People often discuss the idea of Old Florida — the time before suburban sprawl and superhighways, when roads like U.S. 1 were the main thoroughfares into the cracker boroughs of Northeast Florida. That Old Florida ethos — of Rebel flags and casual violence against varmints — is a thing of the past … for the most part. Some vestiges, however, live on.
In Glen St. Mary, on a lovely late-winter Sunday afternoon the first week of March, the cops busted a cockfighting ring. The police found 19 men and women and nine children, some as young as 3, watching or participating
in the action. Six people were arrested; 10 others face charges.
There's no doubt that cockfighting is a vicious sport (if you want to call it that): roosters peck at each other, ripping at eyes and organs, drawing blood, while a mob surrounds them in a perverse pastiche of family values. Show that to the kids — build a bridge over the generation gap from feathers and viscera.
But in some ways, there's an honesty to that — though probably not one appreciated outside cockfighting circles.
I reached out to Lauren Trad — a local activist who did as much as anyone to ensure that Duval County residents have the right to have hens in their yards — to get her take on the bust. She was unsurprisingly horrified. "I only advocate for hens," she says. "Eggs. Not fighting. Backyard hens are treated like pets, and their lives are filled with love and caring. Cockfighting is barbaric and cruel."
She's right. So, too, was Mark Twain, when he called it an "inhuman sort of entertainment."
Nonetheless, we must admit there is a strong case that cockfighting is part of a larger tradition of entertainment for rural people with little else to do beyond imposing violence on the natural world by setting animals athwart each other in a life-and-death struggle. After all, it's taken place in North America for centuries — as late as the late 1930s, in fact, Florida was a nationwide hub — and faced no legal opprobrium until recent decades.
Like it or not, the sport's never going away, no matter the penalties. Still today there are some folks who claim that it shouldn't be banned, that it's no less inhumane than, say, factory farming. They have a point.
Found on the premises in Glen St. Mary were various chickens — alive and dead — along with spurs and an injectable medicine to stem blood loss. All of this sounds awful. And it is awful. But not much more awful than giant poultry corporations that stuff birds into cages, restrict their movement and inject them with hormones to fatten them, then kill them in the most brutal ways imaginable.
The fact is, many of those who rend their garments in outrage over cockfighting (and dogfighting, for that matter) do so while eating a sandwich that originated at a corporate slaughterhouse. They ignore the contradictions: Cockfighting, while horrible, is of a piece with how our society treats subordinate species.
And when it comes to animal cruelty, moral outrage has an expiration date. After Michael Vick ended up in federal prison for his role in a dogfighting scandal, people cared passionately. PETA types threatened huge protests, and some were held. Soon enough, folks were buying his jerseys again.