Emelyn Rude has been a food writer for TIME and Vice and media manager for some of New York City’s most acclaimed chefs and restaurateurs. She’s the author of Tastes Like Chicken, and joins Signature to trace the roots of cockfighting in America to England, Rome, Greece and our ancestors in Southeast Asia.
In the summer of 2008 Louisiana became the last state to formally ban cockfighting, the blood sport in which two gamecocks of even weight and skill are placed in a ring to battle, often to the death. When this law passed, the rest of the country thought it was about damn time.
The first state legislature to ban cockfighting in the United States was Massachusetts in 1836 and most other state governments quickly followed suit. Not Louisiana, however. Despite mounting pressures from animal rights groups and growing public outrage, cockfighting remained legal in the Bayou State even after forty other states had upgraded the act to felony.
Louisiana’s defense of the reviled sport was based largely on one thing: tradition. And indeed, the legacy of cockfighting in the United States is long and storied. From the Gulf of Mexico up to New York City, starting from colonization until well into the twentieth century, the violent sport was one of the most popular and widely practiced among all classes of society. Everyone from Virginia slaves to President Andrew Jackson were avid “cockers” and matches would draw thousands from miles around to witness (and bet on) the spectacle of two roosters locked in mortal combat. By 1952, in spite of widespread laws making the practice illegal, the National Humane Review remarked that “there is hardly a sizeable community in the whole of the United States in which cockfights are not being conducted more or less regularly.”
This American passion for cockfighting was inherited directly from the English, where the royal family themselves were known to breed fighting birds from at least the fifteenth century. And the English inherited their passion from the Romans, who thought the fighting cock iconic enough to adorn their homes and temples, while the Romans inherited it from the Greeks, who used the tenacity of roosters to demonstrate true bravery to their soldiers. And the Greeks got it from the Persians and the Persians got it from the Harappans and on and on all the way back to the jungles of Southeast Asia where the Red Jungle Fowl, the chicken’s primary ancestor, naturally fought over mates and territory. These spectacles drew the attention of local humans some eight to ten thousand years ago and many archaeologists believe cockfighting is actually the reason chickens were originally domesticated. The sport began as a religious ritual and later transformed into a more secular, albeit blood-soaked form of entertainment.
This rich history is supplemented quite well by actual riches. Before it’s complete ban nationwide, cockfighting was estimated to be a multi-million dollar industry comprising armies of breeders, feed-dealers, and fighting venues. At the matches themselves, the primary activity for human participants is gambling and the money earned from a winning bird can be exorbitant. A prominent Carolinian breeder reportedly won $415,000 in today’s currency after cockfighting for a week in Mexico in the 1850s and raids on cockfights outside of New York in the 1910s found prizes reaching almost $600,000.
When early opponents to the sport attended a tournament, it was this vice of gambling, often accompanied by drinking and shouting and general lewdness, that drew their ire. What was worse for the government was that the crowds around cockfights consisted of “many genteel people, conspicuously mingled with the vulgar and debased,” a combination that many feared would brew political conspiracy. In fact, one of the earliest prohibitions of cockfighting occurred in 16th century England because Oliver Cromwell saw the cockpit as a den of treason and rebellion. It wasn’t until the 1830s that the split beaks and ruptured eyes and maimed wings of the birds drew any widespread attention and the modern arguments against the sport’s cruelty to animals began to have any affect.
Louisiana’s ban in 2008 marked the end of centuries of legal chicken fights in the United States and yet cockfighting still goes on. When asked why they still participate in the bloody sport, many contemporary cockers will cite the history and the industry, but most will look to the gamecocks themselves. “One is horrified at the gory sight,” wrote one cockfighting historian, “but one cannot fail to admire and to marvel at the stupendous courage displayed by the battling birds.” For all the repulsions of the sport, just like the ancient peoples of Southeast Asia, the soldiers of Greece, and the Kings of England, it may very well be that cockfighting will live on in the United States simply because some people will just always like to watch cocks fight.