Cockfighting Is About To Become Illegal In Puerto Rico

Dec 5, 2019
Originally published on December 5, 2019 6:36 pm
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Cockfighting - it has been a way of life for centuries in the rural communities of Puerto Rico. But on December 20, it will become illegal. That's because of a federal ban that animal rights activists in the mainland U.S. had been seeking for years. Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch podcast reports on what the new law means for the island. And just a warning to listeners - this story does contain descriptions and scenes of violence towards animals.

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ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: It takes less than three hours to drive across Puerto Rico, but the island has more than 60 cockfighting arenas. One of the oldest is the Gallera Borinquen, tucked into the Central Mountains next-door to a house that Hurricane Maria destroyed. This man standing in the bleachers surrounding the fighting pit, egging on his bird, is Johnny Rios. His rooster is not looking good.

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JOHNNY RIOS: You see, right now, he got no strength.

FLORIDO: Yours is looking pretty bad.

RIOS: Yeah, because of that wound that he got in top of the leg.

FLORIDO: But with just about two minutes left on the fighting clock, Rios' bird stabs its opponent with one of the plastic spikes attached to its feet, knocking the other bird to the ground. It's pretty gruesome. And Rios is hopeful again.

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RIOS: If that one stays like that, we win - if he stays like that, if he doesn't get up. If he gets up - don't - (speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: After all that excitement, the fight is a draw. Rios takes his bird home.

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FLORIDO: Rios lives on a little mountain peak not far away.

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RIOS: I'm 69, going on 70. And I've been fighting roosters since I was 15. My father was a cockfighter, and my grandfather was a cockfighter.

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RIOS: So this has been my life and my passion.

FLORIDO: Actually, he says, it's more than that. He points to the tattoo on his left bicep. It's a rooster framed by two words, tradicion y cultura - tradition and culture. For much of his life, Rio (ph) lived in New York, where he fought roosters illegally. He says he was arrested dozens of times.

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RIOS: When I used to see the judge, the judge used to say, you're not in Puerto Rico no more; you're in New York. And in New York, we don't fight birds. OK. Well, fine. So...

FLORIDO: So 25 years ago, he moved back to Puerto Rico, where he built a house on three acres, plenty of space to raise roosters. But last year, the U.S. Congress approved a ban on cockfighting in U.S. territories...

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PETER ROSKAM: Mr. Chairman, I have an amendment at the desk.

FLORIDO: ...To take effect at the end of this year, on December 20.

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ROSKAM: Animal fighting is inappropriate and wrong no matter where it happens.

FLORIDO: This is Peter Roskam, who, at the time, was a congressman from Illinois and was a co-author of the ban.

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ROSKAM: It's against the law in the continental United States, and what we're proposing is to make that a standard in the territories as well.

FLORIDO: But the ban took the island's politicians by surprise. Puerto Rico's representative in Congress, Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon, tried to get it thrown out.

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

FLORIDO: And her argument was, look; the island is in the middle of a 13-year recession and is billions of dollars in debt. And the ban wouldn't only put cockfighters out. It would also hurt importers of grain, cage manufacturers, veterinarians and on and on.

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GONZALEZ COLON: So we are talking about how distressful is the economic situation in the island, but then we are approving another federal regulation without even consulting the people of the - Puerto Rico or even the territories.

FLORIDO: That last point about the island not being consulted is a sore point for Gonzalez and for many Puerto Ricans who felt offended that, just like that, Congress would wipe out a centuries-old practice that is ingrained in Puerto Rican culture. But because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and not a state, Gonzalez Colon has very little power. She has no vote in Congress. Her efforts to kill the ban failed. And so across Puerto Rico, thousands of cockfighters are dreading the day the ban goes into effect, December 20. But many say they won't obey the ban at all, like Johnny Rios.

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RIOS: Most of the people, most of the cockfighters, (speaking Spanish), the true ones - they're going to continue on fighting. You're going to see all the chicks that I got now for next year.

FLORIDO: So you're not scaling down at all.

RIOS: Hell no. You think if I did it in New York (laughter) - that now that I'm in my own country and this had been part of our culture, I'm going to stop? What's happening is that the American people, you know, they don't know what's behind it. They don't know that it's more than just - all they see two birds fighting. It's not just two birds fighting.

KITTY BLOCK: We work in - on every continent and in over 50 countries. And we hear this argument about culture all the time.

FLORIDO: This is Kitty Block. She's president of the U.S. Humane Society. It's the organization responsible for convincing Congress to pass the cockfighting ban. I asked her to respond to a criticism that is widespread in Puerto Rico that the ban is just the latest example of powerful white Americans imposing their cultural values on Puerto Rico, that it's U.S. colonialism.

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BLOCK: Interestingly, I've been reading about some literature of someone doing some research and saying that cockfighting actually is a form of colonialism because that's what the Spaniards brought. So there's lots of different ways of looking at that.

FLORIDO: Block said the bottom line is this.

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BLOCK: And we're talking about cruelty. This is not about somebody's culture or the way they want to view themselves or what they want to respect or not respect. This is about stopping a heinous act of cruelty.

FLORIDO: In Puerto Rico, there are plenty of people who agree with her, who support the ban, who do think cockfighting is cruel, and though it has been a part of Puerto Rican culture for a long time, don't think it necessarily should continue to be. But there is no organized movement against cockfighting.

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FLORIDO: Jose Torres comes from a long line of cockfighters - six generations. He lives in the Central Mountain town of Utuado. And like so many cockfighters on the island, he, too, wants to defy this impending ban. But for him, going underground is complicated.

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FLORIDO: Torres has three little kids and a wife, Lizmary Rivera. Each morning, the whole family gets up before sunrise to feed the 250 birds they have in cages in their backyard.

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FLORIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

JOSE TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

Their owners pay Torres to feed them, let them out for exercise, treat their injuries. That's how Torres has made his living his whole life.

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TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "But now this industry is dead," Torres said. "We're already dead." And he said he could do what a lot of cockfighters are going to do - just raise and fight roosters illegally.

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TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: But he said that with a family to support, he can't afford to be convicted of a felony.

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TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Instead, he's going to move to the U.S. to find work, like the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who fled the island's economy over the last decade. But before he goes, Torres said he's got to figure out what to do with the 50 or so roosters in his backyard that belong to him. One big question in Puerto Rico is what is going to happen to all of the fighting birds on the island. By some estimates, there are close to a million of them. A lot of cockfighters expect federal agents to start showing up to confiscate them. But Torres said, on his property, that is not going to happen.

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TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "I already told my wife," he said, "and I told my mother that if anyone comes and tries to take my birds, they're going to have to kill me first." And he said he's not alone in that sentiment. A lot of cockfighters are saying the same thing because how could they ask the roosters to fight to death, Torres asked, and not be willing to do the same?

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Utuado, Puerto Rico.

CHANG: And you can find a deeper dive on this story on NPR's Code Switch podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEKSI PERALA'S "Nl-L56-18-07443") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.