We’re going to begin this with an immediate and overly simplistic defensive maneuver:
I love animals.
You’d be hard-pressed to find an omnivore more strongly empathetic than I to the plights of those who live under human domination (which, if you count the unintentional consequences of our consumerism and its effects on habitats we haven’t even tried to subdue, includes every creature on Earth).
I won’t go so far as to say that I adore chickens specifically, because they are assholes, but I am excruciatingly concerned that they suffer as little as possible on the path to our plates. Having recently participated in the slaughter and processing of 100 farm foul, one of which I eagerly ate, I stand in an unexpectedly well-informed position from whence to witness the sort of event that is Cock Fighting.
Next to basketball, Cock Fighting is the unofficial national sport of The Philippines. Filipinos flock to gambling opportunities like alcoholics to booze; it is in the national blood that an event is more fun if you can lose your shirt over it, be it cards, ball, or two angry chickens with knives strapped to their legs.
So it doesn’t take an expert to spot the effect – cocks are everywhere. They dot the countryside, nestled alongside water buffalo by farm houses, they speckle village yards, each assigned a personal roof, food dish, and tether, and they clutter city sidewalks, defiantly proud within their laundry basket cages. Where dogs are treated as little more than barking guards, given scant food scraps, but mostly ignored and left to their scabs and fleas, cocks enjoy beloved pet status, are cradled and caressed often, and consume carefully calculated fighting chicken nutrition.
The ease and calm with which they are handled is astounding to one used to farm chickens and their general aversion to human contact. So, despite our remaining misgivings concerning animal cruelty within the cock ring, we chose not to ignore this culturally significant activity.
In Lipa City, where our hosts own a mango farm, we ventured forth one Saturday with their farm manager and our host’s elder brother to the local ring. Behind food stalls reeking of animal flesh and across a dusty parking lot slowly filling with jeepneys and tricycles we found the arena, an open-air, tiered boxing ring of sorts and its hefty entrance fee of 400 Pesos each (roughly $10 USD).
Hardly willing to afford this price on a questionable activity for ourselves and certainly not with the added farm hands as our cultural guides, we were all set to abandon the idea in the same manner with which we’ll miss posh resorts and sky diving, but then our guides got to work. Oh, ladies are free? That’s a start.
One possibility for the guys to gain free entrance was to “rent” a chicken. If the bird lost, it would also cost us a bet and the rental fee of 1500 but, if it won . . . ! (This particular chicken did win, so we could have made 30 bucks, but it was later explained that some owners rent out chickens for fights in which the cock is ill-matched and get a cut of the winnings from the opponent).
On the cusp of giving up to go hang out with our farm’s flee-ridden dogs, our savior appeared at last. He arrived in the form of a white-shoed Filippino in possession of all 28 teeth (two clear indicators of wealth and status) who invited us in as his personal guests to spectate from the manager’s box. Just retired as a commander from the American Navy, this fine sir understood that there is such a thing as a poor white person. Renee was enthused to share some homeland culture with citizens of his adopted one.
We had arrived quite early in the day and, while our entrance strategy developed, got to witness the steady procession of chickens arriving via motorcycle, jeepney, and farm truck, each tucked under an arm or stuffing into a cardboard cat-carrying box with tail feathers jutting rakishly out of the lid.
The ground level encompassing the stadium becomes a cauldron of cackling, posturing fowl as their owners erect foldable pens and set to meeting and greeting the competing roosters to find suitable pairings.
One of the paired birds is considered the “top dog” and assigned status as the Meron (meaning “hat”; the manager of this bird would traditionally wear a cap for denotation in the ring), and the cock more likely to lose is the Walla (“without” a hat). How one determines status is based purely on the size of its owners bet – bigger is better. The enormity of the bet is partly a result of personal finances, but also the owner’s confidence of his bird to win, confidence based on a mixture of physiology of the specimen (long legs are good, but a young chicken still molting will be expending too much energy on feathers instead of fighting), aggressiveness (they are incited to fight by being allowed a peck at each other’s rumps), and an unspoken voodoo sense. As best we can calculate by our own pocket change bets against each other, the House odds given for the top bird to win, 2 to 3, are spot on.
After playmates have been established, the fighters gear-up. The routine is familiar because they practice often to develop those killer physiques and tolerance for bright lights and loud noise.
This time, instead of having their spurs merely wrapped to prevent battle wounds or capped with a dull sparring blade, a single spur (usually the left) is wrapped and then capped with a gleaming knife, sharpened just moments before. What appears thru the window as solemn, nearly silent work quickly dissolves into jestful banter as the men spot the white female face peering in at this ritual (a bit of a rarity for these blokes) and they cheerfully invite me in to witness the preparations, proudly mugging the camera while they cradle their cocks.
At last the arena.
Without our host, everything would appear as utter chaos with all of the hollering and gesturing and throwing of money. The birds enter the ring in arm and are allowed some aggression-inducing rump pecks and to charge each other while tails are held firmly by the owners. Using a dusty sound system that translates the Tagalog language into mottled noise, the wager between competitors is announced and the crowd is invited to even out the bet inequality. To inspire this “Parada” bet, the MC of the event waxes poetic about the underdog Walla, highlighting the cock’s fine physique and the quality of the farm on which it was raised. If not enough funds can be garnered, the managers (like Renee) make up the difference (but they offset their losses by placing side bets on the topdog Meron).
The competitors’ bet having been established (it can run $10 to hundreds of thousands), spectators are then free to bet with each other. They use that same, aforementioned voodoo to determine their champion bird for each of the 80 fights although, having seen these birds interacting for only a few moments, it’s mostly gut instinct they’re going on, and inspiration from the size of the owners’ bets.
The air cracks with the shouts of “Meron, Meron!” or “WalaWalaWala!” Odds are adjusted on the fly, betting partners are established, and wagers are agreed upon. “Tres, tres!” they holler with three fingers jutting the air, but whether it’s a 300 or 3000 Peso wager, or 3/2 odds they’ve requested, is an unspoken understanding.
Knives are uncapped, an antiseptic is applied, and finally the cocks are released, causing a hush to wallop the stadium. Once their feet hit the ground the fowl stagger like drunkards for the few steps it takes to adjust to the presence of their sharp new appendage (not infrequently they slice their own ankle).
Perhaps the birds have been incited enough and they make straight for each other, or they may feign indifference for a time while plotting their surprise attacks. Extended peace is never an option though; these boys will not tolerate an insult, and no fight we witnessed ever crossed the three minute mark.
The moment the birds make their move, it is a flurry of feathers and wings and knives until one of them is down or a knife is entangled in flesh (the audience shares an audible cringe for these). In what seems atypical chicken fashion, these birds are not vindictive. Once dominance has been established and one bird is down, the attack ceases. The ref (respectfully referred to as “Christ,” because his word is final) will grab each bird by the scruff (held decisively at arm’s length) and test the functionality of the downed bird. If it stands and reasserts its aggression, he tosses them both back to continue the brawl. If the vanquished cannot stand, then its end is nigh and we have a clear victor.
The defeated, whether partially alive or not quite so, departs the stage in a bucket, the winner in its manager’s arms. Money is tossed cross-stadium between betting parties, feathers are swept up, and the cycle begins anew.
But here is where I found the greatest surprise. If you follow that bucket out of the arena, it goes straight to the butcher, and that bird is most decidedly dead by now. The knife leg is severed at the knee, and the knife returns to service while the chicken proceeds in typical rustic fashion toward a dinner plate. It takes perhaps a moment longer to die in this style than having your head “humanely” sliced off, and involves roughly the same scale of violence.
But the chicken met his end engaged in familiar and instinctual activity and was surprised only that he happen to bleed to death this time. For a human to kill a farm bird, first it must be unwilling caught, unwillingly stuffed into a cone, and then there follows a gruesome amount of convulsing and thrashing when its head is parted from its body. My first surprise was that this fight seemed a more noble and natural end.
If you follow the victor, however, you will see my second surprise: the winner has it the worst. The valiant will live on to enjoy a courtship with a lovely lady and make more (valuable) chickens. But, in order to do so, he must live.
Follow the victor out of the arena and he proceeds directly to the chicken hospital. There is no anesthesia, only a blanket over his head to invite him to sleep. When wounds are found, the surrounding feathers are plucked, and the slash may be cut open further to facilitate inspection of organs and removal of clotted blood.
Once again invited inside the room to witness chicken rituals, I could peer into some gashes and look straight at the thigh meat as the surgeon reached his hands and paper towels inside. Only briefly did the operation elicit a thrashing response from the patient. Once all clean, stitches are applied and the hunt for other wounds continues. By surgery’s end, these birds are half naked and look like hell. If there is brutality in the sport, it is right here.
When enquired what fate might befall a losing bird who happens to survive, and if he would pass through this gruesome hospital, the answer is succinct: why would you patch up a loser? The bird has no future in fighting and nobody would want its offspring. The best fate for him is straight to the dinner plate. Survival of the fittest is a bitch.
The vanquished cock becomes property of the winner, and is savored as glory appetizers. Does our manager friend, Renee, unexpected owner of 200-some cocks, feast on the flesh of his foe? Nope – he knows what sorts of antibiotics and growth hormones lurk inside. But his trainer sure enjoys the meal.
On a tour of his retirement “farm”, Renee further explains the intricacies of the sport, including pressures from the all-powerful Church, accounting tricks to make the business actually profitable, illegal fighting rings (in which he half-heartedly participates), and what happens behind closed doors for the winning fighters.
Turns out only half of the victors live long enough to propagate their species. Often Renee will take pity on his patched-up champion and donate it to the neighbor’s dinner plate. With an air of respectful disdain, he explains that tradition bestows bad luck if you kill and eat your own champ, so there’s a “martyr’s graveyard” out back. Those who live have a lovely day with a lady and go on to fight another day. They may even live long enough to retire.
My personal jury is still out on the humanity of this event. Without doubt it is a far better end than for unwanted male chicks to be discarded factory-farm style into bins where they slowly suffocate under the weight of their brethren. It certainly is preferable to the demise of a “beaten” chicken in Banaue, where a bird is literally bludgeoned to death to elicit blood clotting (aside from being horrifying, the result has the unfortunate texture of rubber). For the average loser, this may even trump the most humane death we could manage for those Vermont farm chickens.
As long as we kill animals for food, they must suffer in the end. It would be preferable to ask the birds what demise they might prefer, but they’re too busy being assholes to care.