?

Well, that was the thought I reiterated in my mind to morally justify watching the senseless, bloody birdbath.

Birds have been publicly beating the crap out of each other since around 2,000 B.C. in India, according to archeological evidence. Over the decades, the popularity spread from the subcontinent to most of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The Phoenicians, Hebrews, Egyptians and other peoples mentioned in the Bible soon adopted the spectator sport. Cockfighting eventually made its way to the Greeks and to the Romans, where even Julius Caesar endorsed the sport, causing it to flourish as the empire did. The phenomenon transcended to England, where Henry VIII held cockfights at Whitehall Palace. And it eventually made its way to colonial America where even founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington enjoyed watching. Men throughout history sure have enjoyed watching roosters kicking each other’s butt.

History was about to repeat itself as I made my way up to the upper tier of the coliseum to observe the action. In a nearby corner, I heard the cock-a-doodle-doo of a rooster coming out of a cardboard box with breathing holes in it. Apparently, someone had brought a rooster he had bred to the coliseum in hopes of a sale.

Breeding roosters for fighting also goes back to Biblical times, when the sport of cockfighting initially started to take shape. Today in the Philippines, raising fighting cocks is an industry, much like the poultry industry (breeders carefully raise fowl the way Jim Perdue would), except instead of packaging birds as Oven Stuffer Roasters, they are sent to military boot camp to train for the one day they will enter the ring.

Two birds entered the ring at San Juan Coliseum as the match was about to begin. The two handlers held them close so that they could peck and taunt each other to get the crowd electrified. The feather-clad gladiators pecked at each other like rival wrestlers, and soon the noise of the crowd rose to the level of a WWE Smackdown episode. They weren’t exactly cheering the way people would for The Rock; they were shouting out bets to the dozen or so bookies that were wandering the aisles.

Betting on cockfights is one of the main reasons why the sport exists. Gambling on the fights started in ancient times when Persian traders started placing money on their birds. Like betting on horses at the track in America, the Filipino men around me were betting on the fighting cocks using a complicated system of hand gestures across the rows, the way traders do at the New York Stock Exchange. The finger motions were all too fast and confusing for me, so I kept my money in my pocket. Besides, I had no idea what to look for in choosing a fighter. I mean, both of the roosters were wearing gaffs on their legs—four-inch long blades used to slice through feathers and flesh—and it seemed like a pretty even fight to me.

After about ten minutes of shouting, the two birds were set loose in the ring. They started pecking at each other and the crowd cheered on. Then all of a sudden, the two birds started pouncing on each other, using their wings to catch some air before coming down for a strike with their sharp gaffs. The action was very fast and at times it looked like a single ball of feathers convulsing on the floor. The birds detached and stood to gain their bearing, feathers all rustled, blood on the ground. One was badly injured and could barely walk, but its handler picked it up and threw it right back into the carnage. The opposing rooster charged and pounced on it repeatedly until it lay motionless on the floor. The handler picked up the injured bird again to throw it back into the action, but it was no use. After months of training, the fighting rooster was dead in less than a minute.

The winning cock was raised triumphantly in the air before getting stitched up for another fight. The loser was given to the winning handler to be consumed—with or without any number of secret herbs and spices. As exploitive a way it was to slaughter a bird for consumption, it was sort of good news to hear that they’d actually be put to food use here; in the Latin American countries they are simply thrown away.

The routine started over again. Two new birds taunted each other, people placed bets to their bookies, and another fight ensued for about a minute. The more and more fights I watched, the more turned off I became, and I left after my third bout. As much as I wanted to revel in a local custom, with my Western politically correct upbringing, it just seemed wrong.

Animal rights activists may try and stop cockfighting, but as long as culture and tradition will be preserved, it will exist and prosper, no matter how bloody or inhumane it may seem. And not even Colonel

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