Warning: the following is an eyewitness account of a cockfighting event. While not overtly graphic, some readers may be disturbed by the descriptions herein.
While traveling around the developing world, I’ve often been around roosters.
Mexico, Guatemala, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia; just some of the places where crowing roosters have been a fact of daily (and nightly) life.
But in the Philippines, I’ve come to a stark realization about roosters: where there are lots of roosters, there is cockfighting.
Like most people, I’ve long been aware of cockfighting. That it exists. That it is an age-old practice. A pastime? A sport? A problem? But as a person born in the late 20th century in suburban America, I had no direct exposure to cockfights.
That changed this past weekend near Dumaguete, Negros Oriental, Philippines. For the first time in my life, I attended and witnessed and photographed a cockfighting event.
I was hardly alone. By my estimation, about 700 people were packed inside the arena (cockpit). Probably over 95 percent were men. But I did see a few women and even children, too.
I had noticed the hundreds of motor scooters parked outside this cockpit and others on previous Sundays. You can sometimes hear shouting, chanting, cheering when you pass by one of these venues. Without a doubt, cockfights are a well-established Sunday tradition throughout the Philippines.
Of course, as long-term visitors to this country, we’ve tried to experience the culture and customs of the native people – as we do in every nation we visit. So attending the cockfight was a kind of cultural exploration — and a way to satisfy my curiosity.
A cockfighting event
It was around 3:00 p.m. when I parked my rented scooter among the huge mass of motor bikes outside and made my way into the New Valencia cockpit.
Admission is 50 pesos ($1). The building is a big, grey, cement structure that appears unfinished. Rusty rebar juts from the walls and floor. The place had the size and feel of a decrepit high school gymnasium.
The fighting area looks a lot like a boxing ring. It is a plexiglass enclosed square with a dirt floor, raised up in the center of steeply tiered seating. There are doors in two corners that allow the rooster handlers to enter and exit the ring with their birds.
An announcer, referee, some kind of statistician, and a ‘clean up guy’ exist in the corners of the ring, too.
Bets on fights
In a cordoned off area near the snack bar, just outside the main arena, bird owners were continuously comparing cocks and negotiating, apparently looking for a willing – and beatable – opponent. I assume they made some personal wager, or perhaps paid an ‘entry fee’ that the winner would collect.
As for the fights: brief, confusing, and anticlimactic.
First, I quickly realized that the shouting one can sometimes hear outside is not cheering for the fighting. It’s the rabble of gamblers that takes place before each match. Indeed, individual wagering seemed to be the main attraction to many in the crowd.
Hundreds of guys stand and scan the people around them, yelling, flailing their arms, gesturing with hands and fingers, in an attempt to secure a suitable opposition bettor for the coming fight.
A new fight begins about every five to six minutes. When the match ends, Philippine peso bills are passed from loser to winner. Most wagers I witnessed seemed to be for 100 pesos ($2).
The cockfights themselves are brief. Rarely did a match last more than a minute. There is a digital timer on the wall which counts down from 10 minutes. Beneath it a sign says, “Referees (sic) decision final.”
During each fight the crowd is surprisingly quiet. There is hardly a murmur each time the two combating chickens attack each other. A couple times, I myself made one of the louder audible reactions: “Whoooaaa!” Usually when a big bunch of feathers would fly into the air.
The feathers sometimes fly amidst the flapping of wings and leaping and wrestling that take place during the bursts of battle. The birds each have a shiny silver blade attached to one of their legs. They stab or cut their opponent during the flurry of these attacks. They also looked to get tired very quickly.
Winners and losers
Quite honestly, I usually couldn’t tell which chicken was which. Both the combating cocks were mostly black colored and easily mistaken in the frenzy of the feathers and dust. Sometimes a bird would try to run away from the fight and have to be chased down by the ref who would then hold both birds and force them together again.
Of course, the owners are just a few feet away, in the ring, and collect their bird – win or lose – after each battle. Betting on an owner seemed a more sure way to know what happened in a given match.
The referee would usually pick up the winning cock and hand it back to the winning owner who would remove the leg blade and walk off with his bird under his arm.
The losing bird usually lay in a heap until its owner walked over and scooped it up. The disabled or dead birds were put into a kind of handbag made of woven palm fronds and carried away. I saw lots of palm frond bags both within and outside the cockpit.
After each match there would be a few minutes delay for record keeping while two new birds were brought into the ring and introduced to the crowd – and the opponent. The clean-up guy would sweep up any loose feathers and smooth out the dirt. And the crowd would again start the pre-fight wager commotion. A few minutes later, another fight would take place.
In all, I spent about 45 minutes inside the cockpit. I probably saw five or six different fights. None of them seemed especially savage or cruel. I didn’t notice any blood. No chicken seemed to be in ongoing agony.
Although, if one of the birds is dead or dying in the dirt – there has certainly been some degree of cruelty and suffering. Cockfight proponents say the dead birds are taken home and used in cooking.
I have had the opportunity to see cockfights before. In some of the other countries mentioned above, I could have sought out this kind of entertainment. But although it occurs, most places around the globe, cockfighting is technically illegal. I’ve never felt comfortable or welcome enough as an ‘outsider’ to try to attend.
No problem in the Philippines. I was welcome – more accurately, my presence was unnoticed — even with a camera.
Further, not only is cockfighting legal, it seems to be a fairly large aspect of Philippine life. Roosters are everywhere – even in cities. But especially in poorer and rural areas. Sometimes 20 to 30 cocks will fill a small piece of property – each one with a tin hut for shelter and a four -foot ankle ‘leash’.
I probably will not attend any more cockfights in the Philippines or anywhere else. It was an interesting experience but I wouldn’t call it enjoyable or pleasant. It’s not part of MY culture.
And while I’m not an animal rights activist – I’m certainly not in favor of harmful or abusive animal treatment either. Indeed, I’m glad the cockfighting I witnessed was not a more grisly spectacle.
Finally, on the morality of cockfighting in the Philippines and elsewhere, I repeat my statements first made in a earlier blog post regarding elephant tourism in Thailand.
I wrote: “It is truly hypocritical for foreigners to find fault with these practices when things like horse and dog racing, rodeos, bull fights, dressage, hunting, trapping, puppy mills, and factory farms flourish in western countries. I don’t want to get into comparing human cruelties. But who are we to criticize other cultures and customs when the pet store at your local U.S. mall is stocked with exotic imported birds and fish.”
And for final consideration: “While animal welfare in developing nations is an easy hot button issue, it seems to me, things like HUMAN welfare, exploitation, poverty, displacement, warfare, pollution, deforestation, climate change, and reckless and regressive political policy which endangers humans, elephants and ALL life on this precious planet might be better places to focus demands for reform.”
As always, be thankful and generous, happy trails, & more beer. Life is now!
Thanks for reading “Cockfighting in the Philippines: What it was like.”
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