No more treating sentient lives as trash
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2009:
Horse racing evolved as “The Sport of Kings,” since kings
were among the first people who could afford to breed and race highly
valued animals kept by others mostly for work.
Animal fighting, regardless of any terms applied to the
human participants, by contrast evolved as “The Sport of Trash.”
The plastic garbage bags full of “sexed” male chickens
awaiting live maceration at any hatchery serving the egg industry
illustrate why. Cockfighting, bullfighting, and dogfighting each
originated through the quest to find profitable uses for lives that
would otherwise be snuffed out and discarded: birds who would never
lay eggs, cattle who would never give milk, and barge-born mongrel
pups who might combine big-dog stamina with small-dog feistiness,
but would grow up to be too small to pull carts, too big to hunt rats.
Gambling money and the evolution of paying audiences for
animal fighting eventually separated the lineage of most gamecocks,
fighting bulls, and fighting dogs from their barnyard and waterfront
ancestors, but not entirely. The public participatory forms of
bullfighting practiced in India as jallikattu and dhirio, for
example, and the Brazilian version called farra du boi, are little
changed from ancient origins.
Surplus bull calves in early agrarian societies might be
castrated and trained to draw plows and carts, but relatively few
were needed for work. Bull calves might also be raised as steers,
for beef; but until the advent of mechanized grain production, few
people could afford to keep and fatten cattle just to be eaten.
Yet many tried. Around the world, agrarian societies
typically tried to feed most of their young and healthy animals
through the winter, then culled them at midwinter solstice and
spring equinox festivals. The killing was sometimes ritualized as
sacrifice, sometimes as sport and entertainment, and often as all
The ritual and sadistic aspects of traditional agrarian
culling represented two of the most common responses to the
psychological stress of slaughtering animals identified by
slaughterhouse designer and reformer Temple Grandin in her studies of
slaughter workers. The third common response is distancing,
associated with abuse of drugs and alcoholic beverages, also
commonly associated with public participatory slaughter.
The rise of dogfighting as a way to dispose of surplus
animals is recalled in the use of “bait dogs” to train the actual pit
dogs. So-called “bait dogs” are typically collected as “adoptions”
of free-to-good-home cast-off ex-pets and their unwanted litters.
Gamecock breeding, training, and fighting rarely have any
direct connection these days to the culling practices of the poultry
trade that they emerged from. Yet cockfighting continues as a
virtual shadow of the poultry industry. Pinpointing the locations of
cockfighting arrests around the U.S. produces a de facto map of
factory chicken farming.
Raids on U.S. cockfights and gamecock facilities impounded at
least 6,491 birds in 2008, bringing 598 arrests, more than in most
recent years, but well below the record 7,995 birds who were
impounded and 1,508 people who were arrested in 2001. More than 95%
of the arrestees in the past 10 years have been male and of Hispanic
surname, almost all of them caught in communities where the poultry
industry employs thousands of workers from Mexico, Central America,
and the Caribbean islands. Many of the rest are of Southeast Asian
surname, in communities where Southeast Asian immigrants are also
prominent among the poultry industry workforce.
Countering the frequent allegation that Hispanic and
Southeast Asian immigrants have brought cockfighting with them from
their homelands is that the oldest two or three percent of
cockfighters tend to be Caucasians, mostly from the Ozarks,
Appalachia, and the Carolinas. Some immigrant poultry workers have
had prior involvement in cockfighting, but their interest has been
encouraged by American “good old boys.” Cultural mingling among
cockfighters is nothing new. Governors from Texas and Tennessee were
instrumental in reviving cockfighting in Puerto Rico in 1933, after
it had been banned for 30 years, as the January/February 2009 ANIMAL
PEOPLE editorial recounted in detail. Caucasians such as former
Tennessee state representative Ronnie Davis continue to lead efforts
to undo or weaken the cockfighting bans now back in effect throughout
the U.S., 75 years after many of the prohibitions adopted early in
the 20th century were quietly dismantled.
But Davis, 64, may be sidelined. As Tom Humphrey of the
Knoxville News Sentinel recounted on April 10, 2008, he lost the
seat he had held for 18 years in 2002 “while under indictment on
charges stemming from an alleged scheme to swindle two Texas men. He
pleaded guilty in 2004 to federal fraud, extortion and drug charges,
and was sentenced to 26 months in prison.”
FBI agent Thomas P. Farrow testified to the Tennessee House
Judiciary Committee in April 2008 that after he supervised the arrest
of 145 people at two Tennessee cockfights circa 1989, “One pit
owner asserted to us that he paid $30,000 to Ronnie Davis” to “help
get that back to a misdemeanor.” Davis in 1990 introduced a bill
that did the job.
Responded Davis, to Humphrey, “I’ve got a buddy who raises
150,000 chickens and every seven weeks Tyson comes to get them,
hangs them up by their feet, and takes a sharp razor and cuts their
throats–after feeding them steroids for seven weeks. But they think
that’s all right. Now, if you put a razor on a rooster, it sounds
brutal. But cutting one’s throat with a razor after seven weeks is
That is no defense of cockfighting, from a humane
perspective. Yet the context, helps to explain why thousands of
participants in poultry production attend cockfights on weekends and
after hours. Cockfighting may be their form of ritual expiation.
The sadistic aspect of cockfighting is self-evident. More subtle is
the aspect of singling out a favored animal among a species that is
routinely victimized, raising that animal with special care and
attention, conferring upon the animal an exalted status, and then
sending the animal out as an alter-ego to kill or be killed. Raising
and fighting a gamecock is, in truth, much like selecting,
consecrating, and then sacrificing a scapegoat to absolve oneself of
sin. Though most cockfighters in the U.S. appear to have no
conscious awareness of the similarity, cockfighting in northeastern
India and Bali is actually practiced as a form of expiative sacrifice.
Lauding the courage of the bull who keeps charging, the
“gameness” of pit bull terriers, and the “cockiness” of strutting
gamecocks is central to the culture of animal fighting. But whether
the animals imagine they are fighting to establish reproductive
dominance, or understand that they are fighting for their lives,
the courage they display is on their own behalf, in forced
confrontation. It is therefore very different from the altruistic
courage of heroic animals and humans who put themselves at risk on
behalf of others–like the courage of Klinka the chicken.
Reasons for hope
On the afternoon of November 19, 2008, near the ANIMAL
PEOPLE headquarters, ANIMAL PEOPLE president Kim Bartlett saw a
coyote dash into the woods with a chicken in his mouth. About 100
yards up the road, Bartlett saw a second chicken –Klinka–sitting
beside the road, disabled by head and neck injuries.
The coyote apparently ate the first chicken, or delivered
her to a mate, and was seen a few minutes later returning for
Klinka. But Klinka was instead brought to the ANIMAL PEOPLE office
in a cat carrier.
For days Klinka did not eat. She appeared to be in shock.
At one point she seemedclose to death–but gradually she regained her
strength and began to demonstrate considerable personality,
including in debate with herself in a mirror.
On January 24, 2009 Bartlett looked out the window to the
back yard to check on Klinka. She was chasing the cat
Osiris–rescued in Egypt by Northwestern University law professor
Kristen Stilt–who had a little bird in his mouth. Klinka pursued
Osiris until he dropped the bird, who flew through the chain link
fence to safety. Then Klinka patrolled that area of the fence for a
few minutes. “I always heard that chickens would bravely confront
predators to defend their chicks,” Bartlett said, “but Klinka
chased a cat to save an unrelated bird, not even of the same
A boom in the popularity of keeping backyard poultry hints
that chickens may soon supplant parrots and pigeons as the most
popular household birds, partly because of increasing interest in
obtaining eggs from a verifiably well-treated flock. Even so, most
urban dwellers are unlikely to ever become personally acquainted with
Yet humans worldwide appear to increasingly agree that
chickens deserve much better treatment. One leading indicator was
the turn of public opinion against cockfighting within the past
decade in the last U.S. states that allowed it. By the time Arizona,
Oklahoma, New Mexico, and finally Louisiana banned cockfighting,
polls in each state showed that from two-thirds to upward of 80% of
the voters believed cockfighting to be unacceptably cruel.
That alarmed the poultry industry. As poultry trade journals
warned, overwhelming public rejection of cockfighting would not bode
well for such practices as battery caging and debeaking. The passage
of Proposition Two by 63% of California voters in November 2008,
forcing a phase-out of battery caging, underscored the point.
European Union legislation requires that battery caging must
end by 2012, but consumer pressure is in many nations driving more
rapid progress. British consumption of eggs from free-range hens in
April 2008 overtook consumption from battery-caged hens. The upscale
Waitrose and Marks & Spencer supermarket chains had already quit
selling eggs from battery-caged hens. Sainsbury’s, the
third-largest British chain, followed in January 2009.
“Statistics released to The Independent by the market
researchers TNS show that sales of free-range chickens rose
throughout 2008,” wrote Independent consumer affairs correspondent
Martin Hickman, “despite concerns that shoppers would ditch animal
welfare during the financial downturn.”
The poultry industry is worried enough that in Oklahoma the
Farm Bureau Federation is pushing legislation to prevent the passage
of ballot initiatives addressing farm animal issues. Assessed
Humane Society of the U.S. factory farming campaign director Paul
Shapiro, “They want to bar voters from future efforts to halt cruel
confinement, to curb manure dumping by factory farms, and to stop
the overuse of antibiotics fed to animals on factory farms.
Cockfighting enthusiasts and their legislative allies tried this sort
of power grab a few years ago,” Shapiro recalled, “but our
anti-cockfighting initiative passed, and voters rejected the effort
to take away their voting rights. This will be a tougher fight,”
Shapiro acknowledged, because now agribusiness is directly involved,
no longer relying on cockfighters as a first line of defense.
Because raising poultry makes more efficient use of feedstock
and produces markedly fewer “greenhouse gases” that contribute to
global warming than raising pigs or cattle, the poultry industry
hopes to continue the global growth trend of recent decades, even as
the “red meat” sector may decline.
But in October 2008 researchers from three Dutch agribusiness
research groups presented to the lower chamber of the Dutch
Parliament the findings from an apparent first-ever opinion survey
about culling male chicks. More than 60% of respondents disapproved
of the practice. The researchers informed the politicians that they
would begin researching ways to abolish it. Possible methods include
identifying “male” eggs before they hatch, and manipulating the
environmental factors involved in the gender determination of chicks.
The Australian Poultry CRC research group in January 2009
announced that it has developed and patented a way to “silence the
expression of genes that tell the growing embryo to become female or
male, without having to genetically modify the chicken.”
“Hatcheries, farmers, and most importantly, ethically
minded consumers will all benefit,” said Australian Poultry CRC
commercialization and technology transfer manager Lloyd Thomsen.
Animal advocates might prefer to see an end to animal
agriculture. Yet eliminating the ideas that sentient lives are
trash, and that sport may be made of disposing of them, is a
quantum leap forward in how humans perceive and treat animals.