“For it is only apparently cocks that are fighting there. Actually, it is men.”
-Clifford Geertz, Notes on the Balinese Cockfight
Men cheer, roosters squeal, and the evanescent smell of blood permeates the dust-filled, squalid air. The last glimmers of life were just stoked out of an uncomprehending rooster, and I stood witness to this carnage amidst a mob of fanatic, dare I say entertained, men. I am at a cockfight in Honduras, and the mania of men in full cowboy regalia – hats, blue jeans, belt buckles, boots – publicly battling their cocks is almost too metaphorical for my good senses to bear. The fighting between cocks is too brash, gruesome, and all too real for this over worn double-entendre. There is something hidden deep down in the collective psychology that surrounds the cockfight which strikes at the very core of the men who participate in them. It is something primal, raw, and instinctual; it is something that strips the cultural over-pinning off of civilized men, and turns them back into animals. I am almost ashamed to admit it, but as I watched a rooster drive a razor sharp spur deep into his opponents breast, I felt the excitement of the cockfight in my very bones. My jaw hung loose, my arms flayed in the air, and, for a few brief moments I, too, became an animal.
Earlier on in this bright summer day I arrived at the cockfight ring in the village of Copan Ruinas, Honduras unsure of what to expect. It was the middle of the Semana Santa religious celebration, and one of the main events of this holy week was the one and only legal cockfight of the year. Men, women, and children flocked to this battle of barnyard fowl from out of the hills and villages of rural Honduras and neighboring Guatemala. There was a glimmer of excitement and dire anticipation on everyone’s faces, as this was an event for which they have been preparing for all year long. Roosters were brought in by the dozens, and where stacked in crates by the ringside.
As I walked along the outsides of these crates and peered at the proud cocks within, I could not help wondering if these modern gladiators knew what they would soon be in for. I felt as if I was the keeper of a dirty secret, as I knew that half of these roosters, who were in the prime of their lives, would soon fall dead upon the blood speckled dirt of a 30X30 foot ring amidst the whooping cheers and heart wrenching cries of a crowd of highly excited men. I wished that I could have whispered some sort of warning to these unsuspecting barnyard warriors.
Cockfighting is usually illegal in Honduras, but once a year, during the Semana Santa festival in spring, the governing body of Copan Ruinas allows roosters to battle publicly for one single afternoon. At every other time of year the cockfighters of Honduras need to be on guard against the authorities as they stage their battles deep in the secluded woods of the surrounding hills – or they grease a few opportune palms.
It is not my impression that animal rights plays into the illegalization of cockfights in Honduras, as these are people who slaughter their own livestock by hand from the time they are able to walk. I can remember talking to an old woman once who nonchalantly snapped the neck of a duck as she was calmly telling me about her flower garden. No, I do not think that animal rights has yet entered the collective consciousness of the rural Hondurans.
Rather, I think that cockfights are illegal mostly because of the gambling element and the fact that cockfights tend to bring out the extreme masculine qualities of the men who participate in them. And two of these qualities are the excessive consumption of alcohol and an inherent attraction to gambling. As I walked around the cockfight ring, I could smell the heavy air of beer staunched breathe and watched large amounts of money changing between the hands of men with six shooters strapped to their hips. Generally speaking, blood sports, money, beer, guns, and men do not make the best combination for lawful behavior. I fully understand why cockfighting is not legal in Honduras, and these reasons have nothing to do with animal rights.
At this point I could only imagine what the actual combat would be like, and I was very excited to put my curiosity to rest. I must admit that I wanted to watch the roosters in the crates kill each other. I wanted to know what it would feel like to watch a blood-sport in the raw. Some deeply embedded sense of maleness, some inner-excitement at the pending combat that would soon ensue welled up from within me.
I went over and began talking with a nervous young Honduran man, who was decked out in a brand new cowboy hat and matching boots for the occasion, as he sat pensively near his crates of roosters. He told me that he raised his cocks from the time that they were first hatched with the intention of fighting them, and that he fed them a special diet for their entire lives and exercised their muscles daily by pushing them up and down against the ground.
The training process for fighting cocks generally takes about two full years, and they are worked out daily and pampered by their owners for this entire period. I could tell by the look in this young man’s eyes that he had really grown to love his roosters in this time and that they were not just fighters or pets, but, in a very real sense, they were a part of his family.
This boy of 20 years of age would soon test his newly budding manhood against that of the other males in his community, and watch his beloved roosters fight and die in the cockfight arena. As I looked at the gristly old faces of his competitors, it became evident that he was the youngest of them all and that this cockfight was a part of this young man’s passage into manhood.
It was arranged that one of the young man’s roosters would be the first to mar the ring with blood, feathers, triumph, and defeat. I felt his anxiety as he placed his jet black rooster upon the scale so that its weight class could be determined. In a matter of minutes a golden Shanghai cock was selected to be its challenger, and the preliminary procedures of a Honduran cockfight were set in motion.
The owners of fighting cocks seldom go into the ring with their precious foul, rather they entrust this important task to the services of experienced handlers who deeply know the ropes and various strategies of cockfighting. These men essentially act as ring-side boxing coaches do, and they can essential win or loose a fight for the owner. The anthropologist Richard Geertz once wrote that “. . . a good handler is worth his weight in gold. Some of them can virtually make the dead walk . . .for if a cock can walk, he can fight . . .” These handlers are responsible for getting the roosters into a frenzied condition and ready to fight, as well as repairing and patching them up when they are injured. They also place the roosters into their fighting positions and break up the fight between rounds and when one rooster’s spur gets entangled in the plume of the other. The handlers also have the important job of affixing the razor sharp, three inch, stainless steel spur to the legs of the combatants immediately before the start of the match.
Soon the once empty and placid ring was a frenzy of activity: the handlers were getting the roosters ready to fight, the judge was making sure that the rules were understood, and the betters were making odds and collecting bets. Excitement was overflowing the air, and I stepped out of my seat and took a position at the side of the crowded ring. I could see the boy first-time-fighter who I was talking to earlier directly across the ring from me. He looked very young in his nervousness. His bird was in the hands of a brute of a man, and the fate of his manly pride and money were resting on the outcome of this fight. I was nervous for him. A bell soon sounded and the ring cleared out, except for a judge, two handlers, and two proud, standing animals.
Silence prevailed over all and everything. Not a word was spoken from the two hundred person crowd, not a sound emitted from the handlers or the judge, and not even the birds ventured to make even the meekest of noises. A sharp bell then sliced through the silence, and two cocks, drawn to hate each other by deeply ingrained instinct alone, tore at each other from opposite sides of the ring. They met in a tumble of wings, beaks, feathers, and the intermittent flashes of their razor sharp spurs. The crowd roared and beat the sides of the wooded ring with their arms and legs. Each claw and spur thrust by a rooster was accompanied by the frenzied shouts and perilous wails of the men that crowded up against the small ring. Animal rage rang out from the roosters and human rage rang out from the crowd. A splatter of blood suddenly shot up from the rolling and tumbling mass of feathers, beaks, and spurs and landed all over the shirt of the woman standing next to me. She squealed, the roosters squawked as well, and the wretched smell of blood rose from the dirt ring.
Everything was happening so quickly, and almost as soon as the fight had started the handlers jumped in to split up the combatants at the end of the round. I peeked at the blood-spattered woman standing next to me whose face was full of disgust, I peeked across the ring at the sad face of the young man whose beloved rooster had been hacked hard, and I suddenly felt the abruptness of a blood-sport first hand.
After a few more bloody rounds similar to this one, a winner, or rather a loser – as both birds were battered beyond recognition – emerged. A once erect, proud, and vociferous cock sat spent in a pile of blood and discordant feathers in the center of the ring. It was the rooster of the poor young man that I was talking to earlier. With a slight amount of hesitation and embarrassment, I glanced across the ring to the place where he stood. He looked just as crushed as his fighter was.
The “winning” cock was still hobbling dizzily over his slain foe, peaking meekly at his dead body, moments before his handler raised him to the air with a victorious cheer. The razor sharp spurs racked injuries to both combatants, but only one was lucky enough to have been the dealer of the fatal blow. He was carried off as an unknowing hero amid a chorus of incomprehensible cheers.
This victorious rooster did only what he was programmed and equipped by nature to do; nothing more, nothing less. The defeated cock was soon pealed up off of the dirt floor of the ring by his sad faced, youthful owner, and taken out behind the spectator stands to be chopped into piece-meal and sold as soup-stuff. A boy witnessed his prized pet, two years of love and attention, and a notion of manhood hacked to pieces in a matter of moments.
The blood in the ring was then washed with a bucket of water, two more cocks were chosen, another round of bets were cast, and two more sets of spurs were attached to the next uncomprehending roosters. The winners were paraded, the losers were dismembered, and the show went on and on throughout the afternoon. I, for my part, shook with a cross stream of terror and excitement as I tried to piece together the ebb and flow of life, victory, death, and defeat that I had just witnessed at this cockfight in Honduras.
I soon grew weary of the all of the blood and violence, and sought refuge away from the ring and the screaming multitude which surrounded it.
I had many questions that I could not answer about what I had just witnessed, and I had many unresolved emotions as to how I felt about blood-sports and cockfighting. I had watched grown men run around, jump up and down, and whoop war cries to the heavens as two animals peck and spur each other to death in fits of animal frenzy. These men seemed as if they had undergone a kind of transformation as they wildly jumped around the outsides of the cockfight arena. While the fights were in process, these men no longer displayed any trace of the polite reserve and conservative behavior that I had grown to take for granted from Hondurans. These men became something that the civilizing forces of their society could no longer touch: they had become salivating beasts as they watched barnyard birds tear each other limb from limb. Their very socialization seemed to be undone by the instinctual rage of the feathered combatants.
Perhaps I felt this rage as well, because I too participated in the murderous howls that cheered on the glorious victories of the winning roosters and the sorrowful wails that accompanied the dying breaths of the losers. A cockfight is a life or death battle that strikes at the cords of some deeply buried, primal human urge. I cannot say what this urge is, but as I stood at the ringside in the midst of the frenzied crowd, I know that it simply felt good to throw my cultural overcoat to the wind and become animal again. Around the cockfight rings of Honduras, man and beast blend together and come of age.
At the cockfight in Honduras I watched men cheered, I observed men weep, I grew excited as cocks stood proudly erect in victory and became sadden when they fell flaccidly spent in defeat, I witnessed a boy became a man, and found out first hand what it feels to like to act like a beast. My curiosity has now been satiated: I now know of the battles that ensue when instinct conquers reason, when animals fight to the death in made-for-man bloodsports, and the mania of men who are provided with a ring within which they can prove who has the biggest, strongest, and most victorious cock.