Sunday, April 09, 2006

A Cockfight in the Philippines

A fellow casino dealer recently traveled to the Philippines and sent me the following account of a cockfight that he attended. No, he didn't set out to go to a cockfight, his in-laws took him there. But once there, he took part in the wagering and observed with a casino dealer's eye for the money.

Why post a story about a cockfight? I'm curious about the many ways that humans and chickens have evolved together, there's one reason. I'm continually frustrated by the public dialogue about avian flu, and the assumption that the normal way to keep chickens is in large egg or meat factories. The world needs to know more about what people do with chickens, even cockfights. Cockfighting is legal and popular in the Philippines. It is even televised, with its own commercials for cockfighting supplies. Yet, the Philippines is among the few nations in that part of the world that is still free of avian flu. Go figure.

There are some four-letter words in this, and violence, of course, so if you don't want to read it don't, but here it is:

After taking a PAL flight from Manila to Roxas City, I was treated to a three hour boat ride, on my brother-in-law├é’s boat, to the far away island of Jintotulo. Please keep in mind this boat had four adult passengers, two teenagers, a small child and a crew of four.

"A three hour cruise, a three hour cruise."

The tiny ship was rocked and I arrived there looking like a drowned rat and feeling like a Viking. When I got to Jintotulu (where my wife is from and her parents live) I got to go to a cockfight!

This was the highlight of my trip and a very JamesBondian experience.

Note the bleachers around the pit.

The locals move out of my way in order to give me a prime space to watch. There were no women or girls present. Everyone then starts to shout to the ringmaster in the center of the ring. Obviously they were making bets on either the white cock or the red one. I wasn't going to bet on the first match but after a couple of minutes the ringmaster looks at me and says; Hey Joe, you want to bet three hundred? I said; Yes, three hundred on the red one (pointing to the cock on my side of the ring). He waved his hand and with a smug expression indicated I had no bet. He then looked at me and waved his hand towards the opposite side of the ring. I then realized that since us bettors weren't laying odds or giving up points, he was trying to even up the betting at my expense. A minute later he asked me if I want to bet 500. I said yes and again pointed to the red bird. He waved off my bet and then grabbed himself in a Michael Jackson fashion, as if to dare me to bet on the white cock. Meanwhile the referee is writing down the bets in a spiral ring notebook.

The other man in the pit (the referee) then held a bird in each hand, faced them towards each other and released them. My bird scored the "dim mak" the other bird didn't die but was obviously unable to continue. This however, being a "fight to the death" the referee would grab a bird in each hand and face them off again. This process was repeated until the white cock was deemed to be dead.

Now all eyes are on "Joe" because he picked the winning cock, even though I hadn't won anything. At this point one of my nephews-in-law brings me a glass of "halo halo" which is a delicious Filipino desert made with shaved ice, jellied fruit and sweet cream. He explains that I'm sitting on the side of the ring for the first time birds. The experienced birds are brought to the other side of the ring. My oldest brother-in-law then tells me to "go look at the birds" and points to an area near a very old tree that is about 20 feet from the ring, where all the bettors are gathered.

This gathering is the equivalent of the "cock weigh-in" and there are six bird owners holding their prized cocks (birds). They hold the birds while facing them to each other in order to determine the two birds that display the most animosity towards each other. There is a lot of talking going on and I can tell the organizers are getting a feel for whether the betting will be equal in a match between the birds in question. I look at the old tree and I see how they disposed of the losing white cock: by dumping him unceremoniously at the roots of the "tree of woe."

After the contestants are selected, the owners begin the process of tying and taping the three inch long curved blades to the left ankle of their bird. In some cases these blades are selected from a collection displayed in a wooden case that was probably more accustomed to containing expensive silverware in its previous life. After the cocks are ready everyone returns to the ring and the shouting starts immediately. The cocky (pun intended) ringmaster looks at me and asks if I want to bet 500 Filipino money (10 USD). I said yes and pointed again to the red cock. He seems to book my bet and I look to my brother-in-law and ask him if I have a bet. He says that he doesn't know because he doesn't bet on cockfights. I said I just wanted to know if I have a bet or not and he finally says he thinks I do.

The referee released the birds and my bird jumps high and seems to drive its blade in the chest of his opponent. Everyone (including the chickens) knows that the white cock is doomed. The referee continues to pick up both birds and face them off, even though the white bird merely hangs there limply. After he releases the birds, my bird merely pecks at the face and eyes of his adversary. He is taking no chances of getting close to the other bird's feet, where a voluntary or involuntary kick could send him to the tree of woe.

Now please don't think harshly of me because at this point and I stand up and scream; "FINISH HIM!" which brought cheers from my brethren of those that bet on the red cock. The white cock was finally declared dead (it looks strange seeing the referee check the bird's wrist for a pulse) and I stand up again to join my comrades in a barbaric roar.

The organizers then collect the losing bets, which are generally crumpled and thrown angrily to the center of the pit. I ask my brother-in-law if I should ask for my money and he tells me not to worry. The referee then comes to me and hands me a 500-peso bill. I smile, thank him and display my coin purse as I gingerly shove the bill into it. I announce; "It was a pleasure doing business with you." This brings roars of approval from everyone in the pit area.

The third bout was a replay of the first: cocky ringmaster won't book my bet and my bird ends up winning.

Now "the legend of Joe" is truly born and I strut to the weigh-in like I'm Nick the Greek. I have my eye on one red cock that will face another red cock. The owners tape the blade one of the birds with blue tape so us bettors can tell them apart. The ringmaster then announces; "In this corner with the blue trunks (OK, tape) is a SIX time championnnnn!!!!" He then immediately looks at me and asks if I want to bet five hundred. I was not naive enough to believe that this bird was a six-time champion but that cock was scratching the ground with his claws (which I took to be a sign of aggression) while his opponent merely stood in the ring, looking around like he was thinking; "Where am I? What am I doing here? And why is everyone looking at me?" I immediately agree to bet 500 on the blue trunks when here comes a clear signal that "Joe the Greek" is about to get fleeced. Another cock trainer comes to the ring carrying a bird. He shoves it is the face of my bird's opponent in order to get him riled. I knew I was f**ked but also knew that the worst thing that could happen is that I would break even for the day on the last bout. And besides, no one was beefing, so I can assume that this is within the Queensbury rules of cockfighting.

This is a picture of me losing my money.

To no ones surprise, I lost my bet but managed to take what was to be the last photo on this set of batteries. I choose to be a gentleman and hand my money to the referee and say; "Easy come, easy go." Which the crowd seemed to appreciate. I then retired to the "store" across the street where I drank warm San Miguel beer (to excess) with my brother-in-law and one of my wife's uncles, who was a lawyer and had a pleasant conversation about dealers cheating the players and witchcraft on the island. There were two other tables with people playing mah jong and "tong 8" which is a cross between rummy 500 and tonk.

Now please don't misunderstand: I have a total distain for the "sport" of dog fighting but after all these are chickens we are talking about. After much useless searching, I finally scored a cockfighting tee shirt at the gift shop of the Heritage, which was the first Hotel I stayed at (typical). I plan on wearing it to the first PETA rally I can find.

Dale S. Yeazel

There is so much going on in the world of backyard poultry. I liked that quote in the New York Times last week about how long distance shipping of day-old chicks "has made the chicken the most migratory bird in the world". Another report from the New York Daily News described a international cockfighting derby in Manilla last January that attracted entries from around the world.

When I lived in Honolulu, all of my neighbors had chickens but nobody ever had eggs for sale. Cockfighting is as old as the hills; I've never been able to keep roosters from trying to kill each other, unless they develop their own survival strategies. I'm guessing that the knives speed the contests up, facilitating the betting action, and saving the work of slaughtering the loser. I can't find the link, but I read a story a few years ago about a guy in the Phillipines who failed to restrain his rooster after getting it all hyped up to fight. He was slashed in the groin by his own bird and bled to death. ("Joe the Greek" tells me that he saw the handlers put leather sheaths over the blades until it was time to fight.)

In the avian flu news there is a disconnect between the science and news reporting world, and the backyard chicken world. Chickens are more than just meat and eggs -- here they are providing entertainment and a shot at fame and fortune for a few skilled (and lucky) backyard breeders.

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