In America's Cockfighting Capital, a Proposed Ban Spurs Outrage

(Bloomberg) -- It’s Puerto Rico’s answer to the bull ring -- a death-in-the-afternoon blood sport. But now the commonwealth is facing the end of cockfighting.

U.S. lawmakers are poised to close down the thriving island pastime as part of the farm bill that passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday and now goes to President Donald Trump for his signature. The measure would extend a prohibition on animal fighting to territories; it’s already illegal in all 50 states. But in Puerto Rico, cockfighting is governed by the commonwealth and ingrained in the culture -- it was first documented in the 18th century but likely existed for hundreds of years before that.

“I invite any member who wishes to come to Puerto Rico and see how regulated the cockfighting industry is to come and visit,” Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon, the island’s non-voting House member, told colleagues Wednesday.

Cockfighting was once popular in rural areas of the U.S. South and Latin America and is one of the oldest sports known to history. Handlers place two roosters into a pit, paired by weight and age. Genetically programmed to attack -- and fitted with metal spurs called gaffs -- they spar as onlookers place wagers. The battles often end in death.

Bygone Brutality

In Puerto Rico, the sport arrived with Spanish conquistadors and in this century, there have have been more than 100 cockpits called galleras and 200,000 fighting birds, according to commonwealth figures. The battles and the betting are torrid. But many see the sport as intrinsically brutal.

“Most people would be appalled that cockfighting was not already illegal,” said Ashley Byrne, New York-based associate director with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "In a civilized society and a modern society, forcing animals to fight for their lives is cruel."

Eugenio Crespo, a former director of the Federation of Animals of Puerto Rico, said his own father kept roosters and groomed them for battle. But Crespo turned against the sport and spent the past 30 years advocating for the feathered combatants.

“When you are a kid, sometimes you don’t realize how abusive this activity is," he said. “But it is something that definitely gets engraved in your mind.”

Local Matter

Top commonwealth officials aligned with the industry to oppose the ban. Gonzalez Colon blasted the move as an example of the kind of mistreatment the commonwealth suffers without representation in Congress. Governor Ricardo Rossello said Tuesday he would travel to Washington to fight the provision, but it appears not to have made a difference.

In her entreaty, Gonzalez Colon said the industry generates over $18 million annually and 27,000 direct and indirect jobs, using statistics provided by the Cockfighting Affairs Commission. Crespo, the animal activist, said the present-day economic impact is grossly overestimated. But either way, the island needs every job it can get: it was trapped in a decade-long recession even before Hurricane Maria, which devastated homes and infrastructure and killed an estimated 3,000 people in September 2017.

Gonzalez Colon warned that the legislation could push the industry underground. In Louisiana, which in 2008 became the last state to outlaw the practice, supporters made similar arguments.

“We will see a black market pop up and come to more harm than good,” Gonzalez Colon said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.