Just a few of the new roos
Greetings and thank you again for supporting The Rooster Project!
Fourteen adolescent roosters moved into the sanctuary last week, so we’ve got our hands full this week! But I wanted to let you know that, on the same day that those roosters moved into their new digs, I was giving a presentation on cockfighting at the Animal Rights National Conference in DC. This was the first time, so far as I know, that cockfighting in particular was included among the uses of animals for entertainment discussed at the conference.
Here’s a quick summary of what I said:
The farmed animal sanctuary now called VINE was originally founded by me, Miriam Jones, and a hen called Mosselle who turned out to be a rooster called Viktor. That first bird taught me so much about roosters in reality as opposed to the myths about them, and we learned even more from subsequent roosters who flew in from other places.
So, let me begin by sharing a few facts about roosters. Like all chickens, roosters are forest birds descended from the junglefowl of South Asia. Many of the breeds used in cockfighting are genetically indistinguishable from their wild kin.
Roosters do crow when the rising sun awakens them, but they also crow all day long. Crowing evolved as a way for forest birds to keep track of each other while spreading out to forage in dense foliage. It’s a way of saying, “all OK over here!” As a flock forages, the roosters remain on the perimeters, crowing to each other: “Everything is OK over here!” “All clear over here too!” “No problems over here either!"
This is a form of cooperation without which these birds would not have survived all of these centuries, and it also tells us a lot about roosters. The role of a rooster in a wild or feral flock is to work with other roosters to keep the whole flock safe. They are look-outs, and they are therefore high strung, so as to be able to respond immediately to any danger and remain on guard until the danger has passed.
Roosters have two different alarm cries, one for aerial predators and one for ground predators. Hens, chicks, and other roosters respond appropriately, either running for cover in the case of a potential aerial predator or freezing and looking around in the case of a potential ground predator. Other roosters help to raise the alarm, and hens often raise their voices too, leading to a cacophony that does not stop until the rooster who raised the original alarm crows to signal that the threat has passed.
If a predator does try to attack the flock, some roosters will rush to fight off this threat to the flock, even at the peril of losing their own lives. If attacked by a predator themselves, roosters will fight for their lives. Among themselves, roosters do sometimes tussle for status within a flock or skirmish over territory with roosters from another flock, but these highly stylized “battles” are more like dance contests than the bloody wars deliberately provoked by cockfighters. During these dance-offs, roosters puff up, posture, circle one another with one wing dropped, fly over each other’s heads, and peck at each other’s combs. Within a couple of minutes, one rooster will concede by either running away or standing in a slump-shouldered position, at which point the winner stands up straight and crows.
By raising young roosters in isolation, cockfighters prevent them from learning such social signals, by which they would normally be able to resolve disputes without significant bloodshed. Raised in social isolation, alone in cages or tethered to stakes, and often given less than they would like to eat in order to stay “in fighting shape," roosters “in training” for cockfighting live lives of constant aggravation and frustration. Cockfighters cut off their combs (which makes them look more like predators to each other) and either sharpen their spurs or cut them off and replace them with strap-on knives. Before fights, they may be injected with amphetamines or testosterone. At fights, surrounded by shouting men, these traumatized birds are thrust together into a pit from which escape is impossible, cutting off the primary avenue by which roosters naturally resolve their conflicts. Their nervous systems shout “fight or flight” and they cannot flee, so they fight. Thus do cockfighters trick birds who have evolved to cooperate with one another into turning on each other.
Hundreds and sometimes thousands of birds are seized by authorities from cockfighting rings each year. Most are euthanized, as very few sanctuaries have room for them, and our space is finite. Thousands more roosters die each year due to the stereotypes about roosters promoted by cockfighters. Those stereotypes lead people who keep chickens to reject roosters altogether or to believe that roosters cannot live together without fighting.
Cockfighting began thousands of years ago in the region where these birds evolved and then spread, via trade routes, into Europe and the Pacific. Europeans brought cockfighting to the Americas as part of the process of conquest. Conquistadors brought cockfighting to what is now Latin America, and colonists from Britain brought cockfighting to what is now the United States.
Today, cockfighting is illegal in all fifty states, and this is one of the few laws against cruelty to animals that is actually enforced—not due to sympathy for the birds, but because cockfights are sites of gambling and other illegal activities. Despite this enforcement, cockfighting persists. Men risk arrest to stage or witness cockfights.
Why? As is also the case with the subordination of women, men from very different cultures will insist that cockfighting is an essential element of their unique culture. Anthropologists who have studied cockfighting from within different cultures say that it always comes down to masculinity of the toxic variety. Roosters are avatars of masculinity—it’s not an accident that many different languages have a slang word that can be used either for a rooster or to rudely refer to the male member—and cockfights are meant to demonstrate that maleness means fighting to the death to dominate others, kill or be killed, not taking no for an answer, never showing weakness, never running away from a fight, etc.
Of course, this variety of masculinity hurts boys and men as well as girls and women. We can see this from another fact reported by anthropologists, and which I have noticed myself in my interactions with the cockfighters who are always calling the sanctuary to tell me that it’s impossible to do what we have done, which is to set up circumstances in which roosters live happily and peaceably with each other: Men who raise birds for cockfighting not only see them as extensions of themselves but often care very deeply for them, spend hours each day tending to them, grieve when they die, and insist that what they are doing is not unkind but is, rather, allowing the birds to express their inherently combative natures.
So, what do we do? What can YOU do?
Nationally, we need to push back against the stereotypes of roosters… and men. If we can’t dismantle the gender binary, let’s at least work for a more healthy masculinity. We can do this, and help roosters at the same time, by counteracting the myths about roosters with facts such as those I mentioned earlier. Roosters protect rather than dominate, and they cooperate with each other to do so. They are highly emotional, much more so than hens. If two roosters are fighting to the point of serious injury, that’s not a sign of their inherent aggressiveness, that’s a sign that the people who have set up the situation they’re in have failed to provide something vital, such as sufficient space.
But the real work against cockfighting will have to be local and specific to the places in which it occurs. In every community where cockfighting is common, there are people (probably most of them women) who hate it. We need to find, fund, and otherwise support those people, because they are who will know what would be most likely to be helpful in their community.
If you are an animal advocacy activist or organization in such a community, you can start by partnering with domestic violence agencies and other feminist organizations in your region, to help with the process of redefining masculinity locally and also to make it easier for the aunts and mothers and sisters and wives and girlfriends of men who participate in cockfighting to find you.
If you’re an animal shelter or sanctuary in a region where cockfighting is common, then there are two more things you can do. First, think about whether you might be able to offer refuge to even a couple of roosters rescued from cockfighting, in order to literally demonstrate that these birds can live peacefully together if given an appropriate habitat in which to coexist.
Next, and perhaps even more importantly, remember what I said about the cockfighters who take such tender care of the birds they then put in harm’s way? One thing that seems to happen is that boys who want to have close and caring relationships with animals may, if they grow up in a context of toxic masculinity, be drawn to cockfighting, because it will give them the opportunity to spend lots of time caring for animals while still being masculine. This is tragic. You can help by making a point of offering the boys in your area other things to do that will allow them to care for animals while still feeling sufficiently masculine.
Animal advocates and animal protection organizations in regions where cockfighting persists can contact The Rooster Project for ideas, information, and resources. We can help you decide what to do, and we may also be able to help with funding.
Please notice that last paragraph. I wouldn’t have been able to make that offer without the support of all of the contributors to The Rooster Project. So, THANK YOU AGAIN for your support, and I will be sure to let you know what happens next.
PS. If you’d like to share that talk with people in your own social networks, I’ve just published it as a standalone note on Facebook. Here’s the link