Former U.S. presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were devoted cockfighters. According to records, during the Civil War, Union and Confederate soldiers put aside their differences on Sundays to pit their chickens against one another.
Abraham Lincoln received the nickname “Honest Abe” after he displayed impartiality as a cockfighting judge. It is even said that the game fowl, or fighting chicken, was almost chosen to be the national bird of America instead of the eagle.
Compared to the past, the status of cockfighting in the United States is different now. The bloodsport is illegal in all 50 states, with Louisiana as the last state to outlaw cockfighting in 2007. Cockfighting has also been banned in all 16 U.S. territories since 2019. In addition to that, Federal law has also made it a crime to sell, buy, possess, train, transport, deliver, or receive any chicken across state lines for fighting purposes.
However, despite the prohibition of cockfighting in the United States, breeding game fowls is an ongoing business, albeit done underground and with a focus on international cockfighting.
In the Philippines, cockfighting, including the selling of birds and gambling, is legal and generates billions of dollars a year in revenue. A quick search on the social media platform Facebook yields thousands of results, advertising roosters for sale on any given day.
A disclaimer is always attached that the roosters are “not for illegal use.” Shooting a quick private message to any seller can get you a price quote from one of the hundreds of breeders across the United States.
The long tradition of game fowl breeding has produced eminent strains with histories of success in local and international cockfighting tournaments, accounting for their demand abroad. This even includes countries where game fowl breeding is legal.
Joey Sy, a Filipino television personality, traveled from California to states such as Oklahoma, Kentucky, Alabama, and North Carolina, interviewing breeders about their roosters, with videos posted on his YouTube channel.
In one of the videos, they interviewed a breeder named Kenny Jack who mentioned that he breeds 1,300 to 1,400 stags every year. The birds are sent to buyers all over the world, including Mexico, South America, Guam, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
in 2021, Sy’s videos about American game fowl breeders were removed from YouTube after animal rights groups publicized their existence. Most of the breeders in the videos are still active in the business.
Over the last five years, more than 11,500 fighting birds were shipped to Guam alone from American game fowl farms. According to Thomas Pool, a territorial veterinarian in Guam, the birds were almost certainly used illegally in fights.
Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, describes the United States as the “breeding ground for cockfighting for the world.” He says that the United States supplies “tens and tens of thousands of birds” to 25 countries.
In 2001 and 2005, Pacelle testified before Congress in support of amendments to the Animal Welfare Act; the first banned the interstate or foreign transport of game fowl, and the second made cockfighting a felony and criminalized the sale of implements like blades that are attached to the birds’ legs if these activities involve participants in multiple states.
Limiting the interdiction to interstate commerce has meant that the states must take responsibility for combating cockfighting in their own variable ways. In seven states, cockfighting is only a misdemeanor while in Georgia, the blood sport can be prosecuted only indirectly.
While there are animal welfare organizations that are against game fowl breeding and cockfighting, organizations have also popped up in support of the breeders. The Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission and the West Virginia Gamebreeders Association call themselves “legitimate” game fowl breeders, distinguishing themselves from cockfighters by drawing the line between raising or selling birds and pitting them against one another.
In Oklahoma, cockfighting carries up to a USD 25,000 fine and a 10-year prison sentence. The state game fowl commission helped introduce a bill in 2022 that would reduce the crime to a misdemeanor with a maximum punishment of USD 2,000. While the bill didn’t pass, the breeders continue to push their case, using philosophy, history, aesthetics, and science to support their case.
“Freedom will be lost if a species which is the result of thousands of years of evolution is legislated out of existence. Please support our efforts to perpetuate the legitimate breeding and raising of this noble bird,” said the United Gamefowl Breeders Association.
Game fowls have a complex genealogy. All modern-day chickens are thought to be descended from junglefowl, tropical birds native to Southeast Asia and China, and may have been domesticated as far as 6,000 B.C. Junglefowl is generally lean, territorial, and temperamental. In modern game birds, this aggression has been accentuated.
Modern game fowls are not bred for their meat or the size of their eggs. Rather, it is a matter of whether they can win a fight, and there is a certain pride in the names of the breeds which often honor the men who first developed them.
For example, one of the most popular breeds is named after Walter Kelso, a breeder in Texas who died in 1964. Game fowls share common ancestors — Kelsos, Asils, Radio, Hennys, Hatches, Roundheads, and more — but they are as different as daschunds and golden retrievers to rooster breeders.
Steve Hindi, head of the organization Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, has been making a name for himself as a vigilante in game fowl communities. He flies drones over farms and shows up at cockfighting events with a camera crew, believing that capturing and reporting illegal cockfighting to the authorities.
In 2021, acting in part on tips from Steve Hindi and Animal Wellness Action, authorities from the United States Department of Agriculture, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice conducted a raid on a farm owned by the Easterling family in Alabama.
More than 2,000 game fowl were seized, and all seven members of the Easterling family were indicted on 23 separate counts in federal court. The game fowl had been relinquished to the federal government. The authorities prepared to do what they nearly always do following the closing of a case of a game fowl farm raid: killing all the birds.
However, the Easterlings — three of whom were sentenced to probation and four of whom were sentenced to prison or home detention — discussed with the government to rehome the birds rather than euthanize them.
When federal or state authorities end up euthanizing birds seized from a game fowl farm, it is usually done via lethal injection or carbon dioxide. Each method, if done correctly, leads to a fairly painless death.
Delcinna Winders, director of the Animal Law and Policy Institute at Vermont Law School, argues for the euthanization of game fowls. “It’s really troubling that these birds are just being killed when these busts are happening. It’s something that’s just gone unquestioned for so long.”
Patrice Jones, founder, and director of VINE Sanctuary, an organization based in Vermont that specializes in rehabilitating game fowl, took in-game fowls from the Easterling’s farm. Jones has received scores of notes from cockfighters, telling her that the birds cannot live together without killing one another. However, in Jones’s 20 years of rehabilitation, she says that almost every one of her game fowl has learned to live together without restraints.
Jones was aware that, in a sense, she was working with cockfighters to protect the birds. She noted wryly that the people who cared most for the roosters were her and the cockfighters.
“So many of these men that engage in cockfighting seem to really enjoy the time they spend with the roosters,” she said. “It’s tragic, really, in every sense of the word, that boys that grow up wanting to be close with animals don’t have ways to do that that don’t involve hurting animals.”