Blood and Feathers

A violent sport provides the knives, gaffs, and blood that bind

He was a fighting cock like no other, a proud black-and-white without a lick of fear. He took to the pit as if it were his kingdom, his opponent a lowly servant born merely to lay down his life in combat.

Roy Bingham can't say exactly what made his rooster so "game"--the term cockers reserve for the bravest, strongest, steadiest birds. While most cocks are damn lucky to survive two or three pit fights, this bird won 11 in a row. Its kills were quick and clean. You could credit good feed--which Roy never scrimped on--and strong genes. It sure wasn't steroids, speed, blood-clotting capsules, or any of the other gimmicks young cockers are so enthralled with these days.

"He was just a good old bird. Real pretty, too," Roy says, reminiscing inside his ramshackle three-room house in southwest Fort Worth. "I always believed you raised your chickens natural and just let 'em go. You don't do anything extra, because he knows what to do.

"That rooster fought hard in his life," Roy adds. "And then he got killed outright in his 12th fight. It was over pretty quick."

A cock's death in the pit is nothing to get too emotional about, Roy says. Though, sure, he would have liked to see his prized gamecock survive--to live out his old age among the hens, the way a true champion should. But you really don't want to get too attached to your birds, he says. In 60 years of raising and fighting cocks, he hasn't even given them names. "You wouldn't want to do that. It's like the guys you fight with in the Army. It's better you don't get to know all their names, because a lot of 'em are going to die on you."

Like all of Roy's birds, the champion cock died nameless, not so much loved as respected.

These are noble creatures, cockers like Roy will tell you. These are resilient creatures, whose legacy goes back centuries. Did you know--they'll ask, in their curious manner of blending fact and folklore--that the rooster who crowed when Peter denied Jesus was a fighting cock? A lazy domestic rooster, they say, could not have filled such a noble spot in history.

And Roy's black-and-white, in all its feathered splendor, represented the noblest side of cockfighting. At the makeshift, illegal cockpits hidden in the backyards and barnyards of Texas, or the professional, for-profit arenas in states where the sport is legal, these birds meet in purest combat. They have fed and trained well, and will put to test the endless hours of care and dedication that have been lavished upon them by the cocker's entire family.

When the roosters fight--hackle feathers raised in threat, razor-sharp blades tied to their legs--it is to the death, or until the weaker one collapses, slashed and bleeding, instantly worthless.

On a day more than 20 years ago, Roy's black-and-white finally reached the end of his string of luck. A deep puncture wound to the breast, and it was over. Splendid and brave one moment; limp and lifeless the next. But as game as that cock was, Roy recalls wasting little time on grief. He tossed the ex-champ in an oil drum in the corner of the yard, the final resting place for roosters that fail.

He moved on to the next fight.
The short news item in the April 11 Fort Worth Star-Telegram caught my eye. The Texas chapter of something called the United Gamefowl Breeders Association had sued the Humane Society of North Texas for destroying 78 fighting cocks.

Police had raided a Fort Worth cockfight on the bitterly cold afternoon of February 4 and arrested the owner of the property, Juan Pedraza Jr. Spectators had fled the scene, leaving behind 19 dead birds--the day's casualties. Reed Young, a Humane Society investigator, says he found rooster carcasses stuffed in cracks and cubbyholes all over Pedraza's property. Investigators seized the 78 live chickens.

Cockfighting is a misdemeanor offense in Texas, and carries a penalty of up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine. "But I've never seen anyone do any time on cockfighting," Young says. The investigation did not yield enough evidence for any criminal charges, but a Tarrant County justice of the peace ruled that the roosters had been mistreated and turned them over to the Humane Society. Ten days later, at the direction of the organization's board of directors, the fighting cocks were put down.

Young figures the birds were spared a far more miserable fate. "They get sold at flea markets, they get sold through the mail," he says. "We knew they'd almost certainly be fighting again. That's against the law, and it's against everything we stand for."

For the most part, the 1,000 or so Texas gamefowl breeders are a shadowy group. They keep a low profile breeding and raising gamecocks--which is legal in Texas--and usually fight them, too, which is not legal. But in February, when the Humane Society euthanized their birds, the breeders suddenly came out of the woodwork. They joined together in the lawsuit, seeking replacement costs and unspecified punitive damages against the Humane Society of North Texas for destroying the birds, which they value at $75 to $100 each.

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