Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I met a man who raises chickens. Not so uncommon an occupation on the surface. This particular man, however, raises roosters and in an age of mass production, fifty is about the most he can manage at the height of the season. If you were interested in buying one of his birds it would cost you between $20 and $30 a pound. Alive. Dead they are worth nothing.
A first visit to his coop only makes the curiosity itch a little more. Six roosters, each with a brooding hen, are caged in clean and spacious stalls. The morning is cool, the air still and quiet but for the faint ticking of an old clock on the shadowy mantle of a cross beam. For a moment we think it might be counting the seconds off backwards as a single glance tells us these birds belong to something we thought had ended a full century ago.
They are called “game fowl” in the parlance of the “fraternity” (another coined word) who raises them. Also known as “game cocks,” these roosters resemble your average barnyard stud the way a Formula One racer calls to mind a Nash Rambler. If design is an indication of function, these birds are clearly built for the violence of the pit.
Already we can hear the faint beating as moral furies take wing and begin to rise. Territorial aggression is behind the slashing attack of the bird. The world is replete with parallels: rams butt heads; men buy sports cars. They are all fueled by the same high octane: sex. We will clearly have to deal with whether this drive should lead to blood and death, but, just for a moment, let us suspend judgement as we take a look at cock and cocker.
A fighting cock is probably as conscientiously looked after as is a thoroughbred horse. A handful of cracked corn will clearly not do. H. Flock (good name!) in his classic, “Revised Breeders’ and Cockers’ Guide” (1904), spends one chapter on breeding and the rest of the book on feeding and maintaining the bird’s health, and failing that, nursing it back from an astonishing array of illnesses. I spent a fine afternoon leafing through it, learning how to line breed, cook cock bread (it sounded suspiciously like the product my blissful, organic-food-freak friends have offered numerous times) and prepare warm oats and milk. There was also a chapter with the startling title of “Flirting,” which turned out to be a type of physical conditioning rather than a trans-species, sexual perversion practiced in southern California.
Mr. Flock informs us that fighting cocks are bred for aggression, stamina, power and brains. Well, I don’t know about the brains, but the genetic process appears to have been a success in the other areas. Decombed to keep the opponent from gaining a beak-hold, thick-chested to protect vital organs, and high stationed (long legged) for power and reach, they are tough-looking birds. More than that, within their own environment they look as though they can back up their evil looks. Five pounds is about average for a good brawler . . . once he has gone through the keep.
A keep is a sort of training camp the cock is put through before he is ready to fight. Actually, it is insisted, training has nothing to do with the process. The bird is either a fighter or it isn’t (in which case it has been “culled” — terminated — long before). The process (H. Flock recommends twelve days) is a matter of conditioning. The cocker has never been absent, but here is where his attention comes to the fore.
Fifty flirts in the morning, every ten interspaced with a minute of running, followed by a big meal of moist, cut oats, a little chopped apple one day and two ounces of chopped beef the next, perhaps a little cabbage (fine judgement is called for and debates rage on this point!) and lots of barley water. The afternoon schedule calls for another fifty flirts and a second big meal. End of a hard day and back into, in the winter, a heated coop.
At the danger of being pedantic, I might mention that flirting consists of firmly grasping either thigh of the bird and tossing it into the air, loosening the grip without letting go so that rapid wing beating occurs. Very beneficial for removing extra fat (which is any fat) and building up the chest muscles. Running the chicken is, well, making the bird run, guiding it to the left with the right hand, to the right with the left in a fast-moving figure eight.
So, there is more to fighting chickens than we might have expected. Undeniably, there is a bond between the two that is not to be over-looked. The cocker has affection towards the bird: It seems odd only until we consider it in relation to the feelings millions of people have towards conventional “pets.” Why a dog or cat or parakeet and not a chicken? Pigs are more intelligent than any of them so the fact that chickens are fairly dumb even on the vegetable scale has nothing to do with preference. People seem to zero into a type of animal, and within the family choose a species, for personal reasons.
Cockers own cocks for a fairly obvious reason. It is the poor man’s way out. Few of us could afford the stable fees, much less the price, of a racing horse. Risking five years income to buy a potential, but odds-against, Seattle Slew, is never a serious option. For a few hundred dollars, however, a poor boy from North Carolina may end up with the feathered equivalent. Two good hens and a first-rate fighter fetch prices that may be recovered many times over with a single win.
More is involved. Cocks win or lose only partially because of bloodline. Performance is also a matter of care in breeding, raising, conditioning and handling in the pit. To wit: skill and ability of the man. The ability of your chicken reflects on you. Not just the chicken, but a part of you is on trial in the pit.
“Don’t lose your pride!” urges an advertisement in Gamecock, a monthly magazine dedicated to the . . . art? science? abomination? of cockfighting. The cocker puts his reputation on the line with each fight. Losing is no fun, but there is the honorable lost battle and the embarrassment of the rout; a good bird losing to a better one vs. an animal dying from indifference. To come out front with what is happening, it seems to be a matter of the owner being on the line in surrogate form. The chicken takes the beating, but the man suffers the defeat.
So, a lot more is happening than a chicken being killed. A rooster becomes a cock at two years of age — which is a long time to invest emotion, energy and hope in something that may get snuffed out in ten seconds. Small surprise that cockers are passionate.
Small surprise, considering the fact that the birds fight it out with gaffs (needle-sharp hooks) that opponents are as equally passionate in their condemnation. The birds would hook it out with each other, gaffs or no, that much is clear. At the same time there is no reason to believe that these birds would kill one another without human manipulation. Death in the animal world is rarely a casual activity, all actions are streamlined by natural selection towards preservation rather than elimination of the species. It takes man to inject the element of senseless death into the natural order.
Yet, in the end, I was unable to work up a full head of indignation. Mostly I felt curious. The birds were beautiful in a terrible way and the owners are interesting for many of the same reasons. I wondered what made these men feel compelled to invest so much of themselves in an activity designed to pass judgement on their character in such a violent way. Two years of care and work for ten seconds of vindication. Some powerful need was being fulfilled in these pit passions. No doubt, dark and sinister, yet, somehow, less evil than it seems. There was an almost childlike innocence involved in their inability to see or feel the mirror image they reflected. A feeling that they were aiding the natural order, abetting the birds in their logical pursuit of dominance. Unable to see that in a curious twist, the birds were manipulating the men and in death exacted a last revenge on those who pervert nature to serve their own ends.