AIBONITO, Puerto Rico – Cockfighting enthusiasts in this U.S. Caribbean territory, where almost every town has a fighting pit, consider the bloodsport a beloved tradition dating from Spain's colonization of the island more than five centuries ago.
Cockfighting is so widespread in Puerto Rico that devotees feel no threat from animal rights activists, unlike counterparts in Louisiana and New Mexico the only two U.S. states where the practice remains legal. Cockfighting has been legal in Puerto Rico since 1933.
Gamecock breeders, such as Rene Rodriguez, painstakingly train their feathered fighters, injecting the birds with vitamins and sparring them to increase endurance.
"Cockfighting in Puerto Rico is a gentleman's sport," Rodriguez said at his farm in the central mountain town of Aibonito, where he breeds and trains the birds.
The best gamecocks are bred from prized bloodlines to ensure power, speed and a brawling instinct and are pampered with the finest feed.
When fighting day arrives, the roosters are equipped with curved plastic spurs attached to the back of their legs that serve to slash the opposing bird. Once the birds are released into the pit, spectators crowd around and shout out the stakes as they swap wads of money.
The cocks circle as they look for advantage, neck feathers erect. They lunge at each other and gouge, sometimes fighting to the death. The dead birds are typically tossed into a barrel in a feathered heap.
Under Puerto Rican rules, a fight ends when a bird fails to get up or retreats. If both roosters are standing after 15 minutes, it is a draw.