|Sparring Roosters, West Java, from National Geographic|
In Noodling for Flatheads, a book subtitled "Moonshine, Monster Catfish, and Other Southern Comforts" (order here), author Burhard Bilger, a midwesterner living in Massachusetts, looks at a couple of activities that were once common to certain parts of the rural south: cockfighting, hand-catching catfish, squirrel hunting, gigging for frogs, making moonshine, coon hunting, marble playing, and (of course) eating odd parts of a hog.
Today's lesson is on cockfighting, one of those things animal rights activists know even less about than most of the folks who own backyard hens.
In his chapter on cockfighting in Louisiana, Bliger makes four core points.
Point One is that chickens, especially roosters, are naturally combative and vicious, a fact that has been known, recognized, and celebrated for several millenia. No one has to do much to get two roosters to fight other than put them in the same farm yard together.
Most blood sports are merely cruel; no bear or badger is baited willingly, and dogs rarely fight to the death. But chickens are different. Egg factories lose as much as 80 percent of their layers to cannibalism, unless they cut off the birds’ beaks; and even on free range, roosters are seized by blood lust now and then. “We call it a comin’ into their pride,” one chicken breeder told me. “After a storm sometimes, you’ll go out into the yard and it’ll be littered with dead birds.
Point Two is that folks who cockfight do not hate their birds. In fact, Bilger notes that they love them and respect them, and treat them like kings. He describes a field of birds, each tied by one leg to their individual plastic pickle barrel huts:
Although the farm looked like an army bivouac in miniature, these birds were more pampered than any soldier. The average broiler chicken lives for six weeks, wing to wing with thousands of others. These gamecocks, by contrast, typically lived for two or three years. And they lived like pashas. Every day, from five-thirty in the morning till sundown, three employees tended to their every need. They fed, trained and vaccinated the birds; trimmed their feathers and searched their droppings for worms, put them on trapezes to strengthen their legs and slowly stroked the twitches out of them. If the birds were still a little stir-crazy, the trainers might even bring around some nice, plump pullets to calm them down. “The prisons could learn something from us about conjugal visits,” Demoruelle said. “The cocks won’t fight as much if they get a female occasionally.”
Point Three is that for all the moralizing that some folks have done about the evils of cockfighting, most are pretty philosophical when it comes to the short and sordid life experienced by birds at commercial broiler and egg operations. As Bilger notes:
Not long after I left Louisiana, I went to visit a chicken factory an hour south of Little Rock, Arkansas. One of forty-one “vertically integrated:” operations owned by Tysons Foods, this one took in 1.3 million birds a week and spat out an endless sea of chicken parts and precooked wings. A mill, a hatchery, and dozens of feed sheds lay around it like spokes on a wheel, and most of the work was automated (when a chicken laid an egg, a tiny conveyor belt underneath the roost trundled the egg off for incubation). Thanks to such efficiencies, American factories slaughter some seven billion chickens a year, and chicken meat, once more expensive than filet mignon, has become blandly ubiquitous – poor man’s fare. Breeders, meanwhile, keep picking up the pace: a century ago a broiler needed sixteen weeks to reach two pounds; today they reach four pounds in six weeks.
Finally, Bilger observes that modern man has an incredible ability to compartmentalize. War is fought "over there" by namless, faceless people, and we do not want to see the injuries. Flush twice, and human waste disappears out of sight and out of mind. Bag up your trash, and on Tuesday a truck comes and miraculously disappears it down the road. As for meat, most people think its comes naturally wrapped in plastic and sitting on a foam tray with a little white napkin parked underneath.
There are things we don’t want to know, that we zone away beyond city limits, and most meat producers are happy to oblige. Every year we eat more chicken meat and see less and less of the living birds, and this strikes us as right and normal. Animal rights activists, of course, condemn poultry factories as well as cockfighting, but most of us aren’t that consistent. We’re appalled at blood sports, yet when activists picket slaughter houses or send lurid photos to the media, we resent them, deem them unrealistic. Like cockfighters, they threaten a cherished illusion; that society, in growing up, has lost its taste for blood.
Of course, it's more than that, as Bilger notes.
It's also a question of property vs. pets. More on that tomorrow.