— a story by Marino Alejandrino
It is around 1:00 pm on a Sunday at the Gallera cockpit. An old Hawayano (retired Filipino Hawaiian) in an embroidered baseball cap that says ‘Disneyland’ and a young man both carry a rooster into the center of a large pit surrounded by a glass wall. This is the ‘umuna nga sultada’ (the first fight of the day). The men briefly bring the birds together, like boxers touching gloves before a bout, and then they step backwards and place them on a clay covered floor. There is a momentary pause, then a flurry of wings as the birds leap high at each other, pecking and kicking with heels bearing long, razor sharp knives. The crowd erupts with a roar, men waving at each other, shouting bets. The birds kick and peck, often becoming entangled so they lie helpless on the clay ground, their blood-spattered chests beating furiously.
This is the Badoc town cockpit and like most towns in the Philippines, this is the usual Sunday afternoon when people from all walks of life gather to this joint to watch cockfighting and gamble. On most weekends between November and June, hundreds of enthusiasts from this everybody-knows-your-name kind of small town and neighboring towns from both Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur - even my relative priest pointed it out - including women and children loved to watch the roosters fight to the death.
On the contrary, in the US, after campaigns by animal rights campaigners, cockfighting has been banned in all 50 states but two, Louisiana and New Mexico and even in the two states where it is legal, cockfighting is a secretive, semi-covert activity whose participants neither seek nor welcome attention from outsiders.
I remember back in 1995 when cockfighting was still legal in the state of Arizona. It was at the Copper State Game Club. This club was in the town of Ehrenberg, Arizona at the Indian Reservation in the Mojave Desert. International cockfighting derbies were held there.
The Indian Reservation seemed like a different country; the US police were not allowed to arrest anyone within. It was quite similar to a foreign embassy of another country like the former Camp John Hay in Baguio. The Americans were not bounded by Philippine laws (not that we strictly followed much of it) within the embassy. Similarly the Indians also had their own government in the reservation, not bounded by US law.
In a way, however, the scenario was quite the opposite of Camp John Hay; a tiny US within the Third-world Philippines. This time it was a small Indian Reservation that resembled a Third-world country within the large US mainland. But this is not what we are talking about right now, so, back to cockfighting tayo.
The Copper State Game Club cockfighting arena had 500 seating capacity much like the Badoc cockpit. It was a certain August Lim, a Filipino/Chinese gamecock breeder from Vallejo that I met at a party in Fremont, who told me about this international derby coming up and gave me instructions of how to get there.
The timing coincided with a company business trip I was being sent to attend in Phoenix that weekend. I had to attend a company meeting on a Thursday and the rest of the weekend would be my own time to do whatever I wanted to do. I flew to Phoenix on a Wednesday afternoon, spent the night in Phoenix, attended the company meeting the next day and drove to Ehrenberg the following day on a Friday afternoon. It took me two hours drive before checking in to the Flying J’s motel in Ehrenberg. The motel was located across the street from the Indian Reservation.
It was an International 12 cock derby of a 3-day event. The parking lot was full of cars and pick-ups so tightly parked there was barely room to squeeze between them. The derby had started when I got to the Game Club at around 6pm. The sunset over the Mojave Desert was beautiful, it was a perfect capture for a picture frame, it was a red but living planet, the desert was like a living Mars.
Inside the arena, a huge, good-time crowd of men of all races in jeans, Hawaiian shirts and camouflage jackets were drinking beer. There were quite a number of Filipino Hawaiians, Mexicans and Whites present but it was the San Diego boys and the LA boys groups (they had shirts that identified them) who dominated the crowd and it was easy for them to get there, all they did was drive a few miles crossing the Colorado River which borders California and Arizona through Interstate Highway 10 and they were there. Elsewhere there were women and young children. There were Filipino eatery stores that served everything from Kaldereta to Adobo to Pancit Bihon. It was amazing, the Whites loved the food; they were eating goat Kaldereta.
Around the arena pit where I sat, I met a certain ‘easy to talk to’ Mr. Johnson; he was over 50 years old, and has been involved in cockfighting since he was eight. His father, who believed Cockfighters were rough uneducated people, had let his son raise the birds but not to fight them. Mr. Johnson often laughed off his father's rules, which got him into trouble but gave him a love of the sport that still remains. His passion for cockfighting is matched by his contempt for those trying to end cockfighting in Arizona. He called them "humaniacs". He said the activists were hypocrites, whose campaigns were nothing more than a front to raise money from old ladies who had nothing to do but sit at home with their dogs.
Mr. Johnson was an interesting guy and at the three-day derby event, I sat close to him as much as I could so I could listen to more of his stories. I found out later that Mr. Johnson was a religious man and regularly invoked God when he defended cockfighting. ‘Opponents believed animals had the same rights as humans, he said, but the Old Testament made clear that man had dominion over animals’. He continued and said, I'm made in God's image and God gave me the love of a game rooster’. ‘Birds were raised and trained for up to a year before they were ready and it's a challenge for me to do it to the best of my ability’, he said.
‘When one of my people goes into the pit with my rooster and puts it down and I hear people say, `Wow!, well that makes me really feel proud, and that rooster has't even fought yet, it was just for the looks, the nice shampooed feathers, you know I use Pert Plus for my birds, he hehe’, he giggled. ’And it's not cruel, those birds fight naturally. You could put two roosters at either end of a football field and they'd run towards each other and fight’, he said.
Mr. Johnson said the culture of Cock-fighters resembled that of Main Street America from 50 years ago. ‘They're more likely to be rural, to be married, more likely to go to church, less likely to be divorced, to be veterans, more likely to be conservative,’ he said. ‘I often think of them like the people in a Norman Rockwell painting. These people often have an instrumental relationship with animals; they still slaughter a pig for pork, they still shoot deer for meat’, he said. (Deer meat was called venison. I learned this word from my other relative priest in Florida — he hunts deer, I recalled).
Mr. Johnson continued and said - ‘Remember, it was only when Walt Disney came along that people started to think that animals were like humans’.
Mr. Johnson denied cockfighting was cruel but for most Americans that I know, they would disagree. And they have a point when they say that it is cruel; it is true that the birds heels were strapped with one of two weapons; a short razor knife up to two inches in length (the Mexican short knife) or a long razor knife up to four inches in length (the Filipino long knife). These are the weapons that inflict the horrendous injuries on the birds and which kill — at least on the evidence of that morning's events — anywhere up to 100 birds dead. The dead birds were thrown unceremoniously into a wheelbarrow close to the exit where the pile of bodies was steadily building.
Few birds fight more than once and it was not difficult to see why. The razor knives penetrate lungs, blind the birds or cripple them or make huge, deep incisions. Many of these wounds can be repaired. In an extraordinary scene away from the pit, a few men in green hospital clothing were performing surgery on wounded roosters using the same surgical instruments you would find in a hospital. It seemed that however badly the birds were hurt, they fought on. Encouraged by their handlers, the crowd and —it must be said — their own instincts, the roosters continued to peck and kick until they were either dead, exhausted or removed. It is the so-called ‘gameness’ of the rooster that enthusiasts seek in breeding them.
In Hawaii and in the Philippines, where the weather is humid, most of us, if not all of us do not feel any concern that this is cruelty to the birds. As a matter of fact, we have more than one thousand cockpit arenas all over the Philippines – all actively in business. Is it because Mr. Johnson was right or is it because the humid weather made us to sweat out all our feelings towards the animals? Remember now, we also ate dogs. If you ask my feelings about it, I have to say that I’m numb. For one thing, I enjoy dining to an ‘eat all you can buffet restaurant’ — all kinds of animals are cooked there.
But before I end my cockfighting story, let me give a piece of advice to those who are married/pamilyado and who are still deeply involved in cockfighting activities. If your wife nags about your cocking activities, better stop and change your hobby. There is no sense in continuing this sport if someone in your family is having an ill will towards your feathered warriors. Sayang lang amigo, the bad vibes will affect your cocks somehow and you’ll end up loosing more and winning less. And since this is a game of chance, where luck plays a big part, you’ll need all the help you can get. Why don’t you start sharing your stories and start writing articles,…ah ha ha,…in some internet website,..ah ha ha,…instead of gambling and make this your New Year’s resolution. Let this New Year bring you a New Life for the better.
Okay my hands are very tired now. Adios, mi gallos de peleas amigos!
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