Cockfighting—a blood sport in which at least two roosters are placed in a ring and forced to fight to the death for the “amusement” of onlookers—is illegal throughout the United States. Martin Chavez, mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, has said, “The idea of putting razor blades on the feet of these birds and allowing them to tear each other up is obscene.”1 Yet the activity persists as an underground sport.
Forced to Fight or Die
In their natural environments, birds fight over mates, food, or territory and to establish their dominance or position in a flock’s pecking order. According to Paul Siegel, a Virginia Tech expert in fowl genetics and behavior, birds rarely fight to the death because the weaker bird generally flees. “If there’s a way to escape,” Siegel said, “they’ll just get the heck out.” In cockfights, Siegel says, roosters continue fighting because they cannot escape.2
Many of these birds spend most of their lives tethered by one leg near whatever object is intended to serve as their shelter, such as an overturned plastic barrel or a small wire cage placed directly on the ground. When they’re not chained or in the ring, the birds are conditioned to fight through a combination of physical work, including being forced to walk with weights attached to their legs, and “practice fights” with other roosters.
Before they are thrown into the ring, many birds have their feathers plucked out and their wattles and/or combs (the flesh at the top of the head and under the beak) hacked off, usually with shears. These mutilations are performed as preemptive measures so that the birds they will be less vulnerable in the fighting ring. But because roosters do not have sweat glands, the loss of these body parts deprives them of the ability to cool themselves. Some cockfighters cut off the birds’ spurs, which are the natural boney protrusions on the legs that serve as roosters’ natural weapons, so that more deadly razors and other weapons can be strapped to their legs.
What Happens at Cockfights
Many cockfights are held in round or square enclosures known as “cockpits” or simply “pits.” Once birds have been paired according to their weights and weapons, their owners and spectators place bets on which bird will win each fight.
A bell, whistle, or signal from a referee marks the start of a fight. At that time, the handlers “pit” the birds, placing them on the pit’s floor to fight. According to one eyewitness, “With neck feathers fanned and wings whirring, the birds jump and parry at each other. They kick and duel in mid-air, striking at each other with feet and beak.”3 Blood stains the pit’s floor. If the fighting subsides, handlers pick the birds up and blow on their backs, yank at their beaks, or hold them beak-to-beak in an attempt to “reignite the frenzy.”4,5 The birds are then placed back in the pit and they fight until one or both of the roosters is dead.6
“Losing” birds often end up discarded in a barrel or a trash can near the game pit. One visitor to a cockfight found a trash can where “two fighters had been discarded. The rooster on the bottom was dead. The one on top of him had a huge chest wound. He was still alive, but barely.”7 Even birds who “win” cockfights are frequently disfigured.
Roosters who are rescued from game farms or cockfights are typically euthanized because, as one official explained, ““The kindest thing we can do for the vast majority of these birds is to humanely euthanize them. The roosters cannot be rehabilitated—all we can do now is spare them the brutal and bloody fate that awaits them in the ring.”8
The Tip of a Criminal Iceberg
Cockfighting usually involves other crimes in addition to cruelty to animals. Gambling—frequently illegal and involving large sums of money—is found at many cockfights, as are firearms and other weapons that are sometimes used in violent, interpersonal crimes, including murder—for example, in a triple homicide that occurred at one Texas cockfight.9 During a raid on a California cockfight in 2017, the largest raid in U.S. history, more than 7,000 birds were recovered, along with firearms, narcotics, syringes and steroids.10 one Fresno County deputy said, “We have a lot of other crimes associated with cockfights, we’ve had several murders, shootings, assaults, drug issues, weapons charges. A variety of other things come as a result of these cockfights, so that’s why our department takes them so seriously.”11
What You Can Do
The majority of states have made cockfighting a felony. Even attending a cockfight is illegal in most states, as is possessing roosters for the purpose of fighting. In 2002, President George W. Bush signed legislation that made the transport of roosters across state lines to engage in fights a federal crime.12 Five years later, the Animal Welfare Act was amended to make “knowingly buying, selling, or transporting animals across state or international borders for the purpose of fighting” a felony.13 In 2018, a ban on cockfighting all five territories—American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—was signed into law, effective in 2019.14
If you suspect that this illegal activity is occurring in your neighborhood, contact local law-enforcement authorities.
1Simon Romero, “Bastion of Cockfighting Is Under Pressure to Ban It,” The New York Times 9 Dec. 2004.
2Jim Stratton, “Cockfighting Persists as Underground Sport,” Orlando Sentinel 18 Jan. 2005.
3Robyn Morrison, “New Mexico’s Secret Sport: Cockfighting in the Land of Enchantment,” High Country News 9 Oct. 2000.
6Tina Macias and Jeremy Rogalski, “Inside the Bloodsport of Cockfighting,” KHOU 11, 27 Apr. 2018.
8“Hundreds Of Roosters ‘Bred For Aggression’ Could Be Euthanized,” CBS, 29 May 2018.
9Christopher Sherman, “Gunmen Kill 3, Wound 8 at Texas Ranch Cockfight,” Associated Press, 19 Apr. 2012.
10Daniella Silva, “7,000 Birds Recovered in Massive Cockfighting Raid in California,” NBC, 16 May 2017.
11Jim de la Vega and Kyra J. Neyland, “Cockfighting Ring Broken Up in Fresno County,” Fox 26, 8 Mar. 2009.
12Doug Simpson, “Cockfighting Fans Lose a Venue,” Associated Press, 11 Feb. 2009.
13Ted Lerner, “The Ultimate Fighters,” The Wall Street Journal 2 Jun. 2011.
14Jon Perez, “Cockfighting Ban Now Law,” Saipan Tribune, 24 Dec. 2018.