On a Sunday afternoon in a small city on on the western side of Puerto Rico, a crowd of more than a dozen men and one woman sat in a small amphitheater, holding wads of cash and sipping beer and mixed drinks from plastic cups.
Two men reached into cloth sacks, pulled out two roosters and placed them into a glass pen. A wooden plank divided the pen down the middle, keeping the animals separated while allowing them to stare each other down. The spectators anticipated what was coming next.
Suddenly, an assistant tugged on a pulley hooked to the ceiling and the glass pen lifted. The roosters puffed out their feathers in shows of dominance, and then began to kick, peck and slash each other– each assault made more lethal by plastic spurs taped to their ankles.
This is a cockfight at Gallera Rancho Alegre, a club in the town of San Sebastian. It’s a long-held but controversial tradition in Puerto Rico, and it will soon be illegal.
The 2018 Farm Bill, signed into law last month, bans cockfighting in all U.S. territories beginning in December of the current year.
The ban makes it illegal to organize or attend an “animal fighting venture,” which includes cockfighting. It also prohibits anyone from buying, selling, possessing, training or transporting animals or sharp instruments to be used in animal fights.
Legal cockfighting vanished from the U.S. mainland in 2008 when Louisiana became the last state to ban the blood sport, but it is still permissible in U.S. territories. In Puerto Rico, the sport has been officially allowed since 1933, but dates back to the 1700s when the island was a Spanish colony.
This 360-degree view provides a glimpse into part of a match at Club Gallistico de Puerto Rico. Watch in the player above. A warning: some viewers might find this video disturbing.
The push to ban the pastime in U.S. territories was championed by Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and the Humane Society of the United States, who criticize cockfighting as animal cruelty that is often tied to other criminal activity.
According to the Humane Society, even if the roosters are not made to fight to the death, they can endure severe injuries during skirmishes — pierced eyes, broken arteries that cause extreme bleeding, punctured lungs — which often lead to death.
Outside the ring, the roosters are subjected to a strenuous regime that requires running along obstacle courses and jumping. Animals are conditioned to be overly aggressive; one breeder said he could not let the birds out of their cages because they would kill each other.
Jennifer González, Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner in Congress, actively opposed the cockfighting ban. She said it is being imposed without input from Puerto Ricans, who do not have voting rights in Congress.
And González said that banning cockfighting, a part of Puerto Rico’s culture, will hurt the island’s already weak economy.
It can be difficult to calculate exactly how much cockfighting contributes to the economy. While license fees, sales taxes on concessions and municipal property taxes associated with cockfights are tracked by the government, much of the money generated from the fights are part of the island’s informal economy.
Cash bets made on the roosters (or any cash transactions made in venues) are not tracked.
Still, industry officials estimate cockfighting generates between $16 million and $18 million in revenue each year.
A 2017 study from Puerto Rico’s Department of Sports and Recreation, the agency that regulates cockfighting throughout the island, found cockfighting businesses directly and indirectly employ more than 20,000 people in Puerto Rico.
The agency itself recollected more than $90,000 in licenses and fines, according to data from the 2018-2019 cockfighting season.
“I live off cockfighting 100 percent”
Cockfighting club owners, venue employees and breeders are concerned about whether they will be able to find a new source of income when the ban takes effect.
Gallera Rancho Alegre in San Sebastian employs around 20 people, including referees, “healers” who provide medical treatment to the roosters after the fights, assistants, security personnel, spur cutters and custodians.
Santiago Gonet works part-time as a registration referee at the club. Before each fight, he weighs the roosters and pairs them with similar opponents. Gonet says he makes more money working with the roosters than he does in his full-time job as an accountant.
“Most of my family lives off roosters,” Gonet said. “There are many families that depend on cockfighting for their livelihoods, from breeding to working in the venues.”
Luis Mendez Santiago, a referee for cockfighting matches, followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a manager at a cockfighting club. From breeding to betting on roosters, the 43-year-old says he has been involved in the game since he was a boy.
“I live off cockfighting 100 percent,” Mendez said. He fears that next year he won’t have enough income to keep up with his mortgage payments.
“I’m going to lose my home because I’ll have no way to pay for it,” Mendez said. “I would look for another job but, unfortunately, the economy is so bad here and there are no jobs. Another option is to move to the United States, look for a job and learn English. It’s like starting from first grade.”
A hurricane and a major hit
Puerto Rico’s economy is in dismal shape. It owes $120 billion in debt and pension obligations. Because it is a territory instead of a state, it cannot declare bankruptcy, and has as a result been working through federal courts to establish a debt restructuring deal.
In order to pay down the island’s debt, an oversight board has implemented austerity measures, including cutting funds from pensions or the state’s university and school consolidations, which has sparked student and teacher protests.
Hurricane Maria exacerbated the island’s economic woes by damaging its electrical grid, destroying homes and ravaging the agricultural sector. Puerto Rico’s planning board said the hurricane caused $43 billion in damages to its economy, although other estimates have put that number as high as $159 billion. Last fiscal year, Puerto Rico’s economy shrank 7.6 percent.
The economic stagnation has prompted Puerto Ricans to leave the island in search of better opportunities. More than 125,000 people left the island between 2017 and 2018, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in 50 years, but it is still more than twice the U.S. national average.
Cockfighting also took a major hit after Hurricane Maria. After the storm, the Department of Sports and Recreation registered 66 licensed cockfighting clubs on the island, a decrease from the prior year when there were 84 venues registered. More recently that number has rebounded: There are now 82 cockfighting venues operating, according to the latest data.
Ninety miles east of San Sebastian, in the town of Cidra, José Llavona runs a farm where he and eight employees breed, care for and train roosters.
Llavona makes some money by exporting his pedigree roosters to other cockfighting countries such as Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. But his main source of income comes from owning warehouses and stores that provide infant formula to recipients of the federal Women and Children’s program (WIC).
Llavona said he breeds roosters because he loves the sport. He is a member at the Cockfighting Club in Puerto Rico, the island’s main arena in San Juan, where he often goes to watch fights.
When Hurricane Maria swept across Puerto Rico, Llavona lost around 100 roosters, some of them killed by the wind. Others attacked each other and died after escaping from their cages. He has since spent about $300,000 to rebuild the cage- and training areas, as well as separate structures to house the roosters during future storms.
Llavona said a cockfight ban will not cripple him financially because of his other businesses, but it could be devastating to Puerto Ricans who took out loans or invested large amounts of their own money to rebuild their farms after the hurricane.
“If [lawmakers] think the roosters are being abused because of the amount of time they fight, we can come to an agreement,” Llavona said, noting that regulations have already been changed to shorten the duration of matches. “What we can’t settle for is losing the sport overnight. If I knew this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have made this investment.”
The loss will be particularly acute in rural areas, which are considerably poorer than the island’s cities, said Chantal Benet, an economist at Inteligencia Económica, an independent consulting firm.
“There will be a number of people in the street searching for jobs in an economy that’s in contraction,” Benet said.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz signed an ordinance Monday that prohibits the city’s police from apprehending people who violate the cockfighting ban, which she characterized as Congressional overreach. Federal authorities could still work to shut down the matches, but they would likely not receive help from local law enforcement, at least in San Juan.
Supporters of cockfighting are vowing to fight back against the ban. Puerto Rico’s main cockfighting association, Club Gallistico de Puerto Rico, and other prominent leaders from the cockfighting industry on the island have also been organizing to combat the ban.
“We are going to work with congressional members to see if we can find a way to extend the period of time before the law goes into effect. They gave us a year, but we’re going to try to get 10 additional years,” said Orlando Vargas, president of Club Gallístico de Puerto Rico. “The last recourse would be go to the courts to challenge this type of legislation.”
On Jan. 17, Puerto Rico’s Chamber of Representatives approved a resolution to request that the U.S. Congress revert the farm bill’s cockfighting ban or allow a five-year transitional period before the implementation of the ban.
“The implementation of a cockfighting ban would deal a blow to the local economy and would delay the Puerto Rican government’s efforts to comply with the metrics demanded by the Fiscal Control Board,” the resolution reads.
The Commission on Agriculture from the Puerto Rico Bar Association has drafted a resolution questioning the legal basis of Congress’ ban.
The resolution argues that cockfighting was established as a cultural right under a 2007 law, in the context of Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”
Vargas describes the cockfighting community as a fraternity. “More than betting money, more than two roosters fighting, we are a very close community, very loyal to this tradition,” he said.
But not all Puerto Ricans consider cockfighting an intrinsic aspect of the culture.
To aid in their push for the ban, the Humane Society conducted a survey that found 43 percent of Puerto Ricans supported a cockfighting ban, 21 opposed and 36 percent were unsure.
Women’s rights organizations, such as Colectiva Feminista en Acción, columnists for the island’s main newspaper and even musical artist Bad Bunny have criticized the government for focusing on saving cockfights while ignoring the increasing rates of gender violence on the island.
“Cockfighting and animal fighting is not culture, it’s cruelty,” Humane Society president Kitty Block said. “There are aspects of traditions in our lives that we need to examine and re-examine. It’s not enough to say we’ve always done it so we continue to do it.”
No matter what, there will be a cultural change. If the ban is enacted, entire communities will have to transition from an informal economy that relied on the cockfighting industry, which included animal feed stores and restaurants that serve the clientele of cockfighting venues to an economy that relies more heavily on traditional business, such as selling chicken for food production, the economist Benet said.
“And that could be a shock for them.”