From the print edition
Ninety years ago, Costa Rica banned cockfighting because government officials considered it cruel and abusive. While the practice remains legal in some Latin American countries, here, cockfighting stayed underground, with little debate, until this month.
On May 14, a full-page ad by the Fighting Cock Breeders Association appeared in the daily La Nación, signaling that the battle to legalize the activity lived on.
The group claims to have 5,000 members and thousands more supporters. The announcement accused Costa Rica — which banned cockfighting in 1922 although the activity remains popular in certain regions of the country — of impeding a tradition that dates back to the biblical voyagers on Noah’s Ark.
A spokesman for the group said cockfighting should be legal for religious, moral and biological reasons. He believes advocates have enough support to force Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly to bring the issue to the table. Alexander Pinto, media representative for the breeders, said the group is working on a bill to legalize the activity.
“They want to break traditions, but we are a very large part of the country,” Pinto said. “And we have rights. They can’t stop us.”
Politicians scoffed at the idea that the group could ever convince lawmakers to discuss a bill legalizing the practice.
In April, public pressure forced Daniel Cubero of the Libertarian Party to withdraw his name from a list of candidates seeking the assembly’s presidency after he publicly admitted that he viewed cockfighting as a family tradition.
Legislators expressed doubt that any elected official would risk supporting a bill in a country fixated with animal rights.
“No sitting lawmaker is going to support a bill [to legalize cockfighting], and if one does, it will go very poorly,” said Rita Chaves, of the Access without Exclusion Party and the assembly’s secretary.
So far, the decision by members of the organization to raise their voices seems only to have brought on more disclosures of cockfighting rings and subsequent crackdowns. In the past week, raids occurred in southern San José suburb of Desamparados and the Caribbean town of Pococí.
Antonio Van der Lucht, director of legal issues for the government’s National Animal Health Service (SENASA), said the cockfighting “crackdown” is nothing new for his organization. SENASA has worked with the Public Security Ministry to break cockfighting rings since 2006.
Police conduct about a dozen raids a year, Van der Lucht said. The current campaigns, he said, receive more attention since the press started covering the issue more, a result of the publication of the Fighting Cock Breeders Association’s ad.
The extra notice also has resulted in more residents calling to report cockfighting, he said. SENASA provides a hotline to denounce the illegal activity at 2279-9007.
Van der Lucht disbelieves Pinto’s statements about the popularity of cockfighting here, such as the estimate that “20 percent of the country” participates in the activity.
The SENASA legal rep said Costa Rica has a network of concentrated cockfighting zones. He mentioned the cities of Cartago, east of San José, Alajuela, northwest of the capital, San Carlos, in the Northern Zone and Puntarenas, in the central Pacific.
He lamented that SENASA does not have more authority: The country’s animal cruelty law only permits police to break up and confiscate abused animals. Officials can demolish cockfighting rings, but perpetrators do not face fines or jail time under the current law.
Legislators are discussing an amendment to the Animal Welfare Law, including adding prison sentences for animal abuse. Harsher punishments could go a long way to deterring cockfighting fans, who view the activity as entertainment and an opportunity to gamble, they said.
Pinto said attendees each place bets from $2 to $10. Breeders wager around ₡50,000 ($100) on a match. Each bout has its own referee. Opposing roosters must have the same weight.
Pinto claims in 70 percent of fights both participating gamecocks live. He said SENASA officials are the murderers, because they euthanize confiscated chickens.
Still, fights are a bloody affair. The 12-minute brawls might not kill every losing chicken, but Van der Lucht said each battle intends to go “to the death.”
Pinto compares his birds to prized boxers. He refers to the best ones as powerful red roosters in “admirable physical condition.”
Images of roosters before a fight highlight the unspoken nastiness. Breeders often cut off the comb (the red fleshy growth on a rooster’s head) and the wattle (similar growth on the neck) before fights to prevent opposing roosters from attacking those body parts.
The breeders’ association discourages attaching artificial spurs or knives to a rooster’s leg, weapons that can easily gut combatants. However, photos from raids showed that police have confiscated knife extensions from cockfights.
Pinto said he stands for a tradition that is “natural.” Roosters want to fight. They do not clash because they’re forced to, but because biologically it’s what the birds are wired to do, he said.
Pinto’s speech takes on an air of grandeur when he discusses cockfighting’s history. The tradition goes back ages, and important historical figures like Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and U.S. President George Washington enjoyed fighting cocks, Pinto said, as did ex-Costa Rican presidents Juan Rafael Mora Porras and José María Castro Madriz.
Pinto wants “equality” for his organization and respect. He doesn’t like the changes happening in his country. He wonders why gays and lesbians deserve equal opportunities but not cockfighting fans. Pinto is baffled by this.
“What is this outrage? How can they want to do that?” he asked.
When a reporter suggested that gay rights and cockfighting are two unrelated issues, Pinto disagreed.
“Not in regards to morals. Not when it comes to respecting God,” he said.
This beckoned another question: God likes cockfighting?
“Yes, of course he likes the cockfights. He made them. If he didn’t like them, he wouldn’t have made them.”
Then, Pinto wanted to express a thought. This statement, Pinto said, had not yet been brought up to TV stations or other newspapers.
“To destroy chickens, like SENASA does, is against the will of God,” he said.
SENASA officials will admit they have listened to this condemnation before. Well, they’ve never heard anyone describe what they do as being “against the will of God.” But they’ve taken criticism. Detractors have questioned why the roosters must be euthanized once a cockfighting group is busted.
“It’s a critique that we hear from people who don’t know the reasons,” Van der Lucht said. “SENASA doesn’t like this. We don’t like to kill the animals, but it’s the only option we have.”
The primary reason for euthanasia is that some of the birds participating in fights arrived to the country illegally. Van der Lucht said roosters come from countries such as Panama, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, and could carry diseases that don’t exist in Costa Rica and might affect poultry bred here.
His other point was that Costa Rica does not have the infrastructure to take care of the confiscated animals. Since the roosters are bred to be aggressive, it’s difficult to rehabilitate them. An injection by a veterinarian destroys the roosters recovered from a bust.
To cockfighting breeders, this undignified death is the cruelest measure of all.
“We’re not going to take it anymore,” Pinto said. “The authorities of SENASA don’t have an argument. They are killing animals. This indignation has motivated us.”