"Roosters are Born Fighters"

Editor's note: On July 1, New Mexico will become the 49th state to ban cockfighting, leaving Louisiana as the lone holdout. Legally, states have made a clear distinction between cockfighting and dog fighting and outdoors pursuits such as "fishing, hunting, falconry, taking and trapping," in the language of the New Mexico bill. But some cockfighting proponents opposed the ban on the grounds that it posed a potential threat to hunters' rights.

"It's very far-fetched to use the slippery slope argument in this case," counters Lisa Jennings, the executive director of Albuquerque-based Animal Protection Voters, which supported the ban. "Even though our organization doesn't support hunting per se, some people could make the argument that, hey, I hunt for food and there's some benefit to me. But when you look at cockfighting or dog fighting, there's no overall benefit to society. I grew up in a hunting family myself, and I don't know anyone who I grew up with who hunts who would tolerate intentional animal fighting."

The debate made us curious, so on the eve of the ban, this site asked a writer in Albuquerque to learn what he could about cockfighting in the region. The result is the story you see here. Because ESPNOutdoors.com readers can be quite discerning on matters of humans' relationship with animals, we expect you'll have something to say about this topic. We invite your comments via the ESPN Conversation feature at the bottom of this and every news story on this site. — The Editors

My friend called me up on a dull Memorial Day weekend in Albuquerque:

"Want to go to Mexico for some cockfighting?"

Why not? I shoved some clothes in a bag and Judith picked me up for a family weekend. She, her kids — Carlos and Carlita — and I drove for six hours to the border town of Douglas, Ariz., where we waited at a McDonald's for her uncle, Roberto, to call. He gave us directions on where to meet him when we crossed the border.

"He's not a federal agent, right?" Roberto kept asking Judith in Spanish over the phone. We laughed at the idea, but many people in the southwest are getting nervous. On July 1, cockfighting will be prohibited throughout New Mexico, the 49th state to ban the activity (Louisiana, that throwback, holds out).

No doubt, the state's prohibition on the millennia-old pastime won't end it any more than it has in places like Arkansas, which banned cockfighting in 1879 and where more than 60 people were arrested May 19 in a raid near the Oklahoma border. The ban may even make the sport more popular and shroud it further in mystery, but for now many of the established cockfighting venues will shutter, and relocate away from the eyes of the police.

Uncle Roberto is a lifelong cocker. For almost 40 years he has bred, raised and fought roosters. During the work week, he lives in a small trailer with his daughter on the American side of the border. They both work in Arizona at Euro Fresh, as quality control inspectors of cucumbers and beef tomatoes. On the weekend, they live in Agua Prieta, Mexico, with Roberto's wife, brother in-law's family, his son and daughter in-law, their four kids, and about 90 chickens.

Judith drove us across the border into Agua Prieta, in the northern territory of Sonora. She pulled up to a pharmacy. Roberto, a prolific smoker, came out of the store with a carton of Marlboros and we followed him to his house.

We pulled into his driveway around 9 p.m. and Roberto showed me around. There was the front house where his brother in-law, Hector, lived with his wife. In the back was his house where everyone else stayed. Encircling compound walls were rows of wire cages with sleeping hens, roosters and chicks of myriad varieties and sizes. He had a farm of 200 to 300 roosters that he sold to his son, Roberto Jr., who has taken up the family mantle as cocker. Uncle Roberto said he was now retired and just kept a few around his house with Hector and his daughter, Diana.

"Some people think we're criminals," Roberto said. "But they don't know how well we treat them."

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An extra talon made of metal is added onto the Rooster's leg before the fight begins Aurin Squire

Your typical fighting bantam is a born aggressor, ready to fight by about 8-months-old. Weighing about 6 pounds (and within 2 ounces of his opponent's weight) he has been trained to bristle at the sight of another rooster, and to slash him with 1-inch metal or plastic blades, called gaffs, that the cockers lash to the birds' legs.

Breeders such as Roberto develop their own breeds with a certain mixture of aggression and intelligence. Too smart, and the rooster will fly from fights. Too aggressive, and the bird will fight anything and everything.

"Still, most roosters are born fighters. It's not like bullfighting where a bull is drugged and forced to fight a man," Roberto said, citing the oft-romanticized sport.

On Roberto's farm, the cages reached as high as 7-feet-tall. Some cages had dozens of chicks, couples of hens. But all 40 roosters had their own cage. Roberto pointed to the various breeds in the cages: Red Hatch, Lazy Roundheads, Gray, Black, White Hackel. On both sides of each rooster cage were wooden boards so they couldn't see the other chickens, which they would attack on sight.

The oldest and meanest rooster on the lot was Diabolito. At 17 years, Diabolito was old for a rooster and had retired from fighting to became a brood cock for breeding. When Roberto stuck his hand near Diabolito's cage, the bird flew over to peck it. Roberto jumped back and laughed. The rooster hopped around and shook its red, black and white plumage.

We packed ourselves into two cars and headed to a restaurant where the owner hugged Roberto. As we sat down on two wooden benches, the waiter brought two platters stacked with grilled steak, chicken, pork, and tripe and a pile of tortillas. We ate and drank until 11. Roberto paid the owner $3 and we left.

Roberto stayed up into the night talking and smoking at his home. He had rooster table cloths, rooster utensil, rooster plates, rooster salt shakers, wooden rooster sculptures, and a 3-foot crucified Jesus on the wall. My bloodshot eyes watered as Roberto worked his way through a pack of cigarettes, showing me some of his 400 books on cockfighting.

For an activity now widely viewed as sadistic, it has a proud history. Like many men of their eras, George Washington was a cockfighting trainer, and Abraham Lincoln was a cockfighting referee in the woods of Illinois. The ancient Greeks and Romans pitted roosters against one another to rouse soldiers to battle.

"I've been fighting roosters for almost 40 years, but every day you learn something new," the old man said while fishing for another cigarette.

Roberto took out a box of cockfighting razors that he said were one-of-a-kind. The blades had various cutting angles and were needle sharp. They could draw blood from a touch.

Around 1 a.m. we went to sleep. At 5, the roosters started crowing and didn't stop. Most of the Roberto's family slept through the screeching. I got up and walked outside.

Roberto Jr's son, Angel, was showing Carlos a breed of chickens called "Hero." Angel placed a cup of chicken feed into a cage of squeaking baby chicks. Hector came out and showed some more of the Hero offspring and pointed to the mother hen who had her own cage a few yards away.

"If a cock wins three fights," Hector told me, "we call it an ace."

"What do you call it if it loses one or two?" I asked.

"We don't call it anything."

Some sparring was promised today but time was short. Roberto, Hector and I drove to the fish market to buy 10 pounds of stingray. Back at home Roberto took Diabolito out for some pictures. The rooster relished the opportunity to make mincemeat of out his owner's arms. Roberto grimaced as Diabolito drilled his arm with his sharp beak.

I went to Mass with the kids and Judy at Sagrado Corazon Catholic Church. When we came back Roberto had mashed and stewed the stingray in a pan he was stirring over a flame. His daughter, Diana, was sitting with four of her friends. They were all fluently bilingual industrial engineering graduates from a local college who worked at Euro Fresh, where Roberto Jr. also works and where college-educated Mexicans can still earn better wages inspecting vegetables in Arizona than working in their trained professions in Mexico.

We sat around drinking Bud Light while Uncle Roberto added tomato sauce, chopped vegetables and almost two cartons of butter into the stingray. I'm happy to report that stewed stingray tastes nothing like chicken. Instead the stringy, white meat was like a cross between fish and turkey.

Aunt Ramona, Roberto's wife, brought out soft taco wraps, hot sauce and lime wedges, which added a sour and tangy flavor to the meat. We ate pounds of stingray under a berry tree. A guitar materialized and someone began strumming a few chords. Roberto and his friends went around in a circle telling jokes. After an hour Hector stood up and went to get the roosters.

Angel watered down a patch of brown dirt to keep the dust from flying in our faces when the fighting began. Two red roosters were brought from their cages.

Uncle Roberto shaves the flabby red combs from all his fighting roosters so that they don't get snagged and tossed by their heads. He showed me the sharp spurs, also shaved to stumps, which jut from the bottom of each foot. In a fight, the gaffs are fitted to the end of the shaved spurs.

The two hens they brought out still had full spurs on their feet. Roberto and his son turned their backs to each other, so the birds wouldn't fight on sight, and placed plastic boxing gloves around their feet, so they wouldn't kill one another.

The men went to opposite ends of the improvised fighting pit, clutching their roosters with both hands. They faced each other and begin "cocking" the animals — prepping them for the bout — by bringing the roosters face-to-face and then backing away. The birds squawked and pecked at the air. The men placed the roosters on the ground and the fight began.

The roosters charged and spun around each other and attacked with their beaks and claws as the collar of feathers around their necks popped out menacingly. Like two boxers fitted with wings, the battlecocks jabbed, sidestepped, pivoted and swiped with their gloved feet. When backed into an indefensible position, they would often leap and hover in the air for a moment, maybe attacking with their feet, maybe slamming down onto his opponent, maybe floating back and setting up again. When one rooster got on top of the other and started pecking with his beak, Uncle Roberto and his son untangled the snarl of feathers and reset them at opposite sides.

Two more roosters sparred that afternoon, a pair of brothers who playfully swatted and pecked at each other. The afternoon sun sapped the energy from the roosters and spectators. Within an hour the damp field was again a patch of dry dust.

Afterward, the roosters went back into their cages. Uncle Roberto showed me the battlecocks' special pre-fight meal: corn meal, lentils, split peas, oats, molasses clumps, yellow corn, wheat, pulverized and powdered fish, brown rice, sunflower seeds, and red clumps that he said were multivitamins. He called this mix "the bomb."

Diana and her friends took off to watch some horse racing. The afternoon started cooling off as the sun ducked behind the trees. Roberto Jr. walked in with a smile on his face. He told his father that their neighbor José might hold a real bout, but one of the owners lacked gaffs and needed Uncle Roberto's. He agreed.

We walked next door to a home with a giant dirt courtyard with a sunflower and melon patch off to one side. Cages holding perhaps 50 chickens encircled the home's walls. Hens and back chicks scurried around, pecking orange rings left under a tree. A half-dozen kids and adults milled around, waiting for the battlecocks.

The kids sprayed down and raked a smooth fighting circle. José tied a razor holder around the bird's leg, then tied a steel gaff into the holder using a green string. The other owner, Mote, a short and chubby man with a gold tooth, arrived all smiles, carrying two birds in separate cages.

Mote told Uncle Roberto that both his roosters were new and untrained. Roberto looked dismayed at the news but tied his gaff around the first cock with a green string. José used a red string. To my untrained eye, the red and green strings were the only visible differences between the birds.

This wouldn't be playful sparring. The energy in the courtyard changed. The caged roosters and hens hushed as the spectators gathered around the two birds.

José sprayed his rooster down with bottled water. Then Uncle Roberto did something astonishing: He opened the beak of the green-string rooster and he spat in it. Then he pressed his lips against the back of the bird and blew a mouthful of air into the feathers. I asked Roberto later about it and he laughed. "It gives them heat," he said. "You don't want them to get cold."

The men released the roosters. The untrained chicken looked confused, but once on the ground, there was no hesitation. They attacked, and in a fashion more balletic than in the earlier sparring. The birds floated up and down, extending their wings, striking out with their feet and beaks — until the red-string bird suddenly turned away and unleashed a green puddle of excrement from its behind. The green-string rooster in turn let loose his own soupy waste. Then they resumed fighting.

The green-string rooster took the first serious hit. Blood poured down his right leg. He hesitated but kept attacking. The red-string bird stabbed him again under the stomach, then scored a third cut. His opponent sank down into a puddle of blood.

Uncle Roberto lifted Mote's rooster to examine the cuts. José sprayed his winner with water. A crowd gathered around the injured battlecock.

"They say it's superficial cuts," Judy told me as Roberto Jr. untied the razor from the rooster's foot and placed the bird's head on a bed of rocks. The trainers prepared for the next fight.

Carlos ran to the bleeding rooster. The bird's head lolled back and forth and it convulsed and smacked its wings against the ground. A white film coated its eyes and it died. A child lifted the rooster's lifeless head and dropped it back to the ground.

Diana brought over one of her battlecocks to fight Mote's. Uncle Roberto shaved down the spur and tied the gaff to his daughter's bird with a green string. Then he spat in its mouth and on its back and both trainers cocked their fighters. Diana's rooster seemed crafty. It attacked and retreated, sidestepped and jabbed. When the green-string rooster charged, it leapt up, turned and landed back in the fighting circle. The red-string rooster jumped up and made a diving attack at his opponent. In response, Diana's bird slid underneath the hovering bird and continued fighting. He made the first cut and blood poured down his opponent's leg.

In a cloud of feathers, a second cut emerged on the red-string rooster's neck. Blood started trickling down both roosters' legs. In the last scuffle, the inexperienced rooster had managed to lash out and break the leg of his opponent. Diana's battlecock won but was severely crippled. Roberto Jr. lifted up his sister's rooster, spun it around until the neck snapped and dropped it to the ground.

Lying on its back, the chicken shook and flapped its wings. A child, no older than 9, came over and pressed his sneakers down on the battlecock's neck, choking off its air supply.

"Who won?" a spectator asked. I pointed to Diana's rooster, dying under the foot of a child.

I was told, once again, that the losing rooster had superficial cuts and it might live. Having lost both fights, Mote didn't bother to see if his rooster would make it.

"If he lives, you can have it," he told Diana.

Roberto Jr. picked the bleeding rooster up and carried it back home. He dropped it off in the yard in front of Uncle Roberto's house and went inside.

The sun had set and it was the end of the week. Uncle Roberto and Diana had to be at work by 5 a.m. on Monday. They had to pack and make their way across the border to their trailer in Arizona where they would spend the night, rather than crossing over in the morning when it would be crowded with other Mexicans headed to their U.S. day jobs.

Roberto Jr. was going to take his chances with the morning traffic and opted to spend the night at home in Agua Prieta with his wife and kids.

Uncle Roberto sat down at his kitchen table with the rooster-print cloth and utensils. He soaked a paper towel and wiped two spots of blood from his beige leather boots as he spoke.

"The owner told me his roosters had been with their hens last night," he said as he shook his head. "That's why they had no energy."

Judy and I followed Roberto's car to a drug store where he picked up another carton of cigarettes. Then we waited in line for a half-hour at the border as cars were packed a half-mile back. When we got over to Arizona we met up at a gas station. Roberto was filling his car. Everyone kissed and hugged each other.

"You have to come back soon," Uncle Roberto pointed at me.

"Deer hunting season starts in a few weeks."

Aurin Squire is a New York-based playwright, screenwriter and journalist. He can be reached at squireny@aol.com.