McALLEN — The first time he lost a cockfight 6-year-old Jose clutched his bloodied rooster under his arm and cried.
He spent months raising the proud, blue-legged bird before its first battle, only to watch its leg snap instantly in an explosion of feathers, beaks and talons.
“I got him out of the box and tried to nurse him,” Jose said. “Honest to say, I was heartbroken.”
Now 28 and a bear of a man, the McAllen resident harbors the same crushed feeling for the sport that runs through five generations of his family’s blood.
Jose and the thousands of other gamecock breeders across the state, who refer to each other as cockers, rooster men or galleros, are watching the slow suffocation of cockfighting’s history and tradition.
They fear they may become pallbearers for a sport that has fascinated the wealthiest royals and the poorest migrant workers for centuries.
Over the past decade, animal rights activists have largely won their campaign to paint cockfighting as a brutal blood sport.
Bans on cockfighting exist in every state, including New Mexico and Louisiana — two long holdouts which criminalized the sport this year. Many, including Texas, have toughened their animal fighting laws, making organized cockfighting a felony.
And recent federal statutes that prohibit the transfer of gamecocks across state boundaries have sucked the life out of gatherings that once drew cockers from across the nation.
Still, the rooster men of the Rio Grande Valley carry on.
Hundreds of gamecock breeders operate on rural ranches and in backyard pens from Roma to Brownsville. They continue their work in the law’s gray areas, legally raising the aggressive fowl but barred from selling them for fighting purposes.
“If you want to fight them, that’s your business,” Jose said.
Still, many in the gamefowl community remain suspicious of outsiders. Jose asked that his last name be withheld from this story so as not to draw attention from police and neighbors.
But ask any true cocker about his passion, and he’ll tell you the thrill has little do with violence. It comes, Jose said, from a healthy admiration of the rooster’s natural competitiveness.
“I’ve told my wife that my roosters are my first love, and she’s my second,” he said. “She didn’t like that very much at all.”
‘HONEST WORKING PEOPLE’
Texas banned cockfighting in 1907, but at the time, concern for its enthusiasts outweighed that for the animals. Cockpits were known as dens of boozing, carousing and illegal gambling.
Today, as many as 30,000 Texans breed fighting birds, the Texas Gamefowl Breeders Association estimates.
“We’re honest working people,” Jose said, while pacing through the maze of A-frame huts that dot his backyard in west McAllen.
“To do this, you have to have a job, you have to have a house, and you have to have money to care for the birds.”
Inside each teepee, roosters tied to stakes strut as far as their leads will let them. Cock crows scream from every corner.
Earlier that morning, a pitbull broke free and mauled dozens of the birds. As he examined the surviving flock for missed injuries, Jose estimated the attack would cost him around $10,000.
But his current breeding operation hardly compares to the one his father used to run.
At one point in the mid-’70s, the family raised up to 600 birds at a time on farms in San Juan, McAllen and Edinburg, often selling them for hundreds of dollars apiece.
It was on those farms that Jose learned almost everything he knows about the sport.
‘A ROYAL CHICKEN ‘
Jose’s father soaked up the methods of the Mexican galleros as a boy in the southern state of Michoacán.
There, conditioning for prized roosters begins at birth, with vaccinations and pampering that far outweighs the attention given to chickens raised for eating, cockers say.
On corporate poultry farms, birds are routinely shorn of their beaks to prevent cannibalism and kept in cages for most of their lives until they are fattened up and ready for slaughter.
In Jose’s backyard, the birds range freely until they are five to eight months old. As their back spurs, or talons, grow in, they must be separated or they will tear each other to pieces.
“If it was me in a fight, I’d be out in the first round,” he said. “I can’t even explain why they’ll fight to the death if you leave them alone.”
When the birds hit peak fighting age, they enter a heavy routine of exercise and are put on a special diet until they reach top physical condition.
Sex is taboo before each battle. Mating is believed to sap the birds of their fighting spirit.
But prized beyond anything else is an innate quality breeders call “gameness,” or the bird’s willingness to never give up a fight.
Dave, a third-generation rooster man who runs a breeding farm near Los Fresnos, recalled proudly surveying the fighting cocks on his grandfather’s dairy farms in Michigan.
“The gamecock is a royal chicken compared to your ordinary barnyard rooster,” he said. “Their actions of daily foraging, strutting and intense guardianship of their harem fascinated me from a very young age.”
But for all care that goes into raising a prize rooster, gamecocks often end their fighting careers slashed, bloodied and dead, said John Goodwin, an animal fighting specialist at the Humane Society of the United States.
“I’ve picked up roosters that have been cut so badly that you could see their internal organs moving with every breath,” he said.
Rooster men selectively “breed up” aggressive traits and then supply the feathered hotheads with weapons. Before a fight, the birds’ natural spurs are sawed off and replaced with blades that vary by region.
In Mexico, Texas and Louisiana’s Cajun country, gaffs or short knives are the weapons of choice. Filipino breeders use long knives that can kill a competitor with surgical precision.
“That always seems to be an issue with those who know nothing of the sport,” Dave said. “Steel is much less gruesome than the weapons Mother Nature gave them.”
Ads for products named “Pure Aggression” and “Neokil” fill niche magazines with names like Feathered Warrior.
And some less scrupulous cockers have even been accused of pumping the birds with steroids to encourage aggression before a fight.
But unlike dog fighting, where pups are trained to attack, cockers only tap into the rooster’s natural fighting instincts, Jose said.
When asked what he thought of the public outrage surrounding Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick’s involvement in a Virginia-based dog fighting ring, Jose rubbed his hand over the back of his neck and sighed.
“That’s just cruel, man,” he said. “He deserved everything he got.”
As state and federal law have pushed cockfights underground, many have become havens for gamblers, drug dealers and criminals involved in more serious crimes, the Humane Society’s Goodwin said.
A raid on a Los Fresnos cockpit in February netted three stolen cars, firearms and nine undocumented immigrants.
Last year, two men died after gunmen opened fire at a cockfight west of Rio Grande City.
The criminal element has even infiltrated cockpits in Mexico, where fighting remains legal and, in some areas, a part of family entertainment, featured along singers, horseback riders and rodeo performers.
“You go across the border to fight, and it’s not safe,” Jose, the McAllen breeder, said. “Now, you have all these people that just get into it for the drugs.”
Cockers contend that drugs, gambling and aggression aren’t unique to their sport.
“I have seen more altercations at high school football games than I have ever seen in all my years at a cockfight,” Dave said.
But the toll of the times has sapped Jose of his own gameness. Twenty-two years after his first fight, he says he’s ready to stop breeding.
He hasn’t attended a cockfight in a year. And on bad days, he contemplates taking all of his roosters to a flea market and selling them off, no questions asked.
His own spirit may be drained, but Jose knows the Valley’s rooster men will always muster the “game” to carry on.
“If I get out,” he said, “they’ll keep fighting.”
Recent law enforcement raids on cockfighting rings:
· Feb. 20: A raid in Los Fresnos nets 50 fighting roosters, three stolen cars, nine illegal immigrants and firearms.
· Jan. 13: Five men arrested in Cameron County cockfight raid. Thirty-eight birds are seized.
· April 29, 2006: Two men die after gunmen open fire on a cockfight west of Rio Grande City.
SOURCES: The Humane Society of the United States, The Monitor research