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Puerto Ricans Angry Over Impending Ban On Cockfighting

Dec 14, 2018
Originally published on December 14, 2018 9:50 am

Thursday was a somber day at the Cockfighting Club of San Juan.

The rows and rows of cubbies that usually house up to 80 roosters waiting to fight were mostly empty. On this day, only 26 birds were on display.

Miguel Ortiz, a regular at the club since it opened in 1954, said a lot of people had stayed home, depressed.

"It's because of the law that passed in the Congress," he said.

If signed by President Trump, the U.S. Farm Bill will make cockfighting illegal in all U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico. The ban's inclusion in the bill, which passed in Congress Wednesday, had been long-sought by animal rights activists in the mainland U.S.. But in Puerto Rico, news of its passage dropped like a bombshell.

The island's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, had scrambled to Washington D.C. to lobby against it. But by the time he landed Wednesday, the bill had already been approved. Under the law, the ban would take effect in a year.

Cockfighting is a centuries-old tradition in Puerto Rico, dating to the early days of the Spanish colony. The island is just a hundred miles long but has nearly 80 cockfighting clubs, which are regulated by Puerto Rico's central government.

Officials say the industry accounts for $18 million in economic activity and provides jobs to nearly 30,000 people. Speaking on the House floor before the bill was passed, Puerto Rico's non-voting member of Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón, said the ban would be a further blow to Puerto Rico's already devastated economy.

"We are approving another federal regulation on the island without even consulting the people of Puerto Rico," she said. González-Colón and many other officials on the island said the ban was an example of U.S. colonialism, and an attack on an integral part of Puerto Rican culture and society.

But the ban's proponents say cockfighting is cruel.

"Cruelty is not culture," said Kitty Block, acting president of the Humane Society of the United States, one of the main proponents for the ban. "These are birds that are armed with weapons that slash eyes out, and it's just a brutal blood sport and it's really something that should've gone a long time ago."

Block said that while there is virtually no support for the ban among Puerto Rico's elected officials, a poll her organization conducted of 1,000 registered voters in Puerto Rico found that more supported a ban than opposed it, and only about a third had ever attended a cockfight.

At the San Juan Cockfighting Club, many in attendance Thursday were furious over the impending ban, but also seemed resigned that it appeared headed for President Trump's signature.

"We're devastated," said Josean Rivera, who raises roosters, charging their owners $5 per week per bird. "We don't know what to do. We weren't prepared for this. This is how I feed my family."

He predicted that thousands of families will be driven into poverty, and that the industry will go underground, making it more dangerous for attendees and for the birds themselves. Like many supporters of cockfighting on the island, Rivera rejects the argument that it's a cruel sport, saying the roosters are raised well and are rarely allowed to fight to the death.

Rivera also wondered what's going to happen to all the roosters currently being raised across the island. The president of the San Juan Cockfighting Club, Miguel Ortiz, Jr., estimated there may be up to a million of them.

If federal agents raid farms and confiscate them, they'll likely kill them, Rivera predicted, "because they can't set them free. If they set them free, they'll kill each other."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Puerto Rico, cockfighting has been a tradition for centuries. Now it's on the brink of being declared illegal. The farm bill, passed by the U.S. Congress and sent to the president's desk earlier this week, includes a provision that would ban cockfighting in U.S. territories. NPR's Adrian Florido reports that in Puerto Rico, resistance to the ban has been fierce but futile.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Puerto Rico is only a hundred miles long, but it has almost 80 cockfighting arenas. Cockfighting is such a big part of life here that eight years ago, the legislature declared it the national sport. Of course, Puerto Rico is not a nation. It's a U.S. territory subject to control by the U.S. Congress. Supporters of cockfighting were reminded of that this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNIFFER GONZALEZ: We've been regulating the industry of cockfighting since 1933.

FLORIDO: Jenniffer Gonzalez is Puerto Rico's non-voting representative in Congress. She spoke during debate on the farm bill earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GONZALEZ: This is an industry that represents more than $18 million in our economy and also more than 27,000 direct and indirect jobs on the island.

FLORIDO: She said wiping those out will be a big blow to the island's already troubled economy. Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rossello, said the ban was an example of the island's colonial relationship with the U.S. and also an attack on Puerto Rican culture.

KITTY BLOCK: Cruelty is not culture. And it is important to look at what it is and what it's doing to the animals.

FLORIDO: Kitty Block is president of the U.S. Humane Society, one of the main groups that pushed lawmakers to include the ban in the farm bill. Cockfighting is already illegal in all 50 states. And the time has come, Block said, to extend it to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and other territories.

BLOCK: It is something that's incredibly inhumane. These are birds that are armed with weapons. And they slash and slash each eyes out, and it's just a brutal blood sport. And it really is something that should have gone a long time ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER CROWING)

FLORIDO: Yesterday, the day after Congress approved the ban, the mood was somber at the Cockfighting Club of San Juan. Eighty-year-old Miguel Ortiz walked me over to a wall of cubbies behind a panel of glass. On most fight days, there are up to 80 roosters waiting to fight. Yesterday, there were birds in only 26 of the cubbies.

MIGUEL ORTIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Most people stayed home, Ortiz said, upset over the ban. Ortiz said he's been fighting gamecocks since he was a 6-year-old boy on the farm. His dad did, too, and his grandfather, and so does his son - a way of life.

ORTIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "In Puerto Rico, there are a lot of people who make a living this way," Ortiz said, "by raising roosters, training them, breeding them, selling feed, betting on them." One of those people is Josean Rivera. He raises roosters, charging their owners $5 per week per bird.

JOSEAN RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "We're devastated," he said. "We weren't prepared for this. This is how I feed my family." Like many defenders of cockfighting, he argues it isn't a cruel sport because the birds are raised well and, he said, rarely allowed to fight to the death. He said what's likely to happen when the ban goes into effect in a year is that the fancy arenas around the island will close. But cockfighting will just go underground, like it was almost a century ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD YELLING)

FLORIDO: Not yet, though. Last night, the crowd in this arena was small but lively. As soon as the first two birds were released into the ring, the crowd's despair over the impending ban seemed to melt away. Adrian Florido, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.