Monday, July 16, 2007

Fight flap riles Puerto Ricans - Under pressure to join U.S. states in banning cockfights, the island territory holds fast to traditional blood sport

Fight flap riles Puerto Ricans - Under pressure to join U.S. states in banning cockfights, the island territory holds fast to traditional blood sport
By David McFadden
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune and The Associated Press
Published July 16, 2007

ISLA VERDE, Puerto Rico -- With cockfighting about to lose its last bastion in the United States, animal-rights activists are training their sights on Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory where the blood sport is both beloved tradition and big business.

Cockfighting is illegal in 49 states, and the governor of Louisiana -- the pastime's last U.S. refuge -- signed a law Thursday that will make it a crime to fight birds beginning in August 2008. New Mexico banned the sport June 15.

But Puerto Rico shows no signs of following suit. Cockfighting is so entrenched that the territory's legislature recently approved a bill establishing it as a "cultural right" of islanders.

"There are many people who enjoy this sport and we are not going to allow any group of people to come here and prevent that right," said Carlos Molina, a pro-statehood lawmaker who introduced the bill. "The sport does no damage to anyone."

At Club Gallistico outside San Juan, one of 103 licensed cockfighting pits in the Caribbean territory, the shouts of bettors rose Saturday with each frenzied lunge of two sinewy roosters pecking and kicking at each other with curved plastic spurs until one was bloodied and near death.

"Cockfighting is a strong part of the culture of Puerto Rico. People are very emotional about it," said Maximo Cerame, a breeder of gamecocks with prized bloodlines, as he weighed a wager on a rust-colored rooster.

Opposition mounts

But participants soon could feel pressure from organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which considers cockfighting barbaric.

"The cruel blood sport [is] illegal in every U.S. state and now it is time for Puerto Rico to follow suit," PETA spokeswoman Heather Carlson wrote in an e-mail.

Wayne Pacelle, chief of the Humane Society of the United States, said the group plans to closely monitor the island's industry to ensure cockfighters are not violating a new federal law that makes the transport of fighting birds or cockfighting implements abroad or across state lines a felony. President Bush signed the bill into law in May.

"We do plan to mount a campaign to appeal to the many Puerto Ricans who agree with our perspective that this practice constitutes needless cruelty," Pacelle said by phone.

Puerto Rican aficionados, however, say activists and politicians cannot erase a tradition dating from Spain's colonization of the Caribbean island more than five centuries ago.

Proud to be different

Even islanders who avoid cockfights ruffle at mainlanders casting judgment on what many consider the national sport of the island, where symbols of separateness from the United States, such as the Puerto Rican flag and Olympic team, are widely treasured.

There are also major economic considerations.

Puerto Rico's cockfighting industry employs about 50,000 people "in a direct or indirect manner," and about 1.25 million fans buy tickets each year to licensed cockpits -- more than those who pay to see baseball games, according to the island's Sports and Recreation Department.

With an estimated 100,000 fights each year generating nearly $400 million in ticket sales, some proponents argue that Puerto Rico should market cockfighting as a tourism draw.

Andrew Robertson, a 19-year-old Canadian vacationer who attended the Saturday cockfights at Club Gallistico with college friends, said he found the pastime intriguing.

"It's kind of like watching two boxers in the ring," the Montreal resident said. "Of course, the boxers don't die at the end of the fight, but you can still see some similarities."


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