Shocking Things I Didn’t Know About Cockfighting in the Philippines
The riverside resort I was stayed in at Calumpit was right next door to a cockfighting arena – I got to watch Cockfighting in the Philippines live!
I was clueless about cockfighting. In Malaysia, we often refer to someone who is “quarelsome” as a fighting cock in Malaysia,
This peaceful “barangay” or village where the Calumpit River traverses the towns of Calumpit is where the action takes place.
Cockfighting plays a very important role in the life of many Filipino men.
Calumpit is a predominantly Tagalog-speaking town, with about 96.3% of its people being fluent speakers. Others residents speak Kapampangan with a minority speaking other Philippine languages.
A cockfight, in the simplest sense, is a fight between two roosters in a caged ring.
Who introduced cockfighting in the Philippines?
Cockfighting has a long history in the Philippines. National hero José Rizal, martyred by the Spanish in 1896, once pointed out that the average Filipino loves his rooster more than he does his children.
What is Cockfighting?
A cockfight is a blood sport between two cocks, or gamecocks. Cocks generally possess congenital aggression toward all males of the same species. However, these are roosters specifically bred for their aggression.
During a cockfight, they equip the birds with either metal spurs (called gaffs) or knives, which are tied to the leg.
To agitate the birds, the Cockers place them beak to beak in a small ring and encouraged to fight to the death.
Cockfighting in the Philippines
In the Philippines, Cockfighting Is a Billion Dollar Industry. The 6,000-year-old sport of cockfighting known locally as “sabong”, takes place in over 2,500 dedicated stadiums across the country.
To many outside observers, “sabong” or cockfighting is a brutal and bloody form of sport.
Compared to cockfighting in most Asian countries, by large, Filipino roosters only live to fight one or two matches before death or injuries retire them from the sport.
And as luck would have it, I stayed next door–to the Cockfighting Arena.
Sabong is one of the Philippines’ national obsessions.
It also kills about 30 million roosters a year.
I could get a closeup behind-the-scenes look at the very lucrative and very popular sports of cockfighting.
Cockfighting Arena in the Philippines
The arena is a large structure with a roof over. There are no walls but wire mesh and metal partitions and a gate a barrier.
Outside there is a bar where you can find many crates of the local brew, San Miguel Beer.
This Filipino pale lager, San Miguel Pale Pilsen is produced by San Miguel Brewery in 1890 and is the largest selling beer in the Philippines and Hong Kong.
We saw some men set up a small stove BBQ, grilling meat on bamboo skewers over hot charcoal.
I gingerly stepped into the arena, pulling shut the metal gate without latching it.
Daisy led the way; spoke briefly in Tagalog with some of the men. She gestured that we should take the higher level seats, away from the punters.
The fights take place in the cockpit (ruweda) on a raised glass platform in the middle of the arena.
Superstitions during Cockfighting
Many rural sabong devotees take these superstitions seriously. I found out later why there are no women in ringside. It was the no. 1 taboo. Luckily of us, the villagers took kindly to us as we were tourists.
We left immediately after the first match.
(1) A female visitor on the day of the cockfight is inauspicious.
(2) Do not sweep the floor of the house on sabong day.
(3) Avoid cockfighting on Fridays.
(4) Avoid going to the cockfight with a hole in one of the pants’ pockets.
(5) Don’t look back when walking to the cockpit arena.
(6) Bet on the “mayahin” and white cocks on days with moonlit nights.
(7) It is an unlucky day if one runs into a funeral procession on the way to the cockfight.
(8) Shaving is avoided on sabong day for fear it might cause the game cock’s blade to break.
(9) Avoid having sex the night before.
Godofredo U. Stuart Jr. in his blog Philippines for the Intrepid Traveler writes in graphic detail of the sport from start to finish.
Cockfighting – A Blood Sport
It forces Cockfighting roosters to fight to the death. This is illegal throughout the United States.
However, in the Philippines this is widespread and not illegal.
They place the birds in a ring and forced to fight as punters and bookies made their bets.
Why do men enjoy Cockfights?
The Filipino men are macho. They have always been “fighting” the fight. They fight for their beliefs. They fight for the land and they fight for women. Naturally, this is reflected in cockfighting.
For the Breeders and Punters, cock fights are all about courage and bravery. It is like no other sport in the entire world.
How are these Roosters raised?
The Owners or Breeders are called “Cockers”.
Roosters are born, raised, and trained to fight on “game farms.”
It is a selection and survival of the fittest; Cockers will kill inferior birds and only keep those who are “game” and willing to fight.
They also breed the roosters for aggression.
What are the Roosters fed?
They treat the Roosters like boxers. They must weigh about five pounds and must weigh within two ounces of one another to fight.
So their diet is important and the Breeders feed the cocks a combination of oats, wheat, split peas, long grain rice, corn, popcorn and barley.
Grooming the Roosters
Roosters are game birds. The Breeder doesn’t think it is being cruel to animals because of the way it breeds them to fight.
Most of the birds are well taken care of by the top Breeders. The cocks are pampered and treated like boxers.
Breeders often pluck the birds’ feathers. Adult gamecocks have their wattles and combs trimmed tight to their heads. This is to prevent injuries when they fight and other roosters from tearing them off in the ring.
The trimming is done first to the wattles to let them heal before trimming the comb.
As the comb and wattles have blood vessels, trimming them causes some bleeding and pain to the roosters.
Since roosters do not have sweat glands, losing these body parts deprives them of the ability to cool themselves.
Some “cockers” cut off the birds’ spurs, which are the natural bony protrusions on the legs, so that more deadly, artificial weapons can be strapped to their legs.
The grooming routine includes a massage of mustard seed oil to keep the rooster’s claws and beak moistened and in good shape.
Law enforcement officials have found performance-enhancing drugs during raids.
They train the cock Fighters to Fly
Breeders “condition” the birds to fight through physical work. Weights or blades to their legs for “practice fights” with other roosters. This process is what cockfights call being “tested with steel.”
A friend of ours was very upset that to know that these birds spend most of their lives tethered by one leg. Their shelter is a small cage or even a plastic barrel.
They train the cocks to fly to develop their muscles and the wings because that’s where they get their speed and their prowness.
The Breeders do this by putting a female on the other side of their cage so the roosters can’t see her.
So the roosters will need to fly up to take a glance of the female. There is a narrow perch to rest, so the cocks learn to exercise their wings and target the opponent.
What Happens at Cockfights?
Cockfights are usually held in round or square enclosures called “cockpits” or simply “pits.” The one I went to was in a covered building built like an arena with raised seating. The fight takes place in the central enclosed glass caged platform raised from the floor.
Punters are seated right up front or on the elevated seating.
The Bookies and Punters
The handler introduces the birds. The bookies will go around waving their fingers to take bets. As Daisy gallantly whispered sharply, “This is not a high 5 time, Dory!”
The book maker called the Casador announces “Larga na!” the kristos take over.
The “kristos,” are betting managers sacrilegiously named for their Christ-like crucified stance, arms stretched out beckoning the spectators.
The arena erupts into a deafening din of kristos calling out and beckoning bets, their hands and fingers in a frenzy of motions and signals.
Hand Signs are made because of distance and the deafening noise, kristos rely on hand signs to communicate their bets with other kristos.
The casador has a remarkable memory for faces, bets are taken in a split second.
The cockfight is over in minutes, and the ‘doctors’ perform skilled surgery on the injured birds.
It is a fascinating display of memory, as some kristos, with their own system of mnemonics, are known to take in as much as 8 to 10 or more bets. On the sidelines, there is a fast and furious buying-and-selling of bets.
Reading the Language of Fingers
The arithmetic language of fingers facilitates communication with your kristo and adds a fascinating facet to the sabong experience.
I saw fingers furiously flying without understanding the quantum of the math.
According to Philippines for the Intrepid Traveler writer, the meaning is this
Upward fingers: In small arenas, especially in the rural and boondock hack fights where small bets are not uncommon, each finger signals 10 pesos; five fingers, 50 pesos. In big cockpits or derby events, an upward finger could mean 10,000 or 100,000 pesos.
Downward fingers: Each finger is equivalent to a 1000-peso bet; 7 fingers, 7,000 pesos. Caution is given in pointing the fingers downward twice, as this will be interpreted as a 14,000-peso bet.
Sideward fingers: Each sideward finger is equivalent to 100 pesos. In the figure, the four fingers denote 400 pesos.
It’s just as well that I didn’t raise all ten fingers upwards in a High 10 gesture. That would have cost me an upward of 100 pesos (10 pesos per finger).
In the derby events, that would translate to 1,000,000 pesos! YIKES!
The handler agitates the rooster in an attempt to work the birds into frenzy.
Both roosters are armed.
With neck feathers fanned and wing whirring, the birds jump and parry at each other.
They kick and duel in mid-air, striking at each other with feet and beak.
Whenever the fighting wanes, handlers pick up the birds to agitate them. They will
- Blow on their backs
- Yank at their beaks
- Hold them beak-to-beak
The birds are then put back in the pits, and the fight continues. It doesn’t end until one rooster is dead or nearly dead.
I didn’t realize this at first. I had naively thought that the losing bird just cowered down and hung its head in shame.
“It’s over. It’s dead,” Daisy said flatly to my quizzical look.
The handlers picked up the dead bird to discard in a trashcan and take it out of the game pit.
“What happens if it’s still alive?”
“Cook. Eat.” One of the men said in halting English.
“Stew for a long time as the bird is very muscular and the flesh is very tough,” Daisy explained before quickly leading me away.
The other men were eyeing us in between the matches. We didn’t know that we were considered “bad luck”.
I figured that it was as good a time as any to make a run for it.
The Criminal Connection
In addition to cruelty to animals, cockfighting is often linked to other crimes.
Although the set up look pretty decent and no one looked really tough, or drunk we knew that such activities with exposure to violence may promote insensitivity to suffering and an enthusiasm for bloodshed.
Where some money involved, it’s generally a men’s sports. We were lucky that most ignored us and let us sit in to watch and take some photos.
The Gruesome and Cruel Facts of Cockfighting
Cocks naturally fight with each other in the wild to establish territory or mating rights. In these instances, the loser they back away and leave the area when they accept defeat. Serious injuries are rare.
Cocks are armed with blades or spikes
In the cockfighting ring, the cocks are routinely armed with blades or spikes which are attached to their feet.
Cocks are mutilated in preparation for fighting
As part of the training and preparation process, cockerels usually have their combs and waddles (skin under their beaks and atop their heads) cut off to avoid them being injured during a fight.
Some also have the spurs cut off their legs so that sharp gaffs can be attached.
Cocking means only the “toughest” survive.
The life of a fighting cockerel is tough, from the moment they hatch until the moment they die.
The birds endure a lengthy training program which is designed to weed out the weaker ones.
Only the strongest, most ferocious birds survive and make it to the fights to endure a painful and cruel death in the ring.
Those who do not make the cut are simply killed.
Cockfighting is often surrounded by other illegal activities.
One of the main reasons people attend cockfights is to gamble on the outcome, yet there is evidence that shows that underground cockfights are a common occurrence and that there is a large scale illegal circuit of trainers and fight organizers.
In addition to the illegal cockfights themselves, there are usually many other illegal activities taking place at the event including gambling, drug taking, and gang violence, with one cockfight in Northern California resulting in a triple homicide.
Cockfighting is not illegal in the Philippines
There is no nationwide ban of cockfighting in the Philippines but since 1948, cockfighting is prohibited every Rizal Day on December 30.
Violators can be fined or imprisoned due to the Republic Act No. 229.
While cockfighting is now illegal in the U.S. this means that although the activity is against the law, it is not considered to be a serious crime. This doesn’t offer adequate deterrence or protection for the animals involved.
The Injury to the Birds
Birds that do not die during the fight are very often so badly injured and exhausted that they are killed, anyway. There is no way for the cocks to escape when they are hurt and want to back down from the other cockerel.
They have no choice except to fight to death.
Some common injuries that the cockerels receive include
- Punctured lungs
- Pierced eyes
- Broken bones
- Deep cuts
Exposure to highly lethal bird flu virus
According the World Health Organization, cockfighting has been linked to the spread of the highly lethal bird flu virus from birds to humans through contact with blood and feaces.
I haven’t noticed it but I remember seeing the owners scrubbed the blood off their birds with bare hands.
According to the Washington Post report, apparently sometimes the injuries to the birds are so severe that owners relieve the swelling by sucking out the blood by mouth.
There is no winner in cockfighting. The men don’t just lose don’t lose money. They lose their faith and in many solution their manhood.
You lost your cock. You lose your manhood.