No one has ever been scared or helpless when a raging fowl chases them around the yard. Gallus domesticus today inherited its ferocity, bravery, and viciousness from its progenitors, who were among the most fearsome creatures that ever lived on Earth. People initially domesticated chickens to enjoy the spectacle of cockfighting, which they were able to achieve by simply putting two males in a small, contained enclosure.
The Short Explanation of Cockfighting
Most people agree that the Gallus gallus, a particularly vicious jungle predecessor of the modern chicken, was the first cockfighter in Southeast Asia. Interbreeding between the original chickens and the wild and aggressive Gallus sonneratii from India eventually led to the modern chicken’s characteristic yellow skin. The two were crossed and conditioned for combat before being disseminated over the Middle East and India by adventurers, traders, and warriors who relished the sport. Some sources place the origins of cockfighting as far back as 4000 BC in Persia and 2500 BC in the Indus Valley Bronze Age civilization.
However, the Western world didn’t take notice until the fifth-century BC Greco-Persian War. Legend has it that famous Athens general Themistocles, en route to battle the Persians, was appropriately pleased when he saw two fowl fighting on the side of the road:
As you can see, their motivation is purely selfish; they aren’t fighting for their home gods, ancestors’ monuments, glory, liberty, or the safety of their children; none of these things matter to them.
The sport was fast gaining popularity, but the Greeks saw it as more than simply a form of pleasure, according to The London Encyclopaedia.
Originally practiced in Athens to sow the seeds of bravery in the minds of the young, cockfighting was later corrupted into a popular sport in Greece, devoid of any religious or political overtones.
The Greeks left an indelible mark on the Romans even after they defeated them. The Greeks brought cockfighting to Rome along with their philosophy, architecture, religion, and culture. The game was so beloved by the conquistadors that it was depicted in beautiful mosaics and on silver coins. The Romans introduced cockfighting as part of their culture as they spread their empire across three continents and ruled over 25% of the world’s population.
Even after the Renaissance and the Enlightenment brought a newfound emphasis on humanism and a revitalization of Europe’s intellectual life, cockfighting remained a popular sport among Europeans. The sport was brought to the Americas by Europeans during colonization, and it is said that Elizabeth I, James I, Henry VIII, and Charles II all enjoyed it. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin were among the founding fathers who were reported to have not only witnessed the matches but also participated with their birds.
During the Civil War (1861–1865), cockfighting remained a legal activity. Legend has it that our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, got the nickname “Honest Abe” for being so fair when officiating cockfights.
Several organizations, nevertheless, quickly started to voice their opposition to the practice. In 1866, activists spearheaded by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals tore into the sport to ban it. Contrary to popular belief, cockfighting remained legal in all 50 states until 2007 when Louisiana passed a prohibition. Moving cockfighting tools (and, by extension, birds) across international boundaries is now illegal according to the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act of 2007, which was also enacted that year.
Cockfighting Laws Around The World
In the United States, cockfighting laws vary significantly by state. Most states have explicitly outlawed the practice, making it a felony offense. However, before the federal ban in 2007, several states had looser regulations or ambiguous laws regarding cockfighting. Currently, it is illegal to organize, participate in, or attend cockfighting events in all 50 states, and federal law prohibits the interstate transportation of birds for fighting purposes.
Cockfighting in Mexico has deep cultural roots and has been historically viewed as a traditional sport. Laws vary by state, with some permitting regulated cockfighting while others have outlawed the practice. In 2014, Mexico passed federal legislation to ban cockfighting, but it remains a contentious issue, and enforcement varies across regions.
Cockfighting, known as “sabong,” holds immense cultural significance in the Philippines. While regulations are in place, the country considers it a legal and regulated sport, often with dedicated arenas and organized events. However, local ordinances and laws may impose specific rules or restrictions on the practice.
India has a comprehensive ban on animal fighting, including cockfighting. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, of 1960, prohibits all forms of animal fighting, and violations can result in fines or imprisonment.
Cockfighting has been illegal in the United Kingdom since the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835. The law criminalized the practice, making it an offense to stage or participate in cockfighting events. UK laws prioritize animal welfare, strictly prohibiting such activities.
Cockfighting in Spain varies by region. While some areas have banned the practice outright, others, especially in rural settings, may have more lenient regulations or cultural acceptance. Spain’s animal welfare laws have increasingly targeted animal cruelty, potentially impacting the future of cockfighting.
In Thailand, cockfighting, known as “kai baht,” is legal but strictly regulated. There are designated venues and specific regulations to ensure the humane treatment of birds and minimize animal cruelty during fights.
Cockfighting in France has legal nuances, particularly in overseas territories like French Guiana, where it’s permitted under certain restrictions. In mainland France, the practice is illegal, reflecting the country’s animal welfare laws.
Colombia’s stance on cockfighting varies by region. While some municipalities may have banned the practice, others may have more ambiguous laws or cultural acceptance. Efforts to pass national bans have faced challenges due to cultural ties.
Cockfighting has cultural significance in Puerto Rico, where it was a legal and regulated sport until 2019. The island had a long tradition of legal cockfighting, but federal legislation led to its ban, posing challenges to the practice’s continuity.
Selective Breeding for Aggression and Combat Skills
The domestication process involved selective breeding focused on enhancing traits conducive to cockfighting. Early breeders favored aggressive behavior, strength, and combat skills in chickens, breeding them specifically for successful engagement in cockfights. Over generations, these traits were honed to optimize the birds’ fighting abilities.
Cultural Artifacts and Depictions
Archaeological findings, including pottery, sculptures, and murals, frequently depict scenes of cockfighting, highlighting its cultural importance. These artifacts serve as tangible evidence of the historical practice, showcasing how chickens were initially utilized for this bloodsport, underscoring its prevalence in various ancient societies.
Transmission Through Trade and Cultural Exchange
The spread of cockfighting practices across civilizations was facilitated through trade routes, conquests, and cultural exchanges. As people traveled and interacted, they carried the tradition of cockfighting with them, disseminating the practice to new regions and cultures, and shaping its global influence.
Integration into Societal Customs and Rituals
Cockfighting became ingrained in the social fabric of many societies, influencing rituals, festivals, and religious ceremonies. Its prominence in cultural practices reinforced the notion that chickens were initially domesticated not solely for sustenance but as participants in a competitive and ritualistic sport.
Regrettably, the sport is still played today. The Humane Society reports that cockfights are commonplace all across the world, including in the US. A former sheriff’s deputy and his wife were apprehended and indicted for operating an illicit gaming enterprise and for infringing upon the Animal Welfare Act in Eastern Oregon during the summer of 2016. On their remote property, they allegedly held cockfighting derbies.