In Battered Haiti, Cockfighting A Fierce Diversion

Referee moves two fighting birds out of the corner and back to the center of the ring i i

hide captionCockfighting is as much a part of Haiti's traditional life as bullfighting is in Mexico or Spain. It is legal in Haiti and less vicious than other versions practiced in some parts of the world. Here, a referee moves two dueling birds out of the corner of the ring and back into the center.

David Gilkey/NPR
Referee moves two fighting birds out of the corner and back to the center of the ring

Cockfighting is as much a part of Haiti's traditional life as bullfighting is in Mexico or Spain. It is legal in Haiti and less vicious than other versions practiced in some parts of the world. Here, a referee moves two dueling birds out of the corner of the ring and back into the center.

David Gilkey/NPR

One of the most popular sports in Haiti happens to be one that is illegal in the United States. Cockfighting rivals soccer as the most watched sport in Haiti.

Within weeks after the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake, while many other things in Haiti still weren't working, the cockfights resumed.

Animal rights activists in the U.S. denounce the activity as cruel and inhumane, but in Haiti, spectators say it's a weekly diversion from their difficult daily lives.

On a recent afternoon in Croix de Bouquets, just outside Port-au-Prince, about 100 men have gathered in the back of a dusty, empty lot. An old man sitting at a school desk charges 20 gourdes, or about 50 cents, for admission.

Two fighting roosters i i

hide captionIn Haiti, unlike other parts of the world, owners do not attach metal spurs or blades to the birds' feet.

David Gilkey/NPR
Two fighting roosters

In Haiti, unlike other parts of the world, owners do not attach metal spurs or blades to the birds' feet.

David Gilkey/NPR

The cockfighting "ring" is actually a concrete square with tiered steps rising on each side. The paint is peeling off the cement. The sheet-metal roof is rusted and battered.

Joselin de Roger, 68, says it is a great sport. The conflict is between the roosters, not between the men, he says. And in this neighborhood if you grew up and found that your father doesn't know how to raise a fighting cock, de Roger says, then he's not a real father.

De Roger is cradling a rooster named Woy-Woy, or "Ouch-Ouch," in the crook of his arm. Like many other spectators, de Roger has brought his favorite bird to the event even though his animal isn't going to compete. He keeps a sock over the rooster's head so it doesn't get too excited. Other men tuck the creatures under their shirts against their bare skin to calm them down.

In a country with so many troubles, de Roger and several other men say this ancient sport is a much-needed distraction. Each week these fights are staged all across Haiti.

The rules of the cockfight are simple. The bout lasts 30 minutes. The roosters try to kill each other. If one chicken flees or collapses, the other wins.

These are not muscled, plump roosters; they're wiry, thin birds. As soon as their owners pull off the hoods, the birds fluff out their neck feathers and attack. The birds are vicious, slashing at their opponent's head with their claws and pecking with their beaks. Unlike in some countries, the Haitians don't attach blades to the birds' feet.

Every time one of the birds lands a hit, the men in the crowd yell. They wave crumpled 100 gourde notes — worth about $2.50 — calling out bets.

The roosters jump at each other claws-first. Blood and feathers litter the ring. One rooster's face is severely cut. He starts to wobble as if he might topple over.

Roosters are revered animals in Haiti. They figure prominently in voodoo ceremonies, and in the 1990s, the cock was the proud symbol of priest-turned-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas party.

Somehow on this afternoon, the battered rooster holds on until the clock runs out. There's jubilation at this result among the spectators. It's as if they've just watched the thrilling finale of a soccer match.

After the fight, the two roosters are brought over to Belen Edner, the unofficial veterinarian.

Edner cleans the birds' wounds with seawater and massages their chests. The weaker cock collapses, and Edner revives it by blowing a puff of air down its throat. He says the roosters need to rest for at least a month before their next battle.

And if the weaker one doesn't survive the night?

Edner throws up his hands, smiles and says, "Well then, we'll have him for breakfast."

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