The air was thick with poultry blood and feathers as two cocks thrashed wings and spurs.
“This is an animal of metal,” said breeder Cecil Sarfaty, eyes fixed on the dueling birds at the Santa Rosa de Lima coliseum. “No matter how injured it is, the cock won’t stop fighting. It’s from this that we get our passion.”
The birds’ plumages melded in the frenzy, which lasted only a minute, until one bird fell to the pink, scuffed sand, its belly punctured by the steel navaja tied to its wounded victor’s foot.
The judge’s bell sounded, owners recouped fighters, bookmakers called in debts and the fanfare of a brass band resumed. The next fight would begin shortly.
Around the world, blood sports like cockfighting and bullfighting have become harder to defend as societal attitudes have evolved and animal rights groups have increased political pressure.
But in Peru — and much of Latin America — fans of these sports find solid support. They say cockfighting is an art form and cultural tradition worthy of preservation.
By contrast, critics compare the spectacles to acts of torture that serve no end other than entertainment and normalize animal brutality in society.
Despite the vocal opposition, efforts to shutter Peru’s 700 so-called “coliseums” have made few inroads. And elsewhere in the region, the centuries-old sport remains fiercely popular, particularly in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Colombia.
“There’s not a local town or fiesta where there aren’t cockfights or bullfights,” Sarfaty said. “Why take what people like away from them?”
Saving the “intelligent ones” from KFC
I had come to the town of Pachacamac, 25 miles south of the capital, Lima, to see the first round of Peru’s oldest cockfighting championship.
Sixteen breeders had brought roosters to vie for a place in the next round, which offered a 50,000-sol ($17,300) prize. It was the middle of Peru’s mild winter, and the birds’ plumages were at their most luxuriant.
The fight was hosted at a hacienda – a grand estate traditionally owned by Peru’s light-skinned, European-descendant coastal elite – where seating ran along race and class lines.
On one side, toward the bar where complimentary Pisco, sponsored by national alcohol brands, flowed freely, sat members of Lima’s upper crust, including a copper mining tycoon, an owner of a big electrical appliance firm and prominent figures in Peru’s export industry. Many were heirs of a centuries-old gallero tradition and the proud owners of several hundred birds.
The other side hosted darker-skinned Andean men and members of Peru’s Japanese community. Some had just six cocks, which cost about a dollar a day to feed — still a hefty price in a country where about one quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.
Athletic creatures with explosive power, Peruvian cocks have been selectively bred over the centuries since the Spanish brought them to Lima, then a strategic port and capital of the wealthiest viceroyalty.
“With cocks coming from Spain, Japan, the Philippines, Sumatra and India, they created a bird completely different from the rest,” said breeder Roberto Sparks, whose father introduced him to the sport. “It’s very big in size compared to ones from other countries.”
The territorial creatures weigh 9-12 pounds, stand 23-25 inches (60-65 cm) tall and are groomed for 18 months before they can fight. That’s in contrast to the 45 days a chicken destined for slaughter lives, said breeder Jaime Payet.
“When you breed cocks to go to KFC, the most intelligent, funny, sympathetic ones don’t get an opportunity. There’s no place for personality in a million nuggets.”
Betting on a bloodsport
Fighting cocks may lead longer lives than battery hens, but that doesn’t mean the end isn’t brutish.
Just a quarter of the 64 birds fighting that day would live, said the coliseum’s on-hand vet, Hugo Cisneros. Lacerated underbellies can be stitched up, but the birds seldom survive their injuries, he said.
“I understand it goes against world trends, but this is a tradition that dates back to the Egyptians,” said Sparks, the breeder. “We didn’t invent its characteristics — rather, we concentrate them.”
Tradition is irrelevant, according to advocacy group Free Animals of Cruelty and Oppression (ALCO), which has called the sport worse than bullfighting due to the fact that betting plays a major role in the spectacle.
Gambling is indeed a major draw for spectators. Bets begin low at around 100 soles ($34.50), though as rounds continue, wagers can reach up to 30,000 soles (about $10,360), according to a gambling official named De La Torre. De La Torre takes a 5 percent cut from matching bets across the pit — a task that, he says, requires a forensic memory and “experience.”
He is just part of the coterie of blade-makers, merchandisers and cockfighting magazine writers that wish to defend the status quo and the activity that supports their livelihood.
For Angela Sánchez of the Peruvian Association of Protection of Animals (ASPPA), these supporters are just part of a powerful “lobby” coordinated by Peru’s business and political elite.
“It’s a constant war against cultural thinking we’re up against,” she said.
An economic equalizer
In reality, victories for anti-cockfighting activists have been few and far between. In 2012, 60,000 signatures were presented to Peru’s lower house calling for a parliamentary debate on the abolition of sports that mistreated animals for entertainment.
But lawmakers didn’t back the appeal. While a separate law for animal protection was passed, Sánchez says, cock- and bullfighting continues apace, with future legislative action unlikely.
“The state should guarantee the harmonious interaction of cultural expression as an expression of a fundamental right to culture,” said congressman Freddy Sarmiento at the time of the debate.
The debate has picked up momentum elsewhere in the region. Last month, the regional government in the Mexican state of Yucatán discussed landmark legislation to abolish cockfights, which would join existing bans in Argentina, Chile and Paraguay.
While the animal rights movement has gained ground in the last decade, with a more active younger generation forming in growing cities, according to Sánchez, progress for Peruvian activists has been glacial.
Most of the arguments in favor of preserving cockfighting are concerned with the sport’s traditional and cultural significance, but there is also a socioeconomic element to some people’s support of the practice.
In a country riven with inequality, cockfighting is an ultimate leveler. After all, financial clout counts for nothing once the birds are unleashed.
“If you have a Bentley, you don’t greet a man that doesn’t have a loaf of bread to eat,” said breeder Payet. “At this coliseum, you do. Men are equals. Then the rich man is suddenly defeated, and he congratulates the poor man.”
“Peru would lose if this was taken away.”
All photos by Alex Pashley