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What I Learned from a Cockfighter
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Feel like a fighting rooster—feel better than I ever felt.

–Bob Dylan, “Cry Awhile”

Hundreds of crowing cocks broadcast their territory in a never-ending loop of five notes. A concert of noise that will either drive you mad or set you smiling at nature’s harmonies. And the birds, feathers glistening like bourbon in a glass, black and red and orange, the colors of scandal and sin. They waltz as far as their tethers will allow, their beady bird eyes watching me sideways. I’m out of my element, a city kid in the country, and I step lightly.

From the interior Sandhills just east of Columbia to the Atlantic coast, the South Carolina Lowcountry is built on the remnants of ancient Miocene dunes that have left the soil sandy. Towards the coast, the land flattens along the Lowcountry Highway. As you drive through small towns like Yemassee, with its remnants of Civil War–era fortifications and evidence of recent commercial growth, the air dampens and richens. From there it’s on to the narrow two-lane US 17 and its canopy of live oaks dripping with hoary tufts of Spanish moss. Roadside melon and tomato stands, maybe some boiled peanuts too, lead you to tidal marshes and finally the Atlantic, where the salty air hits you full on.

I haven’t seen my old friend MD for ten years but he feels familiar as family. He strokes his mustache, adjusts his stained and faded baseball cap (Corona), spreads his tree-trunk arms before him, and says, “My babies.” MD owns a cock farm, raising some of his roosters to fight on the Southeastern cockfighting circuit. There are over a hundred roosters enclosed in a large fenced yard next to his modest mobile home. He owns five hundred acres near the Edisto River, inherited when his father died, and leases much of the land to tenants, farmers, and the forest service. This is MD’s kind of place—isolated, wild, and financially productive. It’s how he makes his living. But he also makes money off of his birds—while he breeds some of them, others are gamecocks.

A sacred animal to many, the rooster has long been a symbol of power and pride, vigilance and bravery, masculinity and mortality. The double entendre we giggle at exists in other languages as well, the cock a measure of the man. But that’s no joke. When you see a rooster crowing and clucking, waltzing the yard, its neck extended and its head high, you see its majesty, its royal comb and bulldog-like wattle, the arrogance and authority we’ve imposed on this fancy-feathered chicken. A beautiful animal. But the rooster is no cuddly pet, no puppy or kitten. It is an animal that will instinctively beat trespassing roosters to death. It is life and death.

According to the Humane Society, “in a cockfight, two roosters fight each other to the death while people place bets. Cockfighters let the birds suffer untreated injuries or throw the birds away like trash afterwards. Besides being cruel, cockfighting often goes hand in hand with gambling, drug dealing, illegal gun sales and murder.” Cockfighting is among the most ancient of sport. Many suppose it began with the rise of ancient Persian and Indian societies; even then it was a spectator sport linked with gambling. Humans domesticated the fowl and pitted cock against cock even before we took to eating the meat and eggs of the hen. The death match came first. The Greeks adopted the sport; the Romans too. The Chinese and the sons of Israel. The Buddhists and the Hindus, Christians and Muslims. The Africans, Europeans, and Southeast Asians. Later the West Indians and the Americans, north, central, and south.

I knew that MD had been into cockfighting for years, but I don’t see him much and didn’t know how serious he’d become as a “cocker.” I’d never seen him fight a gamecock, an insider and illegal event. Yet it was not hard to imagine my old friend slinging a bloodied and lifeless rooster into a fire pit behind his mobile home. In the past, MD and...



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