Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cockfighting

Cockfight In Luang Namtha, Lao People's Democratic Republic

Duang and I have been back in the United States for a little over a week now.  We had Internet connection installed two days ago so we are now able to access the world quite easily once again.

On the Internet the other day there was a story about a man being killed in California by an "armed rooster".  Allegedly the man had been stabbed by a fighting rooster that had a "knife" strapped to its leg.  Police stated that ..."sharp force injury" to his right calf.
I do not believe that we have heard the last of this story.  I find it difficult to believe that a chicken killed the man - unless the chicken was "Superchicken" from cartoon and film fame or that the knife attached to the chicken's leg was a KA-Bar knife (U. S. Marine Corps fighting knife) or similar weapon.

The report was that when the Police arrived at the site of the cockfight the spectators fled. I suspect that the victim had been stabbed in the calf by a chicken but not any chicken of the species Gallus Gallus.

Why am I writing about this event?  I have attended three cockfights that I can remember in Thailand as well as in Laos.  Having seen cockfights, I have difficulty understanding how a fighting rooster could mortally wound a human by stabbing the person in the leg through his trousers.


I saw my first cockfight about three years ago in Tahsang Village.  Duang and I had returned to Thailand after living as well as working in Vietnam.  We had returned to Isaan and were staying at a hotel outside of Kumphawapi near Duang's home village.  We often went to her home village of Tahsang to visit family and friends.  It was during one of the visits that a cousin stopped by Duang's home to announce and invite me to a cockfight.  I had never seen a cockfight before and my knowledge of them was limited to some television reports of illegal cockfighting in California, some scenes from Hollywood movies, and a newspaper article or two.  Being curious and wishing to experience as much of Lao Loum and Thai culture that I could, I accepted the invitation with a certain amount of trepidation.  I was apprehensive that either the Police would raid the event and I would be arrested only a short time after returning to Thailand or that the gory spectacle would physically sicken me.

I followed Duang's cousin down the village lane towards the flood plain outside of the village.  We were joined by people of all ages excitedly and animatedly walking in the same direction.  Shortly we arrived at a small wood house.  Outside of the home a makeshift arena, cockpit, had been constructed of the finely woven plastic netting that the villagers use to store harvested sheaves of rice on while awaiting threshing.  The fine netting captures the rice kernels that fall from the rice stalks due to handling and prevents them from being wasted.  The cockpit was about 2-1/2 feet high (750 mm) and 5 feet in diameter (1,500 mm).  The surface of the cockpit was compacted dirt.  Surrounding the arena were several woven bamboo domes underneath which was a rooster.  The bamboo domes are widely seen throughout Thailand and the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR).  The domes are used to store chickens that are for sale at the local markets and used to shelter chickens at village homes.  In Isaan the chickens are all "free range chickens" - chickens roam about the houses feeding off of the land until the day that they contribute to the family's nourishment.  Families in Tahsang Village typically eat chicken twice a month.



My apprehension regarding a Police raid was immediately abated upon arrival at the fighting site; it was the home of the village Policeman.  I also learned that cockfighting was not illegal in Thailand.  Cockfighting is a longtime component of Thai culture which is widely practiced today.  Cockfighting is also very prevalent throughout Southeast Asia.  Although cockfighting is legal in Thailand, gambling is not legal.  However, Thailand is Thailand and things are not often the way they seem or are supposed to be.  Often in Isaan as well as Thailand I am reminded of the Catholic practice of granting dispensations - under certain circumstances or "considerations" the law can be "overlooked".  Since the village policeman was involved in the event, there was a wide and open display of betting on the outcome of the bouts - no different than what I witnessed at Muay-Thai bouts in Pattaya and Bangkok.

My apprehension over becoming physically ill dissipated as the bout wore on.  Unlike press accounts that I had read or television reports regarding cockfighting, these roosters did not wear razor blades or knives on their legs.  To the contrary, the naturally occurring spurs on their legs were actually taped up to prevent injuries to the combatants.  The combatants were however injured from pecking each other on the top of the head during their fight.  The roosters fight to assert dominance ... hmmm to establish a pecking order so to speak.  In addition to a natural proclivity to establish ranking and breeding rights, gamecocks are selectively bred to reinforce their fighting instincts towards each other.

Prior to their bout, each rooster is carefully prepared for their bout.  The bird is washed with water that has "chicken medicine" dissolved in it.  The "chicken medicine" which heats up the water gives the chicken "power".  After the bird is bathed the rooster is force fed some water with medicine in it as well as some rice water for additional strength and endurance.

The match commences by the handlers introducing the roosters to each other. Some people may doubt or feign to debate if there is truly love at first sight however with gamecocks there is no question that there is instant hate at first sight.  Once the roosters are aware of each other's presence they are placed inside of the ring.  The birds are allowed to fight for 15 minutes and then allowed to rest for about 10 minutes before going at it again for another 15 minutes.  A match can last up to 3 rounds but the fight is stopped when one of the roosters gives up.  The handlers and spectators shout their encouragement to their favorite rooster but do nothing to interfere with the match.  My general impression of my first cockfight was that it was boring and rather pointless.  However my impression was created through my cultural experiences, traditions and my upbringing.  For the people of Southeast Asia and other countries, cockfighting has a long tradition and is part of their cultural fabric.

In the match that I watched, a winner was declared or rather was very apparent in the second round.  It was a major disappointment for the local people.  The pride of Thasang Village had lost to a chicken from BANGKOK!  Just as in America there is nothing more galling than to have the cityslicker beat the country people at their own game!  Besides the bets that were lost on the match, a great deal of pride and prestige were lost by the early loss by the Tahsang rooster.  Although the match was not to the death and the fight was not too bloody, there was a fatality from the event ... the next day as I walked by the losing rooster's handler's home I saw a pot of boiling water over an open wood fire with chicken or rather rooster legs sticking out of the pot.  The losing rooster was going to be eaten.  Fighting roosters who have a record of winning are valuable assets to a family and are cared for.  Roosters who fail to win become a meal for the family - winning is everything for a gamecock.

When we were in Luang Namtha, Laos a year ago, I found some young village boys outside of our hotel, The Boat Landing Restaurant and Hotel, engaged in cockfighting.  The boys and their fighting birds had ridden their bicycles over to the flat grassy area outside of the hotel compound and had their bouts.  For the fight that I witnessed and photographed there were no bets.  It appeared that prestige, bragging rights, and pride were at stake.  Once again the birds did not wear any blades or knives and their natural spurs, if they had them, were taped to minimize injuries.  Midway into the third round the boys stopped the fight when it became apparent one bird had quit fighting.  The only apparent injuries that I saw were peck marks on top of the rooster's head.  Once again I found the event to be pointless.

On our last trip to Laos in December there was cockfighting at the Hmong New Years Festival in Luang Prabang.  Gambling is legal in the Lao People's Democratic Republic so there was plenty of heavy waging in plain view.  For these bouts the arena was constructed of bamboo posts and cardboard walls from recycled refrigerator boxes.  The interior walls of the arena had smudges of blood on them from the head wounds of the combatants.  As was my previous observations, the fighting birds did not wear any blades or knives on their legs.  I do not know if they fought to the death or not because I had better things, in my opinion, to watch and photograph.



Having seen cockfights, I have a real basis for my opinions regarding the practice as well as the probability that a California man was actually stabbed to death in the leg by a chicken.  I don't believe that a chicken did or could kill a human by stabbing them in the calf no matter what size or type of blade or knife the chicken had on their leg.  It is possible in my opinion that a gamecock could kill a human with a strike across the jugular vein if the chicken had an Exacto knife sized razor type blade attached to its leg.  My point is ... you can not nor should you believe everything just because it is written or posted.  You must always trust your own judgement and intuition and sometimes ...and wait for as Paul Harvey used to say "the rest of the story".

As for cockfighting, I do not find it to be either a sport or entertaining.  However that is my opinion based upon my traditions and cultural experience.  I do not feel a need to ban it from countries where it is a tradition and part of the people's culture - it's none of my business.  However, I do not support or tolerate the practice in my country.

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