Destination: Tokas in Panglao
PANGLAO, the Philippines — Talisayon and Red Hots wouldn’t look at each other until they were pushed together. Then they wouldn’t look away. Their eyes were locked on – one of them had to die. And one would a few short minutes later. That’s the game.
Before they fought, though, they had to get angry, even angrier than two cocks put together normally are. A man held Red Hots’ head back, and Talisayon took a few savage jabs at his bright wattle. Then Talisayon was held and Red Hots pecked at him. After that, both birds were red hot, ready to go.
Red Hots was the picture of a rooster – orange neck, hanging red wattle, glossy green-black tail that fanned out like palm fronds. Talisayon was ugly. White neck and rump, not shiny and strong-looking like Red Hots. He was a centimetre shorter, too.
Each of them had a three-inch razor tied to his foot. One good kick would send the other to the pot. A good kick would send a person to the hospital, and that was a distinct possibility here. The arena was just a dirt circle in the back of a podunk village on Panglao, a tiny island in the central Philippines. Normally the cocks would be walled off and spectators would be a safe distance away in the stands, but this was a “tokas,” an illegal cockfight. No stands here – get as close as you want. Just get ready to jump back if the fight gets too near. The owners took a few steps back and slowly lowered their birds to the dirt of the arena. Their neck feathers stood up like some wicked dinosaur’s, and they began edging toward each other. When they got close enough, they became a blur and a little cloud of feathers hung around their heads. Red Hots lunged at Talisayon. Talisayon jumped over him and cleared him. I guess after that Talisayon put his knife into Red Hots’s belly, because a thin trickle of blood poured out of him and a couple of seconds later he was lying dead on the dirt. The whole fight took ten seconds or so.
I met Reynell Limbaga the night before the fight. He’s the one who told me and my three friends about it. Before that conversation, though, he was serenading our table. Alona Beach has a great reef and lots of hotels and restaurants. If you sit down in one of the plastic chairs on the beach, someone will try and serenade you sooner or later. Or give you a massage.
We were sitting out on the beach drinking rum and Reynell came walking up with a guitar. He was a young guy with a wispy goatee and a big smile. He didn’t look like some of the other buskers on the beach, who were… rougher. He played Creedence Clearwater Revival, and we gave him a couple of dollars. I told him to keep practicing, and before long we were talking about cockfighting. Turns out he was busking that night to earn money to bet at the fights the next day.
He invited us to go out and see them. We said we’d love to, and he gave us his phone number and told us to meet him at the basketball courts in a village five kilometers away the next morning. We said we would. We have to go to that cockfight, have a real cultural experience, I told my friends after he left. We can’t just say tonight that we’ll go and then change our minds in the morning because it sounds sketchy and we’re hung over. Everyone agreed and we went off to bed.
The next morning we got up and ate breakfast at a little place up the street from the beach. We were a little uneasy about heading out into the Filipino countryside. Panglao isn’t that far from Mindanao, where foreigners get kidnapped and executed. And we were, after all, going out to see an illegal cockfight. But Reynell had told us that unless we were holding a cock or a knife when the police showed up, we wouldn’t get in trouble, and I thought probably no one would want to hurt us. So we decided to head out.
I sent him a text to ask if the cockfight was still on. He said yes, so we hailed a taxi. Taxis in the Philippines are mostly just low-horsepower motorcycles with elaborate sidecars bolted on. Ours was bright yellow and named the Clemeña Line.
We started off down a narrow but well-kept road, heading toward Lagitan, Reynell’s village. Just about every house in the Philippines has at least one fighting cock in its yard. People keep more than one, and tether them with a length of rope so they can’t get at one another. The roosters can stand in two spots: on the ground or on a little roost that’s usually put up beside them.
In the Clemeña Line we drove by a yard with three dozen or so roosters. Each was about six feet from the other and had a little wooden house in the shape of a pup tent. Must be a farm, I thought.
Cockfighting isn’t illegal in the Philippines, but it’s regulated. On Panglao, cockfights can only legally be held at the arena on Sundays. Fights on any other day are illegal and subject to police raids. We moved down the narrow road, past stretches of coconut palm, frangipani and hibiscus. After five kilometers we got to the town of Lagitan — a little collection of thatch and cinder-block buildings with a couple of general stores, a waterlogged basketball court and a historic church. Reynell was nowhere in sight, so we hung around the basketball court, four white guys with camera bags.
A man with slicked-back hair and black bubble sunglasses approached us and asked what we were doing there. We kind of ignored him, and I said to the others he looked like he was up to no good and that we should steer clear of him. Later I found out his name was Albert, and he enjoyed watching cockfights, and he drives a motorcycle taxi, and that’s why he approached us. He didn’t seem so bad after I talked to him; those bubble sunglasses just made him look like a fly.
After a few minutes Reynell showed up and led us to the arena. We set off down a dirt path, past turkeys and huge pink pigs tethered in mud.
As we proceeded, we became immersed in a little crowd heading that way. There were about a hundred men gathered around the dirt arena by the time we got there.
We were in the middle of a village, but there were no women around. I remember one old woman, but other than her, none. We got there late. One fight had already happened, and another fight wasn’t a certainty. The owners of the cocks wouldn’t fight them unless there was enough money on the line. Our arrival pretty much guaranteed there would be another fight. Ty and I put money on Red Hots, the favorite – not that much, $20 or so each. Gavin and Chris bet on Talisayon, the less impressive of the two and the underdog. Chris put modest money on the bird, but Gavin for some reason wanted to go big. He put $60 on him, which upset the balance of the bets. The locals scrambled and argued for a while until enough money was raised for Red Hots to make it even. The whole pre-fight betting took an hour or so. There’s a lot of build-up to these things.
The thing that struck me most about the fight was how quick it was. It literally took a few seconds before Red Hots was stone dead, laying in the dirt. I had seen an official fight on TV before that, and that fight only took a few seconds, too. If the cocks were not equipped with the wicked foot-razors, the fight might go on for a long time. But with the razors, it was over fast.
Gavin made out like a bandit, doubling his $60. The men who had bet on Red Hots looked disappointed. We felt a little guilty for coming into the village and leaving with more cash than we went in with. One of the organizers asked if we would buy them a couple bottles of rum and some soda. We did. Rum is cheap, so we bought a few bottles. We also bought Red Hots for $5. Everyone said the meat from a fighting cock was the best. We planned to take it back to our guest house and try and persuade one of the local restaurateurs to cook it for us. We rode five kilometers back to town – two of us in a taxi and two on the backs of motorbikes driven by Reynell and a guy from the village. When we got back with Red Hots in hand we felt kind of silly, so we gave him to Reynell. Plus we were scared that we might get caught with an illegally fought cock.
“Some people put the arm on fighting cocks as cruel. But what the hell else does a fighting cock like to do?” asked Ernest Hemingway.
In 2004, I wrote an exposé on the sad living conditions of chicken-processing-plant workers at a factory in Canton, Mississippi, in the Southern United States. The people who worked in the factory there were mostly Hispanic, and completely in thrall to a cruel and amoral economic machine – the chicken processing plant. They lived in the most desperate conditions – conditions I had not yet seen then but would see in India years later. The local police were extorting money from them; their landlord was extorting money from them; their employer was using them up, a stone’s throw from the squalid slums in which they lived. They spent their days gutting and dismembering chickens – repetitive, grisly work, hour after hour, day after day. Fueling the machine was the demand for plump, white meat. Chicken.
The world kills 40 billion chickens annually for food. The vast majority of these chickens are born and raised, and die in the factory farming system. As chicks, the tips of their beaks are melted off. As adults, they live packed with thousands of other birds in dark warehouses. At slaughterhouses, they’re hung by their feet – alive and conscious – then electrocuted. A mechanical blade slices their throats; if they aren’t dead by that time, a bath of boiling water does them in.
I bring up these unpleasant facts not because I am an animal rights activist, but to highlight the absurd hypocrisy in Western society’s outrage at the sport of cock fighting. Cock fighting is illegal in the United States, my home country. In most states there, it’s a felony to participate. In most states, it’s illegal to even see cockfighting. Meanwhile, in the same country, nearly 10 billion chickens a year are suffering through a short, miserable life before being electrocuted and slashed to death in hidden-away factories.
Cockfighting is a bloodsport. It’s a deathsport. I’m not saying we should abolish our laws against cockfighting and embrace the sport. But I know what’s cruel and what’s not, and what goes on in the Philippines is not in the same ballpark as what goes on in those factories, on an exponentially larger scale.
I think back on those cocks I saw on Panglao – strong, proud, with glossy, colorful feathers, space to move around, and life spans of years. Those cocks were chickens the way chickens are meant to exist. They die exalted, in combat with other birds, and then they’re eaten by people, the same as those sad, sick chickens in the States.
If I were a chicken, I know which one I’d rather be.
The opinions expressed here do not represent those of Groove Korea — Ed.