Cockfighting in the Year of the Rooster

Bird Battling and Nonviolent Tales of Chicken Fortitude


Feb. 15, 2005 — When I heard that a cockfighting enthusiast was calling for chickens to be outfitted with miniature boxing gloves, I had to check the calendar. Indeed, last Wednesday marked the start of the Chinese new year — and it's the Year of the Rooster.

The Chinese are celebrating the start of the year 4702. Of course, to many people, cockfighting is something more appropriate for 4702 B.C. Oklahoma state Sen. Frank Shurden, however, sees it differently.

The Democratic lawmaker has been a longtime defender of the gamecock industry, once a multimillion-dollar business in Oklahoma. It was outlawed in 2002, as it is now in 48 states. In every state except Louisiana and New Mexico, arming roosters with razor-like spurs is a cock-a-doodle don't.

But a California company, Gamecock Boxing Inc., has designed boxing gloves and chicken-sized protective gear to take the blood out of this sport. Electronic sensors in the chickens' vests would allow these feathered gladiators to score points, instead of tearing out each other's McNuggets.

"Who's going to object to chickens fighting like humans do? Everybody wins," said Shurden. He asked Oklahoma lawmakers in late January to restore a nonlethal form of cockfighting, comparing it to horse racing and promising it to be a boon to gambling and tourism.

"Let the roosters do what they love to do without getting injured," he said.

The Legislature will take up Shurden's gamecock bill later this month.

I had barely considered the modern practice of cockfighting, and yet the same week Shurden introduced his bill, I found that 17,000 cockfighting fans piled into an arena in the Manila, Philippines, for the World Slasher Cup, a three-day Super Bowl of beak-breaking action.

Some 260 featherweight champions — boasting names like "Johnny Jumper" and "Foe Fire Fly" — face each other in one-on-one battles, armed with steel talons, with wagers of more than $50,000 often riding on each match.

You would think that Bangkok would be the capital of chicken fighting. But the Philippines rules the roost.

"This is where you see the spirit of sportsmanship," Rodolfo Albano, a former Filipino congressman and owner of some 300 gamecocks, told Reuters news service. "No one cheats because, if they do, they will be attacked by the crowd."

Is Albano saying that gamecock handlers are too chicken to cheat? How ironic. But perhaps given how rugged these birds are, maybe these humans aren't chicken enough.

I'd like to humbly offer my opposition to cock fighting, even in its proposed milder form. It's not because I've ever been so vocal in the cause of animal rights. It's just that chickens already take so much abuse. I may be running off half-cocked, but chickens may be the most maligned member of the animal kingdom.

Think of all the horrible chicken-inspired words you can call someone. I'm talking about every cocky, hen-pecked stupid cluck out there — and these are only the printable examples.

Even environmentalists admit that chickens tend to be at the bottom of the pecking order.

"Cows probably have it the best," says Kim Sturla of Animal Place, a sanctuary for barnyard animals in Vacaville, Calif., that opposes the consumption of meat. "People who switch to vegetarianism give up beef first, but usually taper off the chicken."

And still, even if you don't eat chicken, think of all this bird has contributed to humanity. Without this bird, we wouldn't even have the cocktail, which gets its name from a 17th-century concoction made of beer, raisins and mashed-up rooster.

These critters don't have to step into a boxing ring to prove just how tough — and deliciously tender — they really are. Here are some amazing, sometimes inspirational chicken stories, proof that man's most versatile meat is sometimes also his best friend.

1. Miracle Mike: The Headless Wonder
If anyone questions a rooster's fortitude — and thinks a chicken without its head is nothing more than that middle-echelon manager at work — just remember the legend of Colorado's Miracle Mike, the bird who lived for 18 months without his head.

Poor Mike was only 5 ½ months old on Sept. 10, 1945, when farmers Lloyd and Clara Olsen of Fruita set him on the chopping block. After the ax fell, Mike's head hit the ground, but his birdie bottom kept running around. That sort of movement is typical, for a few moments.

Hours later, however, Mike's bottom just kept flapping. Mrs. Olsen took some pity on poor Mike and, with an eye-dropper, fed him through the opening of his throat. Mike choked a bit. But days turned into weeks and months. Thus, a legend was born.

Early in the morning, Mike would greet the Olsens with a gurgling cock-a-doodle-do. Folks came from miles around to see him. Life magazine did an article about him. He soon joined the sideshow circuit, touring alongside a glass jar bearing his head. People from New York to Los Angeles lined up to pay 25 cents to see the beakless wonder. Mike was valued at $10,000 and insured for the same. That's a lot of chicken feed.

When Mike finally gave up the ghost, an autopsy revealed that Olsen had achieved the chop of a lifetime, leaving just enough of the bird's brainstem to keep him alive. A clot prevented him from bleeding to death.

Others tried to repeat the Miracle Mike phenomenon. It couldn't be done. One chicken, named Lucky, lived 11 days. Guess he wasn't so lucky after all.

Now, every May, the folks of Fruita, 250 miles west of Denver, hold a "Mike the Headless Chicken" festival, two days of chicken races, egg tosses, a chicken parade and a pin-the-head-on-Mike game for kids. They also eat a lot of chicken.

2. Hollywood 'Freeway Chicken' Still on the Run
The road to Hollywood is paved with broken dreams — and sometimes congested with gridlock-inducing wild chickens.

For more than three decades, Los Angeles officials have been receiving reports of jaywalking barnyard birds along the Hollywood Freeway, one of the country's busiest roadways. Police have confirmed that the birds really exist. They've been spotted, among other places, near busy exits in Burbank.

The origin of the freeway fowl is unclear. Many believe in 1970 — the same year "Do the Funky Chicken," was topping the music charts — a poultry truck overturned, releasing 500 to 1,000 chickens.

The hens among the fugitives were not egg-layers, according to one account. But perhaps their fertility was revived by the famed Hollywood night life.

In the late 1970s, after several complaints, L.A.'s Department of Animal Regulations rounded up nearly 100 birds and shipped them to a Simi Valley ranch, but a few eluded capture and they (or their descendants) exist to this day.

Last August, freeway fowl were reported disrupting traffic as far north as Arroyo Grande, blocking the town's two-way main street. Commuters were upset, but Frank Perdue would have been proud.

3. Original Alaskan Chickens Couldn't Spell
How many birds in America can boast that they've got a city named after them? Indeed, Chicken, Alaska, with less than 50 year-round residents, may not be an urban powerhouse, but it has a rich history. Too bad it has more to do with poor spelling than poultry.

In the late 1800s, gold miners settled in the area, deep in the state's rugged interior. When they sought to form a town, they intended to name it "Ptarmigan," which would one day be the state's bird.

Unfortunately, none of the miners could agree on the spelling of ptarmigan, and residents have been Chickens ever since. Nobody there seems to mind. A local Web site rejoices the town's name by selling "Cluck U" caps and T-shirts.

4. For Hip Chicks: Luxury Hen Spas
Chicks in the city know how to live. The latest in egg-stravagant chicken farming is the deluxe Henspa — a modern, $1,500 high-tech chicken coop.

A pre-incarceration Martha Stewart was among those who advocated keeping feathered friends as part of the path to fine living. She even spoke affectionately of her birds when announcing that she was ready to begin her five-month prison term.

"I will miss all of my pets," she said in September, "my two beloved, fun-loving dogs, my seven lively cats, my canaries, my horses and even my chickens."

Even if your home is significantly smaller than Stewart's 165-acre Westport, Conn., estate, you can raise chickens. "It's legal in many cities," says Steven Keel of Eggonic Industries. "And more people are doing it."

A Henspa offers chicks the lap of luxury, with heated water bottles, automatic feeders and varmint-proof exercise areas. Like any pet, they'll play around in your back yard, only they're helping prepare tomorrow's breakfast. Take that, Fido.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.