By Tori Marlan
Two men step into a pit that’s covered with feathers and drops of blood. They dangle their roosters by the tail to rouse them from the listlessness that results from being boxed up too long. Then they flip them right side up, kiss them repeatedly on the head, and hold them beak to beak: the canaway, a mottled red and white veteran that’s blind in one eye, and the rubio, a proud-looking novice with shiny red and black plumage. Instantly they go at it, each pecking furiously at the other’s head. When the birds are sufficiently provoked, the judge starts the clock and the owners toss them to the carpeted pit floor. The roosters face each other with their hackles raised–an attempt to puff themselves into intimidating beasts. Each bird holds its ground, the feathers settle, and the battle begins.
About 50 men, mostly middle-aged Latinos, crowd together in the basement around the ten-foot-square pit. Smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, they lean over the waist-high padded walls, shouting a deep, abrupt “E!” every time a bird absorbs a forceful blow. In between fights, or to take a break, the men hover over a craps table clutching wads of cash, talk the business of buying and selling birds, and venture upstairs, where the woman of the house serves fried chicken with rice and beans.
A man I’ll call Javier stands shoulder to shoulder with other spectators. Boxed up behind him in a wooden carrying case, Javier’s bird periodically lets out a scratchy crow, joining the cacophony coming from the assortment of boxes, probably 40 in all, scattered around the room. Javier lugged the bird all the way here, to an acquaintance’s home on a chicken farm an hour’s drive from Chicago, but he’s decided not to fight this time. For him it’s a matter of pride.
Javier regards himself as a true roosterman, a cockman, a sportsman. He distinguishes himself from the gamblers, who he says give cockfighting a bad name. Gamblers have different methods. Some show up with the scraggliest of chickens, purchased for $25, while others bring healthy, muscular birds that can cost more than $2,000 each. But they have the same goal: to rake in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars in less than the 20 minutes allotted for each fight. To Javier they’re an embarrassment to the sport. He would breed and raise and train his birds himself, studying genetics, biology, nutrition, veterinary medicine–anything and everything to help his “athletes,” his little Olympians. “It’s a pride thing,” he likes to say. “If you are a real cockman it’s not about money. It’s about “my birds are better than your birds.”‘ Javier bets on his own birds but rarely risks money on other people’s birds since he doesn’t know how well they’ve been prepared.
At 36, with 20 years of experience, Javier still considers himself fairly new to the sport. He constantly seeks the advice of his elders and friends–both in the States and in Puerto Rico, where he lived for a few years as a teenager–and reads all he can on the subject. He subscribes to a monthly magazine called Gamecock, published in Arkansas, and even turns to Darwin for guidance on species adaptation. A few years ago, after his cocks began winning most of their fights, other breeders started coming to him for advice. “What do you put in your feed?” they would ask. “Can you mix me some?”
But today Javier has brought along a rooster that’s ill prepared.
A year ago a neighbor, apparently suspicious of Javier’s birds, reported him to Animal Care and Control. Not wanting to risk arrest and, worse, confiscation of his birds–including one he’d bought for $1,000–Javier complied with investigators’ orders and cleaned out his coop. He moved the birds to a friend’s property, relinquishing control of how the offspring were raised. And this morning the friend, an older man who tended no fewer than 20 birds, had forgotten which of Javier’s roosters was ready to fight. His confusion led to a grave mistake: he fed the bird, which makes roosters sluggish. But Javier brought it anyway, hoping it would digest the feed by fight time. Once there he set it on a scale and matched it to the ounce with a potential opponent, a bird belonging to one of a group of newcomers, whom Javier pegged as gamblers. The newcomers were from out of state and, in the short time they’d been fighting with Javier and his friends, had gotten a reputation for bringing top-quality birds. But Javier didn’t like the way they made “ridiculously exaggerated” bets, and at times he thought that they might do anything to win–even stimulate their birds with drugs.
Before the fights began Javier pressed on his rooster’s crop, a pouch in the throat that stores food and slowly passes it to the stomach, and felt undigested granules of feed. To him, losing a bird in doubt is unforgivable. “If you lost your bird straight up, and you knew in your heart that you did everything you could, and you didn’t cut corners, then you feel OK. The better rooster won. But when you lose, and you knew you screwed up, you think, man, I should have given him a chance.”
Javier called off the fight. “If I were any less of a roosterman,” he said later, “I’d have fought him.”
Being relegated to the sidelines is particularly disappointing to Javier. Watching other people’s birds often bores him. Sure, there are gripping moments, like when a fight rapidly takes several turns–the winning cock one minute is the losing cock the next. “When two roosters are kicking anything can happen,” he says. “I’ve seen them lying on the floor, just about dead, and one last kick kills the other.” But it gets old like anything else. “It’s not that I don’t enjoy it. It’s just that after a while it’s just two birds kicking. Period.”
Cockfighting is not for the squeamish. Watching a pulp of a bird hang its head, blood dripping through its beak while its opponent pecks at it relentlessly, isn’t a pleasant sight, even for the seasoned cockman. But Javier insists that the way he and other roostermen fight birds is the least gruesome way to do it. They use descendants of Spanish fowl, small birds under four and a half pounds, that grab their opponent’s head or chest with their beak, jump at it, and kick it with their spurs, landing back on their feet. A successful kick cuts, or punctures, the opponent. Prior to the fight the birds’ spurs are clipped off and replaced with plastic ones that, unlike their natural spurs, won’t break off in combat. If it’s clear a bird is losing and can be nursed back to health, a roosterman will pick it up and concede the fight, hoping it gets off to a better start next time.
American fowl, the kind of birds typically fought by whites and Mexicans, wear a hook-shaped steel knife on one leg, called a gaff. Gamecock advertises a variety of styles, some of which have names like Piranha, Predator, and Terminator and promise a “razor grind” or “quick kill.” These birds are large, weighing up to about 11 pounds, and wrestle on the ground, slashing each other apart. Their style of fighting, according to Javier, is not as “refined” as that of the Spanish fowl. It’s not unusual for innards to spill out onto the pit floor. “Even to me, that’s brutal,” Javier says. “All it takes is one slash from side to side. For me that’s not an art.”
Javier fights birds not for the money or the entertainment but for the prestige, for the “fact that I have something to do with it, the fact that I breed them, the fact that I raise them, the fact that mine beat that guy’s bird.” But since his run-in with Animal Care and Control, Javier has been eliminated from the part of the sport he loves, at least for the time being. Although he sometimes buys fighting birds just to participate, he gets little satisfaction when they win. Anyone can buy a bird. Now he comes to the fights mostly for the company and to support his friends; occasionally, like tonight, he’ll bet on a match or two.
Javier has a couple hundred riding on the canaway, which in his opinion belongs to a true sportsman. It’s an ugly, muddy-looking bird, but it’s a proven vicious cutter; two weeks ago Javier watched it destroy its sixth victim, one of Javier’s own, with only a few kicks.
“E!” Javier shouts as the rubio kicks the canaway, knocking it off balance. This is a battle not only between veteran and novice birds but between veteran and novice cockfighters, roostermen and gamblers. There’s more than money at stake.
In his heyday, about seven years ago, Javier says, he kept as many as 500 birds, most of them chicks. On visits to Puerto Rico, where he owned property, he would find two or three young men to bring to Chicago to work as bird handlers in his home. He paid them a small stipend, gave them free room and board, and taught them how to condition the birds. They fed and trained the birds during the weekdays while Javier worked in real estate to support his wife and children. After hours and on weekends they would tend to the birds together.
Javier was born in the States and spent his childhood in Chicago. When he was 14, he moved with his parents and siblings to Puerto Rico and settled in a rural area near relatives on his father’s side. He lived close enough to his aunts’ and uncles’ and grandparents’ houses that when he didn’t like what his mother was cooking for dinner, he could go door-to-door opening refrigerators and lifting pot lids to see who’d have the honor of feeding him.
Among his friends Javier quickly got a reputation as a boisterous American. In his first year of high school he pursued the woman he eventually married in the most unabashed ways, standing on rooftops pledging undying love, pulling her out of class by insisting he had something urgent to tell her, showing up at her home and begging her to come outside while she was busy cooking for her younger siblings. His approach seemed utterly foreign to her. The Puerto Rican boys were macho and distant; Javier was dramatic, expressive, vulnerable. Though he loved Puerto Rico and felt at home there, Javier at times was reminded of his differences.
The first time he saw his grandfather slaughter a pig, he winced in disgust. The image of a young farmhand collecting pig’s blood in a pail is still embedded in his mind. “It scared me,” he says. “At no time had it occurred to me that pork chops came from a pig.” When his grandfather would offer him freshly squeezed cow’s milk, complete with suds, Javier would decline. “I was Americanized. It had to come from the carton.” His parents made special trips to the supermarket to feed their children, who wouldn’t eat the chickens and pigs they’d seen running around. Javier’s father tried to convince them that eating farm animals would be healthier and fresher than eating store-bought meat. Eventually, Javier’s two brothers loosened up and began experimenting, but Javier and his sister couldn’t overcome their apprehension. Even today, though he has no qualms about snapping a bird’s neck to feed his friends, he only eats store-bought chickens.
One Saturday, shortly after moving to the island, Javier paid a visit to a school friend and found him outside chasing chickens. Javier asked what he was doing, and his friend said he was exercising the birds to prepare them for fighting. Though his uncles bred game fowl, Javier knew little about one of Puerto Rico’s most popular sports. He began asking so many questions that his friend invited him to the arena. Although cockfighting in Puerto Rico is legal, Javier’s father didn’t like the sport and forbade him to go. It was two years before he received another invitation, this time from a neighbor. “I just want to go look,” Javier pleaded with his father, who eventually gave his permission. Javier took to the sport immediately. “I was hooked,” he recalls. “It was exciting. My adrenaline shot up.” Many of his friends and neighbors were there, cheering on their birds in what was the culmination of years of hard work. The sportsmanship exhibited by both the winners and losers impressed Javier. The losers congratulated the winners; the winners picked up the defeated bird, handed it back to the owner, and provided medicine to help it recover. The men would talk briefly about the fight and then shake hands. Javier was equally impressed with the way the victors were revered in the community. One of his neighbors, Mr. Rodriguez, always had people clustered around him talking birds. He was usually so successful in the pit that he had trouble finding men who would match their roosters up against his. “He had gotten to where he wanted to be and stayed at the top for many years,” Javier recalls. “And he didn’t brag. He was humble.”
A short time after the fight, Javier bought a hen and a rooster, intent on breeding them. The rooster was old and asthmatic but didn’t cost much. Javier kept the birds penned up in the backyard beneath his parents’ bedroom window. Two birds soon became six and eventually Javier’s father insisted he get rid of them. By this time, Javier says, breeding was “in his blood.” He moved the birds to a friend’s house, and there he prepared them for combat. Javier and his friends didn’t have the money to fight in the arenas, which charged a stiff entry fee, so they staged backyard battles. “I was always the losing guy,” he says. “I didn’t know to weigh the bird–they probably had a pound on me.” But defeat only invigorated him. He began reading all he could about cockfighting.
After a few years of college, Javier wanted to return to the States, figuring he could make a better living. Too young to get married, he lied and said his girlfriend was pregnant, and the couple were permitted to take their vows. He left his wife behind on the island to look for a job. He found work in Chicago as a handyman, a mechanic, and a magician. He says as a magician he sometimes made as much as $250 in 25 minutes. After a few months, when he felt financially stable, he sent for his wife.
Javier assumed he’d have to give up cockfighting to live in the States. It never occurred to him that he could do both.
“It’s a cultural thing,” Javier says, though he acknowledges cockfighting has roots in many cultures and dates back to ancient times in India, China, Persia, and Greece. It spread north through Europe from Rome and was popular among English royalty and gentry from the 16th to the 19th century. The sport came to the American colonies early on–George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are said to have been enthusiasts–but was prohibited in Massachusetts and other states as early as 1836. Today cockfighting is illegal in all but six states–Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Virginia–but is widely practiced in many countries, including the Philippines, Haiti, Mexico, and Puerto Rico.
Where cockfighting is legal in the U.S., derbies are held regularly in air-conditioned arenas with theater-style seats. Women, who often raise the birds with their husbands, attend the fights. Winners take home plaques and trophies. In states where cockfighting is illegal, it rarely attracts women and is sometimes associated with other illegal activities involving guns and drugs. In Javier’s crowd no one subjects his wife or girlfriend to the rowdy, foul-mouthed events. Only on occasion do women show up, Javier says, “but not real women, not quality women. Sleazy women. Women you would meet at a bar. Flies is what we call them.”
Sandy Johnson, of the United Gamefowl Breeders Association, which has members in 33 states, says cockfighting is a growing sport. While for obvious reasons there’s no way to gauge its prevalence where it is illegal, Javier says that in West Town breeding and raising fighting birds is so common that “you can’t throw a rock without hitting a building that might have them.” The north side also has been known to have enclaves of cockfighters, according to the city’s animal-control department. The fights themselves, however, often occur inconspicuously outside city limits.
In the legal states, legislation to prohibit cockfighting continuously gets denied. The Humane Society of Missouri, for example, has introduced bills to ban cockfighting for the last 11 years, but the state legislature has perfunctorily rejected them. Likewise, the Arizona legislature defeated an anticockfighting bill this year, and animal-rights groups recently protesting at a derby in Louisiana promised to get a bill introduced in 1997.
“Americans have a tendency to think that everything that’s an animal is a pet,” Javier says. “Crock. These aren’t dogs, these aren’t cats. You don’t get emotion back. This is just a chicken. Period. Chickens are nothing. Chickens just eat and unfortunately crap all day. That’s all they do. . . . Hell, I got potbellies. Potbellies are intelligent. I say sit, stay, or get away from here. They give you that. Chickens are nothing. Period. Colonel Sanders would tell you that. They are born to be eaten. Period. Now if they have the ability to fight and if they had the ability to talk, ask them: You wanna go to the pot or you wanna fight?”
In Illinois breeding game fowl for fighting purposes and attending cockfights are misdemeanors that become class four felonies on subsequent convictions. Donna Alexander, head veterinarian at the city’s Animal Care and Control department, says she’s seen a lot of dead fighting cocks in the 12 years she’s been at the department. “This has to be stopped,” she says. “It’s completely intolerable.” Her investigators work with police officers to bust cockfighting rings in Chicago and to confiscate fighting birds, identifiable by their missing wattles and combs, the fleshy red parts under the beak and on the head that are trimmed off with scissors in a process called dubbing. They’re removed so an opponent can’t grab onto them during a fight.
Alexander says busts are sporadic. “We may knock out three rings in one year and then for the next two years we don’t see anything,” she says. Usually it’s a tip from a neighbor that brings in her department. Sometimes the groups become infiltrated. Sometimes the police, on an unrelated search, find the birds and call in Animal Care and Control workers, who are unarmed officers with the authority to write tickets, confiscate animals, and issue search warrants regarding anything they perceive to be in violation of the city’s animal-control act. The birds themselves, dressed to fight, usually provide all the evidence needed to ensure a conviction, says Alexander. To her knowledge department officials have never testified in a case in which a guilty verdict was not obtained. But even if the department manages to confiscate the birds before a fight, it’s too late to save them. “Unfortunately there’s really no rehabilitation for them,” says Alexander. “They’re underfed, they’re completely neurotic, they’re usually wounded, scarred, heavily parasitized. They’re usually put to sleep. I don’t think we’ve been able to rehabilitate a single bird.”
Though Javier is a member of the United Gamefowl Breeders Association, he isn’t active in lobbying to protect cockfighting in states where it comes under attack by animal-rights groups. He learned in college–when he and other students chained themselves to trees in an area marked for development–that protesting often falls upon deaf ears. But mostly he’s leery of publicly backing something that’s illegal where he lives; he has a wife and children to support. But opinionated he is, and he’ll talk about his passions with a simmering rage against what he perceives as intolerance and hypocrisy. “I feel that a country like this, that’s founded with all different ethnic groups, you can take in some beliefs but not others? You can take some customs but you can’t take others? That’s bullshit. This is the land where you’re supposed to accept. This is the melting pot. What, we can accept the people and their religious beliefs but not their traditions?”
About six years after he moved to Chicago, Javier asked a friend for help working on his car. “Not tonight, I’m going to the pit,” his friend said. “What pit?” Javier asked. “A rooster arena.” At first Javier thought his friend meant he was leaving for Puerto Rico. But when his friend said it was in Chicago and invited him along, Javier “ran home like a little kid and told my wife, “They have birds here, they have birds here!’ My wife told me to settle down and said, “What are you saying?’ “They actually have birds here! My friend’s going to the pit, and I’m going with him.”‘
Since he rarely went to the arenas when he lived in Puerto Rico, this was one of the best organized cockfights he’d ever seen. The next day he started tracking down people who sold birds. He bought a few, and bred more than 100 in a shed. A year later, he debuted in the pit with three roosters. Two lost; the third won with a lucky blow. “I didn’t like the way they fought. I told a friend to come take them all.” They reminded him of the birds he’d fought as a kid. He began reading up on genetics and invested $2,000 in a rooster and $3,500 in four hens. A year later he took ten of the offspring to the pit, and nine won. The following week he took ten more, and eight won. Week after week, Javier won 70 percent of the fights he entered, and the older men, some of whom had been participating in the sport for 30 or more years, became suspicious. They thought the rookie must be pumping his birds full of stimulants. But when they asked him about his methods of raising and training, he surprised them with complex, informed answers. He turned them on to Gamecock, offered his thoughts on new medicines and diets, and earned their respect. He was clearly a roosterman.
Javier was always in the market for a good hen. If he saw a rooster he liked, he’d buy its sister, since the female birds carry the genetic code. He started in November, after molting season. He would breed four times before May, keeping a journal and detailed notebooks (later computer files) full of biographical information and observations–often reminders to himself like “I will not mate [this hen] with R04, R05, R06, because they are brothers and the chicks will be too big” and “Sunday I was checking on the hens and got an egg from AR06. She was alone so immediately I put her in with a rooster so the other eggs would be fertile.”
In search of what he called the “jackpot,” Javier experimented with crossbreeding, hoping to create the perfect line of aggressive, relentless fighters that would rule the pit. He would start with Spanish fowl, but because they were small he’d look for ones that had been mixed with other breeds. The goal was to get offspring that carried the genes for height and strength without losing the traits innate to Spanish fowl, like speed, aggressiveness, and cutting ability. “If you overbreed their cutting ability you’ll ruin the bird. If you underbreed he won’t cut. With English fowl you get power but lose cutting ability. With Cornish fowl you get strength, but the problem is that once they get hit in the eye they abandon the fight.” Breeding was trial and error–part science, part luck.
Things seemingly cosmetic, neck lengths for example, would factor into Javier’s experiments. “You have more advantage with short-neck birds if their heights are pretty much the same. There’s less place to hit. I’ve seen birds with long necks taking more blows to the neck, and that will weaken their neck–where a short-necked one you can’t really hit them there. Necks are sensitive areas, you cannot develop the neck like you can develop the legs.” If a neck is weakened the bird has trouble holding up its head and cannot grab the other bird’s head or chest to set up a kick.
When Javier thought he had hit on a good bloodline, he’d inbreed as many as four generations. “From there on you’re risking it,” he says. “You start losing size, you start losing aggressiveness. Darwin says seven times, but I think that’s too close. I’ve tried six.”
He learned how to fool a hen’s cycle so the bird would lay even during molt. He would maximize his hens’ laying capacity by using artificial light, feed that was rich in protein, and surrogate mothers or brooders to keep the chicks warm, freeing up the mother hens to go back to laying. Of the offspring, Javier would keep only the most aggressive female chicks to breed. “You look for the one with the cleanest plumage, the one that’s always on the floor like “I’m the ruler, I eat when I want to eat, you gotta wait.’ She’s the dominant one. The ones that are scared and skinny and always eating last, those are the ones you don’t want to keep.” When he singled out the weak ones, he’d call his friends and tell them to bring over some bags, he was giving away dinner.
At first he kept track of the offspring by punching holes in the webbed areas between their toes. But since there were only a limited number of combinations–chickens have only three toes and two areas of webbing on each foot–he began using color-coded plastic leg bands on chicks, then aluminum wing tags bearing encoded biographical information when they outgrew the bands. Sometimes he’d mark his birds with a speck of a tattoo in a secret spot, like the bottom of a foot, in case they were lost or stolen and the wing tags removed.
When the offspring were chicks they would roam freely on the ground. Javier and his handlers observed them closely, looking for signs of parasites and infection. “If they bit something that is decomposed–a rat, a mouse, or if the feed somehow got wet and is decomposing–it won’t digest. It will sit inside them and rot. If you catch it in time you can open the stomach and empty it, then sew them back up, just like a vet, except a vet is going to charge you $800 for something you can do at home.” Javier ordered the scalpels and catgut–used for sewing up incisions–from Gamecock, as well as some of the staples in his medicine chest. He says he was spending up to $1,000 for treatments that included antibiotics for respiratory problems, an IV packet with nutrients and vitamins for birds who are too sick to eat, and castor oil to flush out ringworm and parasites. For birds in training he had massage cream to soothe the skin and a supply of beak hardener. For birds who’d been mauled in a fight he had eye cream to prevent infections and scarlet oil to heal abrasions.
“Some people are happy with just giving them one pill to kill the common bugs. They don’t want to go deep because they’d have to buy more medicine to kill all the bugs. But when you kill all the bugs on the outside and the inside, you know your bird is going in with an advantage, because yours is healthier. So why do it wrong when you can do it all right? That’s where I get the edge.”
At around five months old the roosters start to crow, their combs grow, and as Javier puts it, “they’re becoming macho, their testosterone’s going.” They’re ready to mate and need to be separated from one another or they’ll pick fights for territory. It is this fact–that the roosters are naturally game–with which cockfighters defend their sport against charges of animal cruelty. They consider the fight a manifestation of survival of the fittest, nature simply taking its course, and at times compare it to human nature. “The gamecock, if left to himself, will outlive and kill all other cocks around him,” says the May 1995 issue of Gamecock. “The entire earth is a gory cockpit, where the weakest animals fall in a pitiless struggle of tooth and claw. . . . The history of man is a record of cruel and bloody battles. . . . The Indian was replaced on this continent by methods which no moralist can endorse, yet . . . it merely means the best bird won in the bloody cockpit of man! War is ugly, cruel! All of us agree to that.”
Alexander, of Animal Care and Control, disagrees that if left alone cocks would fight to the death. “In nature they might peck, establish their territory, and then back off once it’s been established,” she says. “Animals don’t fight just for the entertainment value of it or just because they’re so superaggressive they’re trying to do harm. Animals fight to protect their territory or to protect their young ones or for hunting purposes. If you’ve ever watched the roosters in the barnyard, if you’ve got one or two roosters, usually a young one is going to challenge an old one to see how many of his hens he can get. They do a lot of dancing, a lot of posturing, a lot of fluffing up to see who’s going to be the biggest, and then they’ll charge and whichever one flinches–that’s where they got the idea of playing chicken–lost. The other one has the territory, has set the boundaries of the territory. Do they die? Do they fight to the death? No. That’s something we have trained them to do for our sheer entertainment. And such a gory entertainment that is. I can’t see the value of it at all. I just think it’s cruel.”
Javier says that comparing barnyard chickens with Spanish fowl is like comparing apples and oranges and insists that Spanish fowl do fight to the death. He thinks of his training not as goading the birds to fight but ensuring they are fully prepared for the inevitable. From the time they are five months to a year old, Javier would pen them up individually on topsoil in a garage. He would observe them and take notes on their behavior. When they were a year old he’d cover their spurs with muffs and spar them to assess their capabilities. He would select only the most aggressive young roosters for training, called “keep.” Out of 100 birds, he’d be lucky if 40 met his standards. He’d remove their wattles and combs and, in December after they were finished molting, trim off the feathers on their thighs and backs and parts of their breasts to keep them cool. During this time he’d keep all hens away from them; otherwise they’d harbor their food and use it to woo.
During keep the roosters would be housed in wooden cages with a natural wood perch inside and newspapers on the floor, and Javier and his handlers would begin conditioning them for combat. “The training has nothing to do with the fact that they fight,” he says. “You train them like an athlete. Give him a balanced meal. If you want him to perform to the best, you can’t give him just a scrap off the table. They get fat, lazy, and after two minutes of fighting they’re fatigued. The training comes in where if you’re going to go at it you want your bird to perform, to have oxygen in his blood–you want your bird to be the best, not to get tired. You want him to go in there kicking and come out kicking. And it’s not if you win or lose, it’s how you win or lose. If my bird goes and kills yours in 20 seconds, what does that mean? Nothing. Lucky shot. I’d rather have my bird lose but make the 20 minutes under fire and always be there aggressive, always looking for that angle.”
Javier created a rigorous exercise regimen that lasted two months, which included biweekly workouts of chasing each rooster for 20 minutes to build up its leg muscles and pulmonary circulation and tossing it in the air to develop its wing muscles. After each routine he’d feed it a die-size piece of steak for protein. He regulated intake of water and feed, using a diet mix that included racehorse oats, scratch, pigeon feed, pearl barley, soft-boiled eggs, and plantains. “During this training process if anything you see is not right you stop and you analyze why. It could be when he was being raised he caught a cold, causing his lungs not to develop right. Therefore the bird is going to start turning blue, just like a kid with asthma. So after all that breeding and raising and all that crap, now the bird’s no good. Now you have to eat the sucker.”
About a year and a half after breeding he would assess the results by sparring the birds in keep. Out of the 40 roosters only 6 or 7 might cut it. The mock fights helped him weed out the meek and decide which lines to destroy and which to take to the pit. When birds disappointed him he’d exterminate whole bloodlines, calling his friends, telling them to bring over some bags.
“I’ve killed 50 or 60 birds ’cause two or three had run off. People say, “This is a loss of money, why don’t you just sell them and get something back?’ I say, “It’s not about money, my friend. I won’t sell bad fowl. I’ll give you my best if you’re a sportsman, but I won’t sell you bad fowl because I’m selling you my reputation.’ Anybody who does this right doesn’t make money. I knew from the get-go that by the time I learn this I’m going to lose thousands and thousands and thousands. This to me is pride. I will get the line. I may be an old man before I do, but I’ll have my name up there.”
The designated fighting cocks would continue their training regimen until they exhibited signs of readiness. “On occasion I’ll put a hen in front of him, and he gets like all, “Oh, yeah.’ Remind him of his reason to fight. I’m working with his mental and physical.”
The telltale signs a bird is ready to fight are when its weight remains consistent for three weeks and it’s what Javier calls “alert,” always moving about in the cage, jumping from the perch to the floor. The last ten days before a fight the cock remains in its cage, except for an occasional sparring session so Javier can see if the bird is up to par; if it’s off balance it might have an ear infection or be injured in some other way. “This time is where he vitalizes himself, and you give him a little bit of carbohydrates, something that doesn’t make his digestive system too bogged down, and you just let him rest.” The night before the fight, Javier would check to make sure the bird was sleeping toward the moonlight (sick birds won’t), and in the morning he’d check on its droppings, making sure they were in a pile rather than scattered around the cage, which would mean the bird had had a restless night. If on the morning of the fight the bird’s weight varied, even by a half ounce, Javier would be concerned. “You gotta ask yourself why. Did he drink a lot more water ’cause he has an internal fever? Maybe he drank too much ’cause he’s hot inside. Or maybe he didn’t eat enough because some of the food in his chest did not digest right.” Any indication that something was awry would prompt him to call off the fight.
On the day of the fight Javier wouldn’t feed the rooster and would weigh it twice: once to see if its weight had remained constant and once, officially, at the pit, where if no match was found the cockman might have to give an ounce or two. “In Puerto Rico, you’d just go to another pit,” Javier says. But here sometimes the pickings are slim and the cockmen, if they want to fight, have to agree to put their rooster up against a heavier bird. Javier would do so only if molting season was a few weeks away and the bird might not have another opportunity to fight, or if he got something in return–height, say, or an opponent that was blind. Otherwise, Javier would take the bird home and hope to match it another day.
Even if the bird is ready to fight, descends from a jackpot bloodline, and is thoroughly conditioned, an owner can sabotage his chances of winning in the 11th hour. “You put the spurs on the wrong way and your bird can kick all night and he won’t kick nothing–he won’t cut a piece of paper,” Javier says. Or, worse, the bird could injure itself. Adjusting the spurs at a precise angle is so crucial to a bird’s performance that Javier would often pay someone with experience as much as $100 to do it for him. One man holds the bird under its wings while another extends one leg, stretching the bird horizontally between them. If the bird hasn’t fought before, the spur man removes its natural spur with dog clippers and applies a solution to stop the blood. With a pocket knife, he shapes the remaining stub into a mound that fits snugly inside the spur’s cup and wraps it with adhesive tape. Then he melts a stick of glue into the cup of the spur and places the cup over the mound, eyeing the tip of the spur like a cue ball as he aligns it between two small bones in the bird’s leg. He works carefully but quickly, since the glue dries as fast as candle wax. “We try to reproduce what nature had given him,” Javier explains. Finally, the spur man wraps dental floss and another layer of tape around the base of the spur to secure it. The men flip the bird and repeat the process on its other leg.
When both birds’ spurs are attached, the owners step into the pit and hold them as the judge swabs them first with alcohol then with water as a safeguard against cheating. Fixing a fight is as easy as rubbing Armor All on a bird’s head, which makes its feathers too slippery for the opponent to grab, or wiping hawk’s blood under its wings, which makes the opponent run scared. After cleansing the birds, the judge, in case anyone has tampered with the water or his bird, drips the water from the used cotton ball into each bird’s mouth, making each drink any harmful substances that might have been intended for its opponent. Finally, the judge sticks the birds’ spurs inside the pulp of a lemon, so the acid neutralizes any chemicals that might have been rubbed on them.
All the preventive measures, however, can’t detect a stimulated bird. That’s something that can only be surmised by observing the bird fight. Javier becomes suspicious when he sees birds unfazed by serious blows or continuing to kick in the box after the fight has ended. Cheating is the terrain of the gamblers, Javier says, and it’s something he won’t tolerate. Last year he and his friends had a hunch that some new fighters stimulated their birds with testosterone. “They had come out of the blue, and the way their birds were fighting was not a natural way of fighting. It’s like me cutting your head off, your wings off, your throat, your face, and you’re still fighting showing no pain. We let them go once; we let them go twice. And at one of the fights we called them on it. We told the guys, “You’re not leaving here till we get a dropping.”‘ Javier and his friends threatened to take the sample to a lab for testing. Though they were only bluffing, their suspicions were as good as confirmed the following week when the new guys didn’t return. Javier hasn’t seen them since. “Regardless of what anyone says, a real person who does this for the sport of it, we don’t cheat, we don’t go and inject them with testosterone, we don’t go and give them all kinds of dope and stuff. ‘Cause I’ve seen birds fight with dope. They’re crazy and disorganized–they’re just kicking and kicking. But then what do you got there? You got nothing. You don’t got no pride. If you’re gonna fight me, fight me clean. I don’t mind giving you my money, but don’t steal it.”
Even when the spurs are on correctly and the birds are fighting clean, all it takes is one well-placed blow and the best-trained bird from the best genetic line can topple instantaneously.
It’s loud and chaotic in the basement as the rubio and the canaway lunge at each other with seemingly choreographed moves: grab, jump, kick; grab, jump, kick. They land on their feet after one bout and begin another. The men lean over the pit walls, slapping the sides, gesturing wildly, and shouting odds at one another. The bets fluctuate constantly, depending on which bird seems to have the advantage. The birds create a flurry of feathers and flapping that sounds like someone flipping through a paperback–if you’re close enough you can feel the breeze. Although the space is thick with bodies and noise, the birds seem oblivious to anything but each other. Grab, jump, kick; grab, jump, kick. Like a gymnast performing a floor routine, the birds flutter about the entire pit. Blood starts to seep out of the canaway’s head, turning its white feathers a slick crimson. The rubio seems to have the advantage until the canaway grabs, jumps, kicks it in one eye–“E!”–piercing it blind. Now the birds, blind in the same eye, must walk a full circle before seeing each other. Grab, jump, kick; grab, jump, kick. Their feathers are slippery with blood and grabbing becomes difficult. The rubio kicks the canaway’s good eye, causing internal bleeding that completely obscures its vision. The canaway now pecks robotically, more dangerous than when it could see to set up a shot. When it brushes against the rubio, it throws its feet in the air without bothering to grab first. It cuts through the rubio’s good eye. The birds, both now unable to see, stand only inches apart. Each in its own darkness, there’s stillness in the pit. The judge starts another clock. In 60 seconds if the birds don’t find each other the fight will be a draw. Forty seconds pass as the men scream at the birds while they take abbreviated steps but fail to make contact. Suddenly the blood stops trickling into the canaway’s good eye, enabling it to see shades of the rubio. Grab, jump, kick; grab, jump, kick.
Ten minutes into the fight the canaway repeatedly punctures the rubio’s throat and breast, causing it to wilt to the floor on its hocks, quivering from the blows, head glistening and bobbing slightly. The judge again starts the second clock. “He’s dying,” Javier says matter-of-factly. “He’s dying.” The canaway’s all over it, kicking ruthlessly, and the force of the blows somehow revives the rubio, setting it back on its feet, though it’s disoriented and off balance, waddling around, bumping into the pit walls, ineffectually pecking at the canaway. “His owner should have picked him up by now,” Javier says. “But he’s not a sportsman, so he don’t care about the bird.”
The veteran canaway launches a kick at the young rubio’s neck, which falls limp as the bird flies convulsing several feet across the ring. The rubio’s owner steps into the pit and scoops up his bird, pressing its thrashing body against his chest in an attempt to halt the spasms of death. The bird winds up face down in the garbage, a feathered lump amid cans of beer. The roostermen have won.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Tori Marlan.