Not only is cockfighting still legal in Puerto Rico, but U.S. tax dollars pay for the government-sponsored clubs where gamecocks hack each other to death with sharp knives bound to their feet. Most Americans believe that organized cockfighting is a thing of the past, but the blood sport is legal and very much alive in U.S. territories including Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands and Puerto Rico.
Until the past few years, legal cockfighting generated $100 million a year in revenue and was a cornerstone of Puerto Rico’s economy because of inscriptions, fees and admission charges at official arenas and especially because of the huge amount of gambling by both locals and tourists. Now the territory is scrambling to save legal cockfights and keep the government-approved venues open, as matches go underground amid the continuing economic crisis, reports ABCnews.
Although accurate recent figures are unavailable, officials are saying revenue at government clubs has plummeted, as five years of a declining economy and high unemployment rate causes participants and spectators to set up local illegal cockfighting pits on farms or rural areas or in back of businesses.
"This year has been a death blow," said Angel Ortiz, longtime owner of Las Palmas cockfighting club in Bayamon. "All the cockfighting clubs in Puerto Rico are empty," he told the Associated Press.
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The territory’s Sports and Recreation Department operates Ortiz's club and others that cumulatively grossed about $30 million a year in bets alone. In the past, this blood- sport industry has employed about 100,000 people and drawn an estimated 1 million spectators a year, but that number has been dropping, said Carlos Lopez, president of Puerto Rico's cockfighting commission, which oversees the clubs.
The decline also affects the numerous ancillary enterprises that prosper at these blood sport events—from food vendors and concessions for trinkets adorned with painted images of the colorful gamefowl, to underground sales of contraband.
COCKFIGHTING – “GENTLEMAN’S SPORT” OF PUERTO RICO
Cockfighting became illegal in Puerto Rico after the U.S. invaded the island in 1898, but in August 1933 it regained official status as a “gentleman’s sport.” Despite opposition by American animal-protection organizations and local animal activists against legalized cockfighting in any form, in October 2010 Puerto Rico legislators voted for a resolution to affirm and protect cockfights, stating “they're an integral part of the island's folklore and patimony.”
Subsequent legislation to crack down on illegal fights has received only symbolic enforcement.
There are also subliminal benefits that have drawn struggling blue collar and agricultural workers to pay the entry and other fees to fight their birds at the government-run clubs. Besides the enticement of high-stakes gambling and shared blood lust, Puerto Rico’s legal cockfighting has been equally accessible to all and provided a social-equalizing factor, with farm workers and businessmen sitting side-by-side at fights.
Now the glitz is becoming a thing of the past. Ortiz's club is among Puerto Rico's largest; but, according to reports, on a recent Friday only about 25 cockfighters urged their roosters to kill each other in a half-empty arena. The number of underground, back-alley venues is proliferating, Lopez said, and the number of government-regulated clubs has fallen from 107 to 86.
Rep. Angel Rodriguez Miranda recently introduced a bill to strengthen penalties against those organizing or participating in clandestine fights, but the bill was rejected by the Senate, largely because there is still a cultural sense of entitlement to this “tradition.”
Anyone charged with organizing or participating in clandestine fights under current law faces up to $5,000 in fines or up to six months in jail, but the law is rarely enforced, said Senator Antonio Fas Alzamora, who voted against the proposed bill.
Ortiz, the club owner, bristled at suggestions that illegal fights don't exist or are difficult to find. "They know where the fights are," Ortiz said. "Everyone knows where they are ... They need to put their pants on and draft a law."
A gamecock breeder who attends the underground bouts said that many cockfighters are overwhelmed by the increased costs of breeding, feeding and training a gamecock and they can no longer pay the fees and other charges at government-sponsored clubs.
As in all blood sports, those who exploit the suffering and death of animals claim there is no money in it—it is only done out of “passion for the sport.”