The gallery and the ground area below the elevated arena are jampacked with spectators, bettors and bet takers — mostly men who are content with the beers and light snacks that pass for full dinner on this particular night. Cockfight aficionados won’t miss this post-Thanksgiving Saturday cock derby at the Dededo Game Club. “It’s a big event; it’s a six-cock derby with 92 entries,” says G.S., a Filipino bet caller.
(Photos: Bruce Lloyd)
Truth is, any given Saturday and Sunday is a “big event” for devoted cockfighters and aficionados who take weekend excursions to the cockpit tucked in the heart of Dededo. “Around 400 to 500 people come here on Saturday and 200 to 300 on Sundays,” G.S. says.
Saturdays are for derby and Sundays, for hack fight. For starters and outsiders, here’s a brief annotation. “Hack fight is where the cockfighter personally selects the opponent of his rooster. Derby is where the cocks are paired based on weight,” says G.S.
Cock handlers from Guam, the Northern Marianas, Hawaii and the Philippines gather for the Thanksgiving derby. The crowd murmurs as they await action. Tension mounts when the birds are carried into the arena. And without any transition from the indistinct noise, the crowd bursts into loud roars. The avian warriors are set face to face, poised for violence and victory. This is the cue for the army of bet callers to begin bellowing in concert.
G.S. faces the gallery and flashes the hand signal familiar to bettors, yelping, “’lo-dyes, ‘lo-dyes, ‘lo-dyes!” (Eight-ten, eight-ten, eight-ten!). The palpable excitement builds to a crescendo and hits the peak when one of the roosters is down for the count. The cycle gets repeated each round with a new pair of fighters.
Dollar bills change hands. The bets range from $50 to $10,000. For every win, the bet caller gets 5 percent. “It’s hard to estimate the average amount I collect because I tend to gamble it away,” says G.S, an Army veteran and retired taxi driver. “But it’s a good way to socialize and to make money.”
Highly regarded as a cultural tradition in the Marianas, cockfighting can be traced back to Spanish rule and became more popular with the influx of Filipino immigrants to Guam before and after World War II. Liberation Day festivities and village fiestas on Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are not complete without an avian tournament.
For some, cockfighting is not just a sport, but a source of livelihood. One can make as much as $2,000 a night, says
Talofofo resident, 25-year-old Jaythan Duenas. “Growing up without a father, I got into cockfighting because of my grandpa and uncles who were active in the sport,” says Duenas, who learned all he needed to know about cockfighting at the young age of 10.
Having the best birds and winning is what he lives for. It’s not just about making money, but rather a matter of keeping the tradition alive, Duenas says. “A lot of man’amko even use cockfighting as a way to keep themselves busy or active,” he says. “They enjoy cockfighting because that’s what they grew up with.”
One can’t underestimate the cost of nurturing avian fighters. “The cost of the feeds and medication is very expensive. The expenses can reach thousands,” says a retired cockfighter, who requests anonymity. “I still come to the cockfights every now and then just to socialize.”
While debates on other forms of gambling such as casino and poker machines often stir polarizing tension in the legislative arena, cockfighting is pretty much left out of the local political flutters — provided that operators and cockfighters abide by local regulations. But lawmakers in the nation’s capital thought it imperative to stick their beaks into the local pastime.
November got underway with a piece of legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that clearly hit a nerve in Pacific territories. The bill, extending a longstanding ban on animal fighting in the U.S. mainland to the territories, was introduced by Republican Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois.
Cockfighting is illegal in 50 states. “A lot of cockfighters from the states come to Guam to enjoy this game without worrying about getting arrested,” says the retired cockfighter. “It’s a crazy idea to ban this sport. Why do they interfere with the island culture?”
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, said the United States shouldn’t have one set of rules against animal cruelty for all 50 states and a different set of
rules for U.S. territories. “Dogfighting and cockfighting are barbaric
practices, more widely criminalized than any other form of animal
cruelty in the world, and the prohibitions should apply to every part
of the country,” Pacelle said in a press release.
Roskam’s cockfight ban bill doesn’t fly with territorial delegates. Guam Delegate Madeleine Z. Bordallo said the proposal would be an infringement on the island’s culture. “Cockfighting has important cultural significance and a long history for the people of Guam,” she said in a press release. “I believe regulations on this issue should be enacted at the local level and share concerns that this bill would infringe on local laws and policies.”
CNMI Delegate Gregorio “Kilili” Sablan agrees. “Federal law already bars the interstate shipment of fighting cocks, which is a legitimate exercise of federal authority. But cockfighting that is strictly confined to the Marianas, [that] stays within our borders and involves no federal interests, should remain a matter for local decision makers.”
Sablan said he was pleased that he was consulted by some members of the Democratic caucus on the bill prior to its introduction and that as a result, some decided not to co-sponsor it. “I know that animal fighting is hard to defend and understand in other parts of our country. “I was able to explain that this is a culturally accepted practice in the Marianas that is best regulated by local law. And, if the bill does move forward in Congress, I will continue to make the case that this is a decision for the Commonwealth Legislature.”
If Roskam’s bill becomes law, the cockpit might shut down but cockfighters won’t throw in the towel. The game would just be pushed underground, Duenas says. “I think people will rebel and still have illegal cockfighting matches all over the island. There are bigger issues Congress needs to worry about and they’re wasting their time trying to eliminate cockfighting on island.”