It is 8:30 on a brutally cold morning when I finally meet "John" in the flesh at a Marathon gas station. We are somewhere along the Indiana/Kentucky border, in the northern reaches of the Bible belt where scripture and step-back threes are worshipped with almost equal fervor.
John is tall and well built, with close cropped silver hair that echoes the snow, a horseshoe mustache, and a Harley-Davidson shield set in his earlobe. His voice has a warm, coppery twang, like blood. It is a raconteur's voice, which he uses to ramble amicably—and enjoyably—on various subjects, most of which are related to his great love, the American gamecock.
There are not many men like John left in the United States, and those that survive do so in a diminished capacity. With the elimination of cockfighting's last legal bastion in the U.S.—Louisiana's laws came into effect in 2008—and the ability of local and state law enforcement to cooperate with Federal authorities, invoking interstate commerce statues, the risk has come to greatly outweigh the reward. While the owning and breeding of American gamecocks is not illegal, fighting them, gambling on them, attending derbies—especially with a minor in tow—are all quite illegal. The same goes for keeping paraphernalia, including the gaffs, knives, and spurs with which the cocks are armed,
Raising game fowl is time and resource intensive. Cockers use the highest quality feed, for example, and require more space because they do not hem all their birds into tiny pens. There is little financial reward for the work. So one would have to be, according to John, a true lover of the animals to continue tending to their bloodlines. What money John makes comes from selling members of his brood pit, something like what dog and horse breeders do, although the birds have equally storied, and much older, pedigrees.
John seems, at first blush, the stereotypical cocker, a former farm boy turned truck driver who espouses traditional rural American values and leans, a bit conservative morally. And yet he is far from the popular conception of the holler-bound backwoods degenerate and gambler, a man with a clean record—would be hard to get his Hazardous Materials Endorsement otherwise—who just so happened to also vote for Obama in 2008 and harbors no ill-will towards the Humane Society, the body leading the charge against his beloved sport. "I have nothing against the humane society," he had told me over the phone a few days before, "they save lots of horses and dogs. They just take things too far.". In fact, John professes to be an animal lover through and through; he was a farrier for a while, and he seethes whenever he can see a horse's ribs as he drives by a field. Dogfighting is anathema to him, a savage twisting of loyal pets into soulless combatants which you "could not pay [...] enough" for him to participate in.
A fresh cup of gas station coffee in his hands, John is eager to show off his birds, even though he only keeps a few. "They won't be doing much," he warns me. "It's too cold. They'll just be trying to keep warm, but I'll be happy to show you some roosters."
I follow John through winding roads and rolling hills which rise from the flat surroundings we quickly leave behind, turning off into his driveway about eight miles from the Marathon and exiting the rental to the sound of rooster's crowing. We step inside, where I am greeted by John's wife, daughter, and massive mastiff mix.
"Here's what The Gamecock used to look like, and here it is now," he says, handing me a reading-worn issue of the cocker's periodical about the size and thickness of a car manual and a newer, atrophied addition. John's daughter retreats to a back room and comes out cradling two tiny chicks, which she shows to me, beaming. Having changed into a different coat and a pair of Wellingtons, John lights a cigarette and ushers me outside.
"Well," he says, "let's go see us some roosters."
"Greek youngsters watching a cockfight," by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Image via WikiMedia Commons
Jerry Adler and Andrew Lawler, in a June 2012 piece for Smithsonian Magazine—since blown out, by Lawler, into a book—trace the chicken's rise from Southeast Asian junglefowl to cosmopolitan culinary hegemony, attesting that the bird's domestication stemmed from what would be, to anyone not like John, unusual origins. The chicken's ubiquitous table presence, they write, "is all the more surprising in light of the belief by many archaeologists that chickens were first domesticated not for eating but for cockfighting."
Cockfighting is an ancient game, among our oldest. Adler and Lawler open their article with the famed tale of Athenian general Themistocles, who, upon witnessing two cocks having a go, summoned his troops to come watch. They were so inspired by the display that they routed the invading Persians, perhaps saving Western civilization. The ancient Greeks adored cockfighting; the Roman's were slower to catch on, calling it disparagingly "the Greek diversion." By the first century AD however, the journalists note, a gamecock mosaic adorned a house in Pompeii.
In American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sport, Benjamin G. Rader, James L. Sellers Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Nebraska, mentions cockfighting as one of the most popular games of Britain's 17th and 18th century "festive culture," emerging with the progenitors of modern day association football as one of the major pastimes of the era from which our own modern concept of sport stems. Fighting cocks would soon become common tavern entertainment in the English colonies and nascent United States as well; cockers maintain that no less a patriot than George Washington himself was a cocker, and that "Honest" Abraham Lincoln earned the sobriquet thanks to his deft, even handling of cockfights as a referee.
While America has shut down the pits relatively recently, and the United Kingdom outlawed the sport in 1835, there are countries (and U.S. territories) wherein cockfighting is not only still contested legally, but held in the highest regard. It is pursued openly in Mexico, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, among other places; indeed, I once saw, on a visit to San Juan years ago, an arena with COCKFIGHTING emblazoned on its side. John, bucking another common stereotype, speaks fondly of his Mexican and Puerto Rican counterparts' love for gamecocks.
As society's ethical stance on the use of animals for science, sustenance, and sport has evolved, the old traditional bloodsports have come to be considered cruel, practiced by savages in boondocks or the basements and abandoned buildings of city slums, no longer the provenance of generals and landed gentry. Long is the list of basically extinct bloodsports; bull- and bear-baiting, for example, wherein game dogs are set upon a captured animal for sport, and from which the bulldog sprung, and the closely related rat-baiting, where the ancestors of your adorable little terrier would be placed into a box of rats, with bets placed on how long it would take for the dog to kill every last one of its foes. Or consider the absurdity of ganderpulling, a colonial American Easter Monday celebration. According to Rader, "the neck of a goose was liberally greased and the hapless animal was hung by its feet from a rope stretched between two trees or tied to a tree limb." Participants would then gallop at the goose, attempting to shear its head clean off. The winner, Rader writes, "got the blood-soaked goose for his supper."
While dog, horse, and camel fighting are widely practiced, with varying amounts of legality, in various nations, only bullfighting and cockfighting still hold any semblance of romance or gravitas in the Western world. Think of the iconic image of the brave, sexually charged matador and Spain's association with the toro bravo, or the numerous sports teams which seek to infuse their athletes with the unflagging, fearless mettle of the gamecock. In the case of the latter sport, the romance soon threatens to be all that is left.
For cockers like John, that would be a tragedy.
Cockfight in London, circa 1808. Image via WikiMedia Commons
"We don't encourage any illegal activities," United Gamefowl Breeders Association (UGBA) public relations manager Bucky Harless told me over the phone from California. "We believe that the laws against cocking are unconstitutional, and we're for any laws that would lessen the penalties for that or do away with the penalties for that, and we're against any legislation that would increase the penalties for that.
"We do not encourage any of our members, or anyone, to break the law; our idea is that you change the law, you don't break it."
The UGBA is the cocker's push back. Like their birds, rather than slink away, forced to carry out their hobby in the shadows forever, they have chosen to get organized and fight. The UGBA, in addition to helping codify American gamecock standards—ensuring the animal survives, even if it can no longer fight—and hosting rooster shows, is a political body as well as a standardizing one. In this they are predominantly up against the Humane Society, whose resources and public sentiment vastly outnumber their own.
Harless sees, in the blanket banning of cockfighting, a grand hypocrisy, a traditional bloodsport being handled with a hostility not placed on others. "I guess the closest analogy would be falconry," he said, "which is federally protected and legal in every state of the union except for Hawaii, and that is an act of releasing a hawk [sic] on another bird, or an animal of prey, to have them catch it, maim it, kill it, or whatever."
To Harless, turning a raptor loose on a smaller bird or mammal is a crueler act than to test, i.e., fight, cocks. "In that situation, the hawk is the only one who wants to participate in this; the prey doesn't," he said. "In cocking, both birds are equally matched, as far as weapons, weight, and age, and both are equally willing to engage in the battle ... there are rules in place, that when a rooster refuses to fight, they end the battle, so he's not continuously harassed and chased around by the rooster that's willing to fight the battle."
Opposition to cocking, for Harless, stems in no small part from the vast demographic and economic shifts of the country. Whereas the average American was once more likely to either live an agrarian lifestyle, or know someone who has, decades of urbanization has irrevocably altered our relationship with animals.
"Back in the 19th century, early 20th century, a lot of people lived on family farms," Harless said. "They were very familiar with family life. They did a lot of hunting and fishing to supplement their income. They raised and slaughtered their own cattle and chicken. So they were very familiar with the cycle of life, and livestock's position in that cycle."
Besides the urbanization factor—our disassociation with animals has arguably imbued a new sympathy for them—the opposition to cockfighting also comes from the belief that the sport is both cruel and a magnet for the criminal element, particularly gamblers and those attracted to the money said gamblers have.
"There's people that say, 'Oh, they just do it for the blood lust,'" Harless said. "I say that anybody who raises chickens for blood lust is a fool. It takes so much time, so much money, and so much energy to raise gamefowl, if you were just into blood lust, you'd take up a sport that'd be a lot easier to do that ... or get a job at the slaughterhouse. If you like to see the blood fly, go down and get a job cutting the heads off of chickens or shooting cattle in the head ... the old saw that it's all about blood lust is just ridiculous."
Harless considers no animal on Earth more beautiful than the gamecock; combine that with the spirit and dogged, to-the-last-breath determination they exhibit when confronted with another of their own kind, and one ends up with a creature both majestic and inspirational.
"We do feel for our birds," Harless explained. "But we know that's what they're here for."
Gambling is a stickier wicket, so to speak; while it is, at this point, inextricably linked with cockfighting, the same could be said for football or basketball or thoroughbred racing, or just about any sport.
"To say that gambling is a big part of it; it's a sideline," Harless said. "Anytime you get sportsmen together and it's a competition, there's two guys that are going to bet on the outcome."
The violence and property crimes which are found among cockers and at gamecock derbies are, according to Harless, less a cause of the sport's abolishment than a symptom of it. With everyone in the vicinity breaking the law, and substantial amounts of money around, criminals see easy pickings.
"If you've got a clandestine operation going somewhere, where there's some money involved, you're going to have people of questionable morality show up, try to peddle their wares, like some dope or something. Occasionally you'll hear where masked men come in with guns and they rob people, because they know, who's going to call the cops on them? They know there's money there, so they come in and surround them with automatic weapons, and okay, 'Well it's [the money] in the middle of the barn here, we're going to pick it up and take off,' and they know there's not going to be pursuit because nobody is going to call and complain about it."
The UGBA believes the Humane Society wishes to see the American gamecock exterminated along with its sport, both reduced to nothing more than memories. This, they believe, will also be the fate of what they consider to be a crucial aspect of American cultural heritage and tradition. Routed by the Humane Society, the cockers—generally, as one could imagine, an independent, bureaucratization-averse bunch—are coalescing around what they perceive to be a very real threat to their birds, passion, and heritage.
"It's not that we're trying to convince anybody that they should like it or approve of it," Harless said. "All we're trying to do is get people to give us the same rights other sportsmen have."
Cockfight in Vietnam. Image via Nguyen Thanh Long, WikiMedia Commons
John explicitly remembers the day he became enamored not only with gamecocks—he was introduced to them, as a teen, by a neighbor—but cockfighting per se. "It's burned in my memory," he told me over the phone the night before our meeting. Said neighbor told John that he and some other cockers were going to test some roosters, and he invited John to come.
He remembers the crispy snow and the smell of wood smoke, people gathered around a stove, talking about hunting and fishing, his passions. It was a small event, only four to five roosters—huge derbies could have hundreds and hundreds of birds, thousands of spectators, and tens of thousands of dollars on the line—and the birds were weighed and matched against each other.
"I was completely amazed when them cocks flew together three to five feet off the ground," John said, describing the ballistic opening moments of the fight, when the roosters, driven by an animosity older than recorded history, are finally allowed at each other.
"From that moment on, my life changed."
John Goodwin called me moments after I sent off an email to the Humane Society's communications rep. This fast response time seemed surprising for such a large organization; Goodwin, the Society's director of animal cruelty policy, told me cockfighting—and his crusade against it—is one of his favorite subjects.
"Cockfighting is an extreme form of animal cruelty," Goodwin told me in a soft Tennessee drawl. (Cockfighting, while not limited to the South and rural areas—they fight them in Chicago and Indianapolis and New York City, after all—is certainly of those regions.)
"There's no socially redeemable value whatsoever," Goodwin said. "And since you have animals being harmed for such a senseless purpose, we are strongly opposed to it."
While it would be difficult to argue that the life of the average gamecock is not better than a factory farm "roaster" chicken, Goodwin considers such a standard for care despicably low. Instead, he likens cockfighting to dogfighting, in that even with the care afforded the animals, the end result—the fight—makes it particularly barbarous.
"In both instances, serious dogfighters and serious cockfighters want their animals to be physically capable of winning a fight," Goodwin said. "That said, it's the fight itself that takes this form of cruelty into a very, very different place than anything else.
"Now you would agree, and I would agree, and I think everyone would agree, that if I were to take a hammer and nail, and drive a nail through a rooster's body, that would be animal cruelty. If someone crucified a rooster with a nail, would that not be animal cruelty? Well, the gaff that they tie to their legs are basically curved nails, and the injuries inflicted in a cockfight when they're wearing gaffs are exactly the same as if I were to drive a nail through a living rooster. That is extreme animal cruelty, and that's in a very different category than any other sort of animal bloodsport, or animal abuse, that the UGBA can point to."
That includes falconry. "I don't think that you can defend one form of animal cruelty by pointing to something else that has its laws as well," Goodwin said.
The Humane Society is the only organization with a full-time staff dedicated to opposing the sport, which they battle using a multi-pronged approach. The first line of defense, according to Goodwin, is to strengthen the penalties so that they overshadow any potential profits to be made from gambling; this would remove what the Humane Society sees as the heart of the sport, which is its role as a gambling vehicle. The Society also works closely with law enforcement, consulting on evidence to help make cases and providing animal handling services. Furthermore, the Humane Society provides specialized training to police to better identify animal abuse and signs of cockfighting operations.
"There are a lot of law enforcement that will see properties in their counties where roosters are tethered to these little rudimentary houses" Goodwin said. "A lot of guys will know that that person is raising roosters for fighting, but they don't understand what they can do about it.
"Well, you don't always have to raid a pit where a fight is taking place. In many states, possessing a bird with the intent to fight is also illegal. So we talk about how law enforcement can establish intent, and shut down these operations that are raising birds for fighting, even if the pit is in a different jurisdiction."
As owning and breeding the birds is not in and of itself illegal, intent to fight must be established. This could be done through finding paraphernalia—the weaponry, for example—via search warrant, eyewitness testimony of fighting, or undercover officers conducting investigations.
Cockfighting is illegal in all 50 states (cockfighting is legal in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands), and considered a felony in 41. Perhaps the strongest weapon the Humane Society has—certainly the one which seems to spook John the most—is the federal law which can be invoked whenever criminal commerce crosses state lines. This law, according to Goodwin, is "incredibly strong," and a vast array of seemingly innocuous offenses—transporting a bird from one state to fight in a pit from another, or the knives being made in one state and used in another, to offer two examples Goodwin gave me—can result in the cocker being hit with a federal felony. Attendees face federal misdemeanor charges, while anyone who brings a spectator under 16 years of age is also charged with a felony. These penalties are severe, and come backed with the full might of the government, headed by the USDA's Office of Inspector General, with the FBI or DEA's involvement when necessary/appropriate, such as when local law is bought off (cf. Operation Rose Thorn, where corruption wracked an entire Tennessee town) or the cockfighting is being used to launder drug money.
As for the cocker's appeal to culture and tradition, Goodwin considers these "the weakest excuses for animal cruelty."
Goodwin feels that only a small subset of people considers cockfighting an important part of their heritage. "I grew up in Tennessee, and I'm sure that anyone that is sympathetic to cockfighting will argue that, 'Oh, well, it's tradition in Tennessee,'" Goodwin said. "Well, the fact is, I never even knew much about what it was until I got involved in animal protection issues. And everyone I know in Tennessee abhors cockfighting. They see it as just this primitive form of animal cruelty that should not exist in the 21st century. Tennesseans—and I'm a native Tennessean—we don't want our heritage and our traditions defined by the standards of what was acceptable in 1750."
I asked Goodwin if what the cockers say about the birds—their immense beauty, their inspirational carriage, and almost mythical spirit—is true.
"Oh yeah," he told me. "Oh yeah. They are very beautiful birds. When you get out and see some for yourself, you'll really think that they're gorgeous animals. Which is what makes it so heartbreaking to go on a cockfighting raid and see a pile of 25 of these animals that have just been completely mutilated ... I came across two birds [on a raid] that had fought each other, and both been killed, and one of them's intestines were hanging out and tangled around the other one's foot."
Cockfight in Queretaro, Mexico. Image via WikiMedia Commons
Can one consider cockfighting cruel while still partaking of the flesh of birds which have been warped via breeding into breast heavy, leg squat, pound accruing meat machines? Is the life of the factory farm chicken, and its inevitable end, comparable to the gamecock's two years of pampered care and relatively brief, only possible death? Does it matter that one is providing people with sustenance, the other recreation?
If we originally domesticated the red junglefowl for fighting, is it wrong to breed them into the ultimate expression of that goal? Does it matter that, original intent or not, the intent was still ours?
Does it matter that the rooster needs no prodding to slit the throat of its brother, that John says you need not—should not—be cruel to it, torture it into combat like a dog? Is fighting what a rooster does, or is it all we have allowed it, after these thousands of years, to do?
There are gloves and chips; the roosters can fight without killing each other. Is this OK?
Did you have wings or a chicken sandwich or an egg dish today?
I had wings the night before I met John in that Marathon parking lot.
John's roosters sit in custom-made, round wire enclosures, replete with roofs and roosts and overturned buckets they can use to huddle out of the wind, along the tops of two gentle ridges which jut into his backyard like a snake's tongue, a small pond—frozen now—between them, a small land bridge connecting the two where the fork splits. When it was legal for him to fight his birds, John says these ridges were thick with gamecocks; as it stands now, the ones on the ridge directly behind the house shares space with a swing set and a white tom turkey. The operation is a shadow of what it once was, John's only focus now on breeding—keeping the bloodlines alive—and the roosters are sullen in the frigid cold.
And yet, they are beautiful! These are not the scrawny roosters of the barn yard, nor the fattened walking breasts of the food industry; these birds are proud, fierce, with long, cascading feathers covering their breasts like a lion's mane and a dazzling array of colors; the reds, in particular, are beautiful, the rich carmine of their leonine adornment fading into a deeper spiced rum hue, their wings a deep, luxe of greens and purples which shimmer like heat and which spread into their tails, held highly like iridescent fountains. The gamecock's legs are long and powerful, its chest like a cursive G; looking at them is like seeing a doberman instead of a labrador, an AK-47 instead of a squirrel rifle, beautiful machines designed for singular purposes.
The bird's disposition is surprisingly benign when it comes to anything but another cock; John reached in and picked up a grey rooster to allow me a closer look, the bird putting up no more a fight than a house cat. When he can tether them in the spring, he regularly handles the birds, paradoxically preferring those with a genial attitude.
According to John, you do not need to torture a rooster to get it to fight, as you would a dog, and while they can stare across the cages at each other now with little fanfare—having been billeted together for so long—if one were to have his cage door opened he would fly immediately at his cursed foe. "They will destroy each other through the wires," John tells me, willing to break their own toes in an effort to quench the affront that is another gamecock's mere existence; it is little wonder they are beloved by soldiers and athletes.
Some of those who have not been dubbed—had their combs removed—suffer the fleshy protuberances becoming jaundiced and rigid. The combs are freezing off, which pains John terribly, but he fears dubbing them when they are born—much faster, more controlled, and safer, he says, than having the comb slowly succumb to the brute elements—will draw heat from local law, since people will assume he has only done so to fight them. To have his cocks taken away, to be rescued, or, according to him, more likely euthanized—and this without even the benefit of a fight!—would be heartbreaking.
John provides his roosters with the highest quality feed; the brood pit's diet is John's own special blend, which includes fresh fruits and vegetables, "things people eat." His bloodlines are long and proud, and he takes their stewardship and continued curation seriously. He shows me some cocks he received from a 90-year-old neighbor who simply could not care for them anymore. "He said he wanted the line to survive," John says. "And I told him as long as I'm alive, it would."
Among the roosters out to stud are savvy champions, survivors of the pit; some have been "tested with steel," i.e., entered into fights with gaffs or knives or spurs, four to five times; John needn't test these to know their brood will be fierce and fast, prime examples of the species.
"I know the heart in these," he tells me.
Tucked in the back corner of the ridge further from the house—separated, for now, by a slick, tricky climb down one hill and up the other—sits John's pride and joy, the rooster he will breed until the day he dies: Caesar.
Caesar is sitting upon his roost, tucked into the back corner like a god, and it takes John a good minute or so of pleading and jostling for him to alight on the straw. A superlative red, he carries himself as one imagines a gladiator would, and he regards us with a cool indifference, an affect brought about by the cold but which seems impressive none the less.
Caesar is among the finest fighters John has ever seen, extremely powerful and blindingly fast, and with an assassin's accuracy to boot. According to John, a good cockfight, between proper opponents, should be over quickly, like a knife fight between special ops soldiers. The weapons level the playing field and allow for quick deaths—losers can survive a cockfight; if they are not willing to battle, their opponent is snapped up and the match is called—that can come in mere seconds or minutes. Caesar could dispatch his foes in one go, coming down from that first mid-air collision with the gaff having already found it's lethal position. He has been tested with the steel 11 times.
"I can see how people could think it's cruel," John says, as we walk back towards his house. "Especially if they aren't familiar with it." John shows me his cocks like a proud dog owner does her champion pedigree bulldog, or a bibliophile their first edition of Vanity Fair; the love he and Bucky Harless speak about seems manifest. I get the impression that he truly cares for the animals, while at the same time understanding them for what cockers consider them to be; exquisite, ancient, living weapons.
John does not fight the roosters anymore, the risk not near worth the reward. "That little girl in there is counting on me," he says. "I can't let her see her daddy go to jail." The way he sees it, the days of huge farms—he told me the day before about a man in Ohio, a rich guy, who had three five acre lots covered in gamecocks—and massive, multi-thousand dollar purse derbies are over; only the true lovers, cockers for whom the birds mean more than the wagers, are left.
"There's always going to be cockfighting," John tells me as I am about to leave, but it is just going to be the provenance of the true believers from now on.
"And maybe that's the way it ought to be."