Chicken Man

Parting words from the greatest cockfighter who ever lived

I wait until Hector's finished talking and wish him good luck. I walk over to the trash can and peer down at the bird. To my surprise, it's not dead. It looks up, flaps its blood-soaked wings and tries to get out of the bucket. He bobs his head, his beak dripping blood. His eyes flutter open.

Two boys, walking by, notice him. One of the boys picks up a Styrofoam cup and whacks the bird in the head. The bird stops for a moment and then starts bobbing its head again. The boy hits him again with the cup, smiles at his friend and walks away. The rooster looks up out of the bucket one more time, bobs his head and then closes his eyes. His head slowly lowers into the paper cups and the tamales that surround him. He is finally dead.

On and on the fights go, one after the other, long into the night. I see a bird's guts spill out of him like rubber bands. I see another, near death, pull off the improbable victory with a lucky shot that cuts an opponent's artery. I see fights that last for minutes, and others that go to the drag pits and last for nearly an hour. I see birds sprinkled with blood, and birds that are made to fight when they are going stiff and cold.

Bred to fight--until death.
Bred to fight--until death.
On his farm in Blanket, Texas, Ratliff keeps his birds on tie cords to keep them from killing each other.
On his farm in Blanket, Texas, Ratliff keeps his birds on tie cords to keep them from killing each other.

I meet a third-generation cockfighter, who tells me how much the sport means to his family and his Mexican-American culture. "Who's to say one culture is superior to the other?" he asks me. "What's the difference between this and bullfighting, or horse racing?" Another tells me he has no problem with the Humane Society protecting dogs and cats, but chickens are different. "So you're telling me it's OK to wring a bird's neck and put it in a frying pan, but you can't let it do what it was genetically born to do? This ain't like dog fighting. We don't mistreat these birds, and we don't make them fight."

I stay as long as I can, and then I say goodbye to Hector and the others I've met. I've seen enough killing for one day.

The last time I see the Chicken Man, he is seated in his scooter looking out at the field where he keeps his stag roosters, which are not quite old enough to fight. Each one has a rubber cord around its leg, which is attached to a stake in the ground, giving it maybe 5 feet to walk. There are hundreds of them, stretching out in long rows across the dirt field. Some have white heads and red bodies, others are orange from the head to the tailfeathers. They crow loudly, one in response to the other. They look strong and proud and fit.

I ask Ratliff what he'll do with all of them, now that he's retired. "Probably just give them away," he says. "But not just to anyone. I'll give them to a cocker, someone who can carry on the tradition."

And then he hurries inside, before the rain starts falling.

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