More than just a game: Despite federal ban, Guam cockfighting fights for its life

Updated: Mar 8



By CJ Urquico


"Welcome to Fight Club. The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club." So said Tyler Durden in the movie based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk. The cockfighting community on Guam has been similar until now.


After weeks of phone conversations and WhatsApp messages, I was finally on my way to a Guam cockpit. I drove up to the Yigo Mayor's office to meet with my guide, whom we shall call Uncle Max.*


I have never been to a cockfight. Growing up in the Philippines, I am familiar with “sabong.” I’ve always thought the birds have gorgeous plumage, but I have a neutral sentiment about the sport.


Cockfighting started in Guam soon after Father San Vitores and his Filipino servant, Pedro Calungsod, began preaching Christianity and, soon after, martyred.


Historically, Southeast Asia is the cradle of cockfighting. Shared colonization and the Catholic religion allowed it to flourish. Sundays in both places and intertwined cultures meant church and, afterward, the cockpit.


Today, CHamorus, Filipinos and other Guamanians from different ethnic backgrounds continue the practice. Cockfighting is not just a culture, it is a religion.


In 1951, Carl Skinner, the first appointed governor of Guam, signed a cockfighting bill passed by the First Guam Legislature. It detailed cockpit licensing, authorized cockfights at fiestas, and prohibited the doping of roosters.


On Dec. 20, 2019, the cockpits on Guam shut down when the federal ban on cockfights across the United States officially went into effect. The federal law makes it a felony to operate a cockfighting venue or to participate in animal fights. Courts have repeatedly upheld the law, which was challenged by some states and territories, including Guam and Puerto Rico.


Cockfighters went out of sight for a while. They went underground. But other than Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Animal Wellness Action, no one— either in the local or federal government— has been watching.


Guam cockfighters have since gotten intrepid, holding derbies out in the open, in bold defiance of the federal ban. The show must go on. Except that this time, operators can technically skip paying taxes.


"We would like a license from GovGuam to continue our operations. We are happy to comply with the laws and would gladly welcome the Department of Revenue and Taxation regulation. However, we have not received any communication from them," said Uncle Max, who had interests in The Dome, the formerly licensed cockpit in Dededo.


"Duk Duk" holds his winning rooster and a trophy he won at a cockfighting derby. Photo courtesy of Team Dud Duk.

I followed Uncle Max deep into Guam's largest and northernmost village, Yigo. The house has an arena next to it, centered with bleachers on all sides. A few dozen people swelled to over a hundred three hours later—roosters crowing non-stop.


Uncle Max introduced me to a man known in the cockfighting community as “Duk Duk.” He is the owner of the facilities. Duk Duk started cockfighting three years ago when his nephew got him into the sport. He employs 13 people. In the years that he has operated the facility, the authorities have not visited him.


"The Dededo mayor should concentrate more on things that need to be done in the community instead of worrying about cockfighting. Start putting more speed bumps in residential areas, start picking up more dead dogs, and remove abandoned cars and debris on the roads,” Duk Duk said.


According to Duk Duk, the gamefowl industry sustains hundreds of jobs. "Wayne Pacelle should concentrate on his own business. He's getting rich, raising millions for his organization. There are people actively investigating his background. They will never stop cockfighting on Guam," Dukduk added.


Before founding the AWA, Pacelle was the president of the Humane Society of America. He resigned on Feb. 2, 2018 after he was accused of sexual assault and harassment by several former employees. Pacelle denied these accusations.


The Animal Wellness Action conducted a cockfighting survey in December 2019. Market Research & Development, Inc., a local company, conducted a study with a sample of 400 Guamanians.


Respondents were asked: "How concerned are you about how animals are treated on Guam?" The results say that nine out of 10 Guamanians (89 percent) were concerned about the mistreatment of animals in Guam.


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Uncle Max's first entry to the three-cock derby is named “DGC.” After a second weigh-in (to make sure it's the same birds from earlier), a gaff, a very lethal vicious-looking miniature katana by the gaffer, DGC, is brought into the arena.


He is warmed up, provoked–made, and game-ready with another cock. The opposing team does the same thing. The crowd peruses the cocks, and the bet-callers, also known as “kristos,” start their ritual of hand signals and yelling to take bets. It is deafening.


Lo dies!


Side-side!


10-9!


I do not understand their jargon. So, finally, DGC and his opponent dropped to the ground to battle.


Silence.


An explosion of feathers was followed by oohs and ahhs from the crowd. Like figure skating, I have no clue what is going on. The referee picks up both birds, and DGC keeps on pecking. Twenty seconds later, DGC— the victor— stands tall. The other bird slumped on the ground, unmoving, bloody, dead.


That is the cue for the kristos. They settle the bets. Then quietly, thousands of dollars change hands.


Uncle Max is beaming; his fowl won the match.


I follow DGC and watch as the bird’s handlers do a thorough inspection. "He has a scratch under his wing, but over all, he is OK. After two or three months, he will be back," said the handler, Raphael.


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Don Juan, another handler, recounted how he got into cockfighting. "I was 8-years-old and was given a 'native' chicken. It went missing for 21 days and came back out of a hole with chicks. That's where my passion started,” he said. “Just because you are a cockfighter doesn’t mean you are an irresponsible parent, a tax evader. No, we're all taxpayers here. We all work. This is our outlet.”


Playing the culture card, Don Juan said cockfighting has been passed on for generations. “Wayne (Pacelle) grew up in the states, with a very different culture. Why would he apply and try to change the culture here?” Don Juan said. "We shampoo the chickens, groom them, and take care of them every day. We have a camaraderie with everyone in the community."


Uncle Max said cockfighting is Guam’s own Super Bowl. "On Thanksgiving Day, families come together for a two-day derby. Everyone is cooking, barbecuing and having a great time,” he said.


Other people I have spoken to repeatedly told me that instead of driving it underground, the government should regulate cockfighting and earn revenues. Cockfighting aficionados said they welcome taxation. They want the government to issue them permits to operate, and they want to pay taxes.


Sen. Jose "Pedo" Terlaje, the most outspoken advocate for the cockfighting community, said at the heart of the issue is consent. “The people of Guam did not consent to a (federal) ban on cockfighting,” he said. “We had no say and no vote on this federal law. Every single territorial delegate joined together to introduce a repeal of the ban in Congress. Every governor of the territories has opposed this law.”


“A government only has power when it has the consent of the governed. We do not consent because we have been practicing cockfights for hundreds of years. It is an ingrained part of the CHamoru culture and the Filipino culture, our culture on Guam. Outsiders have said it's barbaric and called us uncivilized, but isn't it more uncivilized to deny your fellow human being the right to have a vote in the laws that govern them?”


Cockfighting is similarly situated as the marijuana industry in the legal aspect, Terlaje noted. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but is now legal is most states. “Guam law makes it our lowest priority to assist in enforcing the cockfighting ban. We will not spend a dime of local law enforcement money to enforce a federal law we did not even consent to. We have real crime to deal with," Terlaje said.


"You should've been here last week. There were well over 1,000 people," Don Juan told me. I joked that there would not be enough jail cells if they arrested everyone. They replied, yes, “you are right.”


*The names of some of the people interviewed for this story were changed to protect their identities.




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