Protesters put end to fowl play

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A SMALL, rather scraggy-looking cockerel was at the centre of a battle between animal-rights activists and the inhabitants of a mountain village in southern Italy last week. Local law-enforcement officers took several hours to bring scuffles under control.

The villagers of Roccavivara in the province of Molise had been preparing to engage in the ritual sport of chicken- bashing, which forms the centrepiece of the village festa held on 16 August, the Feast of San Rocco (patron saint of dogs but not, alas for them, of chickens).

In order to make things easier for the competitors, who have usually knocked back a glass or six of the local vino rosso by the time they enter the lists, the chosen fowl is buried up to its neck in the middle of the village piazza. To give the bird a sporting chance, the competitors are blindfolded. Wielding large sticks, they then take it in turns to stumble the 20 metres to the target, guided partly by the squawks of the bird itself and partly by shouts of encouragement from friends and family.

Each competitor is allowed only one swing of the stick; the first to score a direct hit is awarded a provolone cheese by the village mayor, currently Mauro Tufilli.

Mr Tufilli is a staunch defender of the annual village 'sport', which he says is a 'centuries-old tradition'. In the past 40 years, he points out, only three cockerels have actually been squashed. 'Last year's bird is still alive and well,' he adds, 'and I intend to take it into court with me if and when the case brought by these animal-rights people comes before a judge.'

The Italian League for the Protection of Animals, which has already cited the organisers of the 'entertainment' for violating a recent Italian law regulating the treatment of animals, decided to take direct action this year.

Activists moved in on the morning of the big day, occupied the main square and informed astonished locals that burying a chicken up to its neck and then attempting to bash it over the head with a large stick was inhumane, blindfold or no blindfold.

When it became clear that the protesters had no intention of moving from the sacred chicken-burying spot, impatient competitors decided to practise on them instead.

After police had finally brought an ugly situation under control, one of the organisers came up with a compromise solution: a stuffed chicken. The animal-rights lobby accepted, once suspicions that the stuffed bird had been alive earlier in the day were dispelled.

However, as soon as the proposed compromise was explained to them, piqued competitors downed sticks and went home in disgust. The idea of grown men in blindfolds trying to club a partially interred stuffed chicken to death was absurd, said one disgruntled local.