Cockfighting may be on its last legs

<preform>The bloodsport is banned in all but two of America's states. As campaigners target the last remaining strongholds, Andrew Buncombe</b></i> goes ringside in Sunset, Louisiana</preform>
Click to follow

It is a bright Sunday morning in Louisiana and in a cavernous steel barn, two men with baseball caps are each carrying a rooster into the centre of a large pit covered by a cage of wire mesh. The men briefly bring the birds together, like boxers touching gloves before a bout, and then they step backwards and place them on the sand-covered floor.

It is a bright Sunday morning in Louisiana and in a cavernous steel barn, two men with baseball caps are each carrying a rooster into the centre of a large pit covered by a cage of wire mesh. The men briefly bring the birds together, like boxers touching gloves before a bout, and then they step backwards and place them on the sand-covered floor.

There is a momentary pause then a flurry of wings as the birds leap high at each other, pecking and kicking with heels bearing long steel spikes. The crowd erupts with a roar, men waving wads of money at each other, shouting bets for $100, $200 or $500. The birds kick and spit, often becoming entangled so they lie helpless on the sand, their blood-spattered chests beating furiously.

This is the Sunset Recreation Club in Sunset. By common consent, there is no place like it in America. Sunset is considered the cockfighting capital of the US, and site of some of the most prestigious cockfighting in the world. On most weekends between December and July, hundreds of enthusiasts and their families from across the US eagerly descend upon this small, blink-and-you'll-miss-it town to watch the roosters fight, often to the death.

Or at least, they have until now. After campaigns by animal rights campaigners, cockfighting has been banned in all but two US states, Louisiana and New Mexico. Emboldened by their success and polls which show an overwhelming majority is opposed to cockfighting - and perhaps with an eye to the UK where legislation to ban fox-hunting was passed - those campaigners are now actively targeting these final redoubts of the sport. Cockfighting is fighting for its life.

"It's just a question of finishing them off," John Goodwin, a campaigner with the Humane Society, said. "It's a throwback to a more primitive era. There is a hard core dedicated to participating in this blood sport."

Such an onslaught has thrown the cockfighting community onto the defensive. Even in the two states where it is legal, cockfighting is a secretive, semi-covert activity whose participants neither seek or welcome attention from outsiders. The president of the Louisiana Gamefowl Breeders Association, Emmanuel Massa, flatly refused to talk to The Independent because "all media attention is bad". And yet people with links to cockfighting kept talking about Sunset and the crowds who drove hundreds of miles to this little town in the bayous just to participate. If you really wanted to understand cockfighting and why people so loved the sport, they said, you would have to see it for yourself. You would have to go to Sunset.

Sunset is in the heart of Cajun country, 10 miles north of Lafayette which is considered the capital of Acadiana. Acadiana has historically been the home of the independent-minded Cajuns, descendants of the French-speaking Acadians who settled south-west Louisiana after their expulsion by the British from Nova Scotia, or Acadia, in 1755.

Even today it is a place removed, a landscape of bayous and lakes, of low-level settlements and of huge open skies that at times appear to merge with the ever-present water. Away from the main highways, a boat is of more use than a car. It is a place of few fixed points or certainties.

One constant is the 600-seat Sunset Recreation Club, which has existed since the 1940s. On a recent Saturday night, the parking lot was full of cars and pick-ups so tightly parked there was barely room to squeeze between them. The licence plates showed the drivers had travelled from Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida, Texas and the Carolinas. A sign at the entrance said "Members Only" but there was no one on the door.

Inside a huge, convivial crowd of men in jeans and camouflage jackets were drinking beer and watching television. Elsewhere there were women and young children. Everyone appeared to be wearing a baseball cap.

At the rear of the building, through a darkened entrance, came a noisy wave of frantic shouting and cheering, the sort of fevered, feral roar you hear at a football match when a striker bears down on goal. It was immediately obvious that through that doorway was where the real action was taking place. Getting inside involved getting past Butch Lawson.

The likeable Mr Lawson, 54, has been involved in cockfighting since he was eight. His father, who believed cockfighters were "rogues", allowed his son to raise the birds but not to fight them. Mr Lawson's flouting of his father's rules often got him into trouble but gave him a love of the sport that remains. He has managed the club 1990, travelling from his home in Montgomery, Alabama, most weekends.

His passion for cockfighting is matched by his contempt for those trying to put him out of business, so-called "humaniacs". He said the activists were hypocrites, whose campaigns were nothing more than a front to raise money from "little old ladies sitting at home with their pet dogs".

Mr Lawson's friend, Joe MacSkinner, editor of Grit and Steel, one of three magazines devoted to cockfighting, regularly invoked God when he defended cockfighting. Opponents believed animals had the same rights as humans, he said, but the Old Testament made clear that man had dominion over animals. "I'm made in God's image and God gave me the love of a game rooster," he said.

Another of Mr Lawson's friends, Jerry Leber, a retired primary-school headmaster, said the actual fight was only a tiny part of the attraction of raising and fighting roosters. Birds were raised and trained for up to a year before they were ready. "It's a challenge for me to do it to the best of my ability," he said. "When I go into the pit with my rooster and put it down and hear people say, 'Wow', well that makes me feel proud." But wasn't cockfighting so very obviously cruel? One of the men said: "It's not cruel, those birds fight naturally. You could put two roosters at either end of a football field and they'd run towards each other and fight."

Clifton Bryant, a sociologist at Virginia Tech University who has written extensively about cockfighting, said the demographic of cockfighters resembled that of Main Street America from 50 years ago. "They're more likely to be rural, to be married, more likely to go to church, less likely to be divorced, to be veterans, more likely to be conservative," he said. "I often think of them like the people in a Norman Rockwell painting. These people often have an instrumental relationship with animals; they still slaughter a pig for pork, they still shoot deer for meat. Remember, it was only when Walt Disney came along that people started to think that animals were like humans."

While the people at Sunset were under no such impression, they were adamant that the owners took great care of their birds. "I'd like you to come back early tomorrow morning so you can see the owners,"Mr Lawson said.

The next morning, the Sunset club was a terrible cacophony of crowing roosters. Men were emerging from sheds around the club where the birds are kept overnight. One man, Sam Sherlock, 31, from South Carolina, was proudly standing next to a cage in which he had a wonderful-looking red and gold rooster. He said it was worth $3,000 (£1,600) and it was for breeding purposes only. But Mr Sherlock had brought other birds to fight in what had been a three-day "derby" with prize money of $54,000.

Mr Sherlock also denied cockfighting was cruel. "These men will go without themselves to make sure their roosters have enough." But once inside the pit, it was difficult to agree with Mr Sherlock and the others who maintained cockfighting was not cruel. Before they fight, the birds' heels are strapped with one of several "weapons", a long or short knife, essentially a razor blade up to three or four centimetres, or a steel spike known as a gaff.

These are the weapons that inflict the horrendous injuries on the birds and which kill - at least on the evidence of that morning's events - anywhere up to 15 to 20 per cent of the roosters. The dead birds were thrown unceremoniously into a wheelbarrow by the exit where the pile of bodies was steadily building.

Few birds fight more than once and it was not difficult to see why. The gaffs penetrate lungs, blind the birds or cripple them, while the knives make huge, deep incisions. Many of these wounds can he repaired. In an extraordinary scene away from the pit, two men in green hospital scrubs from Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, were performing surgery on wounded roosters using the same surgical items one would find in an operating theatre. "We reckon we have a 90 per cent success rate," said Ed Laposky, an astronomy lecturer at a college in Tallahassee. His colleague, a surgeon's assistant with more than 25 years experience, was sewing back on the almost severed wing of a rooster with the speed of a seamstress.

It seemed that however badly the birds were hurt, they fought on. Encouraged by their handlers, the crowd and - it must be said - their own instincts, the roosters continued to peck and kick until they were either dead, exhausted or removed. It is the so-called "gameness" of the rooster that enthusiasts seek in breeding stock.

But, if it is cruel, does it automatically mean that cockfighting should be banned? Its defenders say the benefits of allowing cockfighting to continue legally in one or two places outweigh a ban. It is hypocritical, they say, for urban dwellers to bemoan the loss of rural communities while supporting a ban that would take away a great deal of business from places such as Sunset as well as removing one of the social lubricants that binds such communities. Furthermore, they say, a ban would merely drive cockfighting underground.

Even opponents admit there is a network of illegal cockfighting pits throughout the US that operate despite the bans. Such a network exists, the people at Sunset insisted, even in Britain, where cockfighting was officially banned in the 19th century.

Mr Sherlock, who by now had come inside to watch his roosters fight, was adamant that cockfighting would continue whether or not it was outlawed. "They're never going to stop us," he said. One of Mr Sherlock's roosters was brought into the pit. The noise picked up. Men in the crowd got to their feet, shouting out bets on one or other of the birds. Mr Sherlock was also standing, money in hand. It was time to head for the exit. On the way out, the pile of dead birds looked a little bigger.