By: pattrice jones, co-founder of Eastern Shore/VINE Sanctuary

Do you believe that roosters are inherently aggressive or cannot get along with each other? If so, you’re not alone. The most common fallacy about roosters is that they cannot live together in groups without fighting. This misperception is rooted in propaganda put forward by proponents of cockfighting, a “sport” that began in Asia Minor more than 2,500 years ago.

Brought to Spain by the Moors and carried to the New World by the European invaders of the Americas, cockfighting is now illegal in many countries and in most of the United States, but continues to persist in parts of Asia, on some Pacific Islands, in parts of South and Central America and in the southern United States.

In this cruel “sport,” roosters are socialized to view other roosters as predators, provoked by injections of testosterone and methamphetamines, armed with steel blades attached to the stumps of their sawed-off spurs, and then matched in bloody battles from which the only escape is death. In between events, they are typically isolated in small cages or tethered to stakes adjacent to A-frame shelters. Living in isolation prevents them from learning to recognize and react appropriately to the social signals that chickens use to maintain the peace within and between flocks. It also prevents the establishment of normal peer relationships, thereby warping their social development and emotional stability.

Because illegal cockfights are inevitably the site of illegal gambling, authorities are quicker to intervene in cockfighting than in other forms of animal cruelty. Unfortunately, their interventions usually do not aid the true victims of the crime — the roosters. Most often, birds confiscated from cockfighting operations are euthanized.

The Eastern Shore Sanctuary (now VINE Sanctuary) was the first to develop a method of rehabilitating roosters used in cockfighting. Former fighters live in harmony with other birds — including other roosters — within the flocks at the sanctuary.

Combat is natural for roosters, but not in the way that cockfighting enthusiasts say.With few exceptions, roosters fight because they are afraid - not because they are naturally aggressive. In the wild, male jungle fowl (the wild ancestors of chickens) squabble over pecking order and territory but do not injure one another seriously. The same is true of feral roosters and the roosters here at our sanctuary. Roosters will, however, fight to the death to protect the flock from a predator.

Cockfighting perverts this natural and honorable behavior of the rooster into a parody of human masculinity. Roosters who have been "trained" as fighting cocks co-operate because they have been so traumatized that they are terrified, seeing every other bird as a potentially deadly predator. In nature, when a rooster has been bested, he assumes a submissive posture or runs away. The victor then postures or crows in a way that signals, “I’ve won!” Breeders and trainers of fighting cocks prohibit the roosters from learning the social signals that allow such conflict resolution. Isolated in cages or tethered to stakes, fed less than they would choose to eat, and kept apart from hens, these roosters are in a constant state of frustrated excitation. Add the stress of transport, the confusing sights and sounds of a busy event, and the possible injection of drugs or hormones, and it’s easy to see how some terrified roosters fight to the death when faced with a similarly terrified bird armed with steel talons.

That’s the secret the “cockers” can’t face and don’t want you to know: These birds fight from fear, not aggression. That’s the secret of our rehabilitation program, too.

We rehabilitate fighting cocks by teaching them that they don’t have to be afraid of other birds. We use the same principles that a therapist might use in helping a person to overcome a phobia. At first, they simply need to be soothed and given time to see and be near other birds without becoming afraid. Then, during supervised free periods such as the one that began this story, a former fighter is allowed to roam freely until he starts a fight. Then, it’s back into a spacious cage from which he can see and interact with, but not hurt or be hurt by, the other birds.

Over time, a rooster is able to be free for longer and longer periods until he can be trusted to mingle peacefully with the other birds all day long. The process takes anywhere from a few days to several weeks. Some birds “get it” very quickly and seem palpably relieved to be out of harm’s way. Others take longer to relax. While personality clashes sometimes have required us to shift birds from yard to yard, we’ve not yet had a fighting cock so incorrigible that we couldn’t find a place for him to be free.

The process is easy, but time intensive, and therefore we are able to accept only a small number of roosters at a time. Luckily, the publicity we have received has helped us to spread the word that these birds are not incorrigible. Slowly but surely, more and more local authorities are trying to place, rather than immediately kill, roosters confiscated from cockfighters and the breeders who serve them.


Continue to read about our rehabilitated rooster, Julio:

Julio slipped away today. A former prize fighter with an especially gentle disposition, elderly Julio will be missed by the elderly hens with whom he had been keeping company in recent months and also by the orphaned chick who had found solace in him.

Julio — described by the Wall Street Journal as a “a raggedy-looking former fighter” — had come to the Eastern Shore Sanctuary some years before, having been found in a Bronx schoolyard. (Hence his name, from the lyric “Me and Julio down by the schoolyard.”)

The sanctuary started rehabbing former fighting roosters shortly after its foundation. I still vividly remember the first time a flock of multicolored roosters moved in. The monochromatic chickens from egg factories and the local poultry industry had never seen such a sight. One group of hens stood stock still along a fence, their beaks gaping open in amazement, at the magnificent show.

Some former fighters need several weeks of rehab before they are able to mingle peacefully within a flock, pair up with a pal, or wander in pacific solitude. Others are able to perceive the safety of this place immediately and relax right away, palpably relieved to be out of harm’s way. Julio was like that, needing no rehab even though his shaved-off comb and broken tether (in a neighborhood where cockfights do happen) clearly marked him as a fighting rooster. He turned out to be a loner, preferring to spend his days in the shade of a wisteria-vined tree in the quietest yard. There he spent years snoozing and watching the doings of the busier birds. Some months ago I noticed he was slowing down (as older birds will do) and also that his legs were going. (For reasons veterinary experts don’t entirely understand, former fighters tend to have problems with their legs.) So, I moved him to the infirmary coop and yard reserved for juvenile, elderly, and injured birds.

Once in the infirmary yard, Julio turned out to be a nurturer. Again and again, young birds who needed to spend a few weeks in that yard because they were too little for the other yards or had sustained injuries in falls from poultry trucks chose to spend their time in close association with Julio, who seemed to enjoy their company.

Elderly birds tend to die by drifting away, spending more and more time each day sleeping until you know: This is going to be the last day. I knew that yesterday and made sure to hand-feed Julio an especially tasty blend of vegetable juice and rice milk last night. This morning he was gone.

After laying Julio to rest, while walking with dog Dandelion, I saw two bluebirds fluttering down to a field and then back up to a tree. That brief yet deeply nurturing flurry of surprising color seemed a fitting tribute to sweet Julio.

Hover your mouse over the first image in this series or click and enlarge it to pause the image and explore all the implements contained in this cockfighting kit:

Top shelf (L to R): Three bundles of waxed string (used to tie implements/knives to legs of fighting cocks); a sparring muff (used for practice fights); plastic tape (used to secure knife to cock's left leg after it has tied on using waxed string);

Top shelf (front): Leathers - A leather strip is wrapped around the cock's left leg after a strip of resin-treated gauze has been applied to the leg (some cockfighters use friction tape or moleskin for this purpose). The leather will have a hole punch that fits over the stump of the natural spur. The leather strip typically has a cigarette butt sized feature at one end. Once the leather has been wrapped around the leg the Filipino slasher or long knife is set low on the cock's leg with the back toe (prop toe) toe going through the loop at the bottom of the fork and the fork of the knife (looks like a "U") fits up against the butt of the leather. The knife is then tied using waxed string. After the string is tied, the plastic tape is then wrapped around the forks to secure the implement. NOTE: The knife is only applied to the cock's left leg in a knife or slasher event. The other item is a scabbard.

Second shelf (L to R): Scissors and tape; bundles of waxed string; unknown blue container; capsules containing an unidentified substance (probably vitamins; an unidentifiable object; resin-treated gauze strips in roles and waxed string; waxed string;

Lower compartment: Contents include socket knives, Filipino slashers, gauze, and a spur saw (used to cut off the tip of the natural spur leaving a 1/2 to 3/4 inch stump).

NOTE: In all knife events (Filipino slasher, Mexican slasher aka short knife, and the socket knife), the implement is attached to the left leg only on each bird to be fought. In cockfights between cocks equipped with gaffs (gaffs resemble curved ice picks and are classed as short heels which measure 2 1/8 inch from the socket to the tip of the spike, or as long heels which measure 2 1/4 inches or longer from the socket to the tip of the spike), the implements are attached to both legs of each bird.

Knife fights usually have a 10-15 minute time limit. In these types of event one bird is usually killed, but it's not uncommon for the winner to die from injuries sustained. The winner is the bird that last attacks its opponent.

Generally, there is no time limit in cockfights between birds equipped with gaffs so fights lasting more than a half hour are not unusual. Almost invariably, one of the birds will be killed, but it is the cock that last attacks its opponent that wins. 

Explore these artifacts to see how this "sport" has been depicted in consumer culture throughout the years.