There’ve been times when I feel like I’m witnessing something straight out of my cultural anthropology classes. I’ll never forget an ethnography we read about cockfights in Indonesia; particularly the spurs they place on the feet of the roosters that are so dangerous they have been known to disembowel their keepers if the roosters kick out. Failing in the “don’t judge, just observe” maxim of anthropology, the practice didn’t sit right with me at all.
Awhile back I was surprised to learn that cockfighting is somewhat popular here and I became ambivalent about my earlier views. Having the opportunity to visit the fights today, I tried to go with an open mind. I was warned there would be blood and death and blahblahblah, but I was interested in the experience more than anything else; to see yet another thing I had read about, albeit in a much different setting.
Above all, I’m glad I went and if I have the opportunity I’ll go again. They dropped the roosters to the ground for the first fight I witnessed, and we all sat watching them for almost five minutes as they scratched at the ground, crowed, flapped their feathers and wandered around the ring. I watched the crowd, trying to get a sense of whether this was normal or not and couldn’t gauge either way at all. Finally, one noticed the other and the fight was on. It turns out that this is generally the way fights go and that the roosters usually take time to engage. But at first it was quite comical to think that these two roosters who had been set up to fight one another were just moseying about doing the exact opposite.
Despite all of that, it only cemented and strengthened my earlier views – I just don’t think it’s right, and it seems downright cruel. Of course my understanding of cockfighting is limited given my command of Spanish isn’t 100%. I asked a lot of questions during the fights, and what I learned just frustrated me about the whole process given how senseless it all seems. They use spurs here as well which is what causes all the blood and death. A lot of whether a rooster is good or not also seems to be based on bloodlines and breeding, and I haven’t gotten a handle on what any of that means. One rooster looks like any other to me. You can ‘train’ your rooster, but I wonder how much that really helps. This concentrates on their physical prowess, which still seems more about chance to me. I mean, what if your rooster is having an OFF day?! In addition, they seem like very dim animals in general.
In every fight, at least one rooster must die for the other to win, and the winning rooster may have injuries grave enough that it also dies. That means the next match will be fought with another rooster of the owner’s. I had wrongly assumed that one rooster would fight its way through to the end of the tournament, therefore demonstrating it’s ‘the best’, but witnessing the injuries of some of the winners made me realize just how silly that is.
It can be gruesome to see the roosters vomiting blood in their death throes. Luckily, they get a quick death after they’re carried from the ring. The winners aren’t so lucky. They don’t get medical attention, whatever their injuries, which again is senseless and cruel to me. It seems to me that this is really just a revolving door of slaughter, and I wonder how much the odds favor someone who has a huge amount of roosters given quality seems to count for so little (even though the countless conversations I’ve heard about rooster and hen bloodlines should tell me otherwise). Why would one allow the injuries of the winner to go untreated if not?!
I also wonder about the dynamics of ownership when you’re grooming an animal for something that could result in its death within minutes. The many fighting roosters I’ve seen are kept in small, dark cages. I’ve heard the argument that it’s “natural”, and sure, if two roosters come across each other in a field they will fight. On the other hand, it’s not natural to tie spurs to their feet so that when they kick out at each other they inflict grave injuries. It’s not natural to set this scenario up and ensure that they continue to fight to the death when they seem to lose interest or have had enough (in a few of the fights the roosters were repositioned when they stopped fighting).
I wish I could say I’ve gotten a handle on the cultural dynamics of such a thing in all the conversations I’ve witnessed concerning rooster fighting. Obviously there’s something beyond the brutality of the practice. It’s important to note that the region I am living in is agrarian and animals are often used for utilitarian purposes. They provide food (While this might seem obvious, I think this connection is lost to most of us in the shrink-wrapped, sterilized world of the supermarket.) in the form of meat, plowing the fields, and fertilizer. Not even pets are treated in the often doting manner of pet owners in the states. While I think there’s a limit to animal rights (I always think people should go first.) I wonder at what seems like obvious cruelty to me – is it the difference in viewpoints between those from agrarian and industrial societies? (Factory farming muddies the argument though I think few people would deny that it is cruel and there’s definitely an element of out of sight, out of mind.)
In the meantime, I’ve been marveling at all the anthropologists who have gone to live in cultures different from their own where they cannot speak the language, only to be able to piece together how they work and analyze what is going on around them. Either that, or there are a lot of tomes of bullshit on the shelves. I often feel utterly lost given the language barrier, and when making an effort to draw conclusions tend to second guess everything I think (count the use of the word ‘seems’ in this post). I suppose I can console myself with the idea that if I had the time to note everything I saw and heard given it was my intent, maybe I could synthesize it into something coherent. In addition, I can feel proud of myself that I’ve achieved something I used to daydream about in those anthro classes – going off to a foreign place to live in and learn about it.