Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Clucking, Cockfighting and Colonel Sanders

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. 


Stoutheartedhounds said...

I learned all about the violent and cannibalistic nature of chickens and other galliformes when I took a basic poultry science class in college. I have to say it was the best class I ever took, and really opened my eyes to what amazing creatures chickens really are.

Fighting comes naturally to cocks; as a matter of fact it was that trait that first led man to domesticate chickens. That's right, before man used chickens for food or eggs, he used them for entertainment. I think it's safe to say that if it weren't for cockfighting we wouldn't be as close to poultry, culturally and socially, as we are today.

By the way, the correct term for a male chicken is "cock." After I took that poultry science class I learned never to call a male chicken a "rooster" ;-)

PBurns said...

Take a look at this picture of cockfighting (Safe for Work) and ask yourself who you would bet AGAINST!

Simba said...

It could be something to do with food vs fun, too- I've heard it argued that we need to eat meat to live therefore factory farming is all right (?), but everyone accepts that suffering for entertainment is unnecessary. There's class issues too, of course- "those people" fight cocks, we eat factory chicken.

Aggression in chickens is quite dependent on breed. Run a silkie cock with a load of hens and it's very unlikely that the silkie will fight, or will be the aggressor in any conflicts. Even with other cocks most of them don't start fights.

The breeds with higher egg production are a little more flighty and aggressive- mixed breed 'red hens' bred purely for egg production will bully most any other backyard chicken. Breeding for nonaggression would be possible, but would have to involve crosses with birds that don't lay as much. Easier to just de-beak.

I'd love to have a game-bred bird or two some day- fascinating animals.

PBurns said...

You are no doubt right Simba.

Stripped down to our knickers, American are Puritans and NOTHING should ever be fun.

Sex should be about procreation, not FUN.

Suffering? Oh we are fine with that!

Look at the cancer-riddled breeds that we line up to own, and the dogs that cannot walk or breathe.

Sick, sad Michael Vick killed a few dogs for "fun" three and half years ago (and paid over $20 million dollars and did a long stretch in jail too) and everyone is STILL talking about that, but it's a deafening silence about all those "Pit Bull lovers" breeding dogs and selling dogs to other "Pit Bull lovers" who change their mind and turn them over the the pound to be killed a few days later. 40,000,000 pounds of dead Pit Bulls last year and this year too, but not too much talk about taking steps to stop that!

And not too much talk about the folks that drive and fly around the country to continue the breeding of dogs that are walking cancer bombs and dogs that cannot breathe. That's "commerce," not "fun." That's dog-owner "rights" and never mind the responsibilities. My favorite excuses are when people tell me that they have the cancer bomb dog or the dog that cannot breathe because they feel a duty to "protect the breed". Perfect!

So YES, you are right that while it is about a battle between Fun vs. Food, it's also about MORE than that.

It's also about "us" versus "them".

One thing it's certainly not about is either the dog or the chicken.


Gina said...

That's a stunningly beautiful picture at the top of the post. A prime work of a true photojournalist.

The Dog House said...

Growing up I worked for a family who owned a hatchery and a handful of chicken barns. The birds were admittedly pretty crammed in but not to the level you see in a lot of factory farms. They were never debeaked, either the free-range meat birds, or the egg layers. Occasionally we'd lose one or two, but they didn't overload the barns and didn't get the disease overload a lot of other producers were prone to, so they accepted the loss.

They did also breed, incubate and sell hatchlings of heritage birds, which were all grown in multi level free range setups. I can't speak to what issues they had with the cock there - I just know they had a pretty seamless operation and were one of the largest producers of some of the rarest birds at the time, so let's just say they weren't anxious to be babbling about their secrets.

But to the argument that's being made. One can still eat free range chicken that's been raised humanely and not crammed together with its beak cut off, just like one can choose to not put animals together for the purposes of fighting them for fun and entertainment.

And keep in mind that the tribal cockfighters are not the ones being targeted by the NYPD - it's the ones who tie metal spurs and spikes to their cocks' feet so they do the most damage, so that it's more of a bloodsport - those sick bastards, those are the ones we are after.

I think we should treat animals with a kind of dignity, and I don't think forcing them to fight each other is dignified. There's a reason you don't let your dogs finish off prey - you do it in the most humane way possible.

I can totally buy the argument if it's being made to someone who loves the Colonel - but for someone who eats humanely selected very choice small amounts of meat that are handled and killed in a dignified manner... it's like saying that just because puppy millers do what they do, then how can you come down on breeders who treat their cancer ridden puppies well?

There's a third option. You can agree with neither.

PBurns said...

Agree Doghouse -- There is a third way.

The point I am making here is NOT to defend cockfighting, but simply to point out that we are willfully blind whenever we want to be.... and willfully ignorant whenever it is convenient.

The degree to which birds fight, of course, is determined to a large extent by breed (fighting cocks are very close to wild jungle fowl and pretty far removed from the birds man has created to lay maximum eggs or produce maximum meat), and gender (it's called cock fighting and not hen fighting for a reason), and living conditions (if there are enough hens and enough space, two roosters may hive off territories). And, of course, there is nothing natural about replacing natural chicken spurs with razor sharp metal gaffs. More than agreed there! What was a boxing matching it now a knife fight.

To bring it back to dogs, how much have we heard about the evils of Michael Vick, and how little have we heard about the evils of owning a Sharpei?

How much noise do we hear about one of the rarest things in America -- dog fighting -- and how much silence is there about the health problems of a Top Ten Breed like the English Bulldog?

How often do we hear clucking about kill shelters putting down dog after dog, and then see the same people who did that clucking turn around and get their next pet dog from an AKC breeder? And never mind if the breed being chosen in never going to be worked, and is little more than a walking cancer bomb or dysplastic wreck on four legs, or a pathetic air-gasper than can never quite get a lung full.

As was noted earlier, a lot of what is going on here is a kind of sniffing class warfare with a strong dash of racism tossed on top for seasoning. If over-educated white people do it, no matter what it is, a steady stream of rationalizing excuses are trotted out and too often saluted. People will tell you they have a right to a pure-bred cancer bomb that they will torture by propping it up at the vets for a fews years, and it's their property and their money, so piss off. OK. But how is that different from how the cockfighter or the dog fighter rationalizes what they do? And my point is that it's not very different. Both people will tell you they LOVE their animals. The only difference is that the cockfighter's bird is likely to be in pain for less than five minutes, while the owner of the AKC cancer-bomb and dysplasia-wreck is likely to keep his dog in misery and pain for months if not years, even as he or she sends out weepy "poor me" emails to list-servs about how their
dogs are sooo sick and aren't they heroic people for spending all this time and money on some attempt at a palliative treatment. Waaaahhh! And then, as soon as they bury the last dog they tortured-at-the-vets, they are almost certain to turn around and get the same breed and do it all over again. Is that moral? Is that decent? Or is that simply stupidy, ego, vanity and selfishness all wrapped in a leaf of history and tradition, the very same as cockfighting and dog fighting? In fact, isn't it actually worse that cockfighting or dog fighting? After all, I doubt you know a single dog fighter or cockfighter, but you probably know more than a dozen people in the world of purebred dogs that fit my description of weeping concern for the genetic health wrecks they buy right down to a "T". So no, it's not all about puppy mills. It's about people we actually KNOW.