While illegal, cockfighting is practiced in some parts of West Virginia. It is an ancient blood sport, similar to bullfighting and dogfighting in that it brings serious injury and often death to the animals involved. Cockfighting has roots in many parts of the world, including the British Isles and northwestern Europe. Western Virginia’s early settlers descended from these areas, and they brought knowledge of the sport with them. Soon cockfighting established itself in our mountains, as it did throughout North and South America and the Caribbean. It continues today.
Motorists driving through rural West Virginia, especially in the south, sometimes see gamefowl being raised within plain sight of the highway. Typically, the colorful roosters are tethered individually to their own small shelters, often horizontal barrels or A-frame coops, too aggressive to allow within reach of each other. Breeders make the distinction between raising the birds, which is legal, and fighting them, which is not.
Nonetheless, cockfighting takes place on an organized basis in West Virginia and in neighboring counties of Kentucky and Virginia. The existence of the sport sometimes seems to be well-known locally, and the intensity of law enforcement varies. Newspaper accounts report occasional arrests, including a May 2003 raid in McDowell County in which dozens of people were charged. Witnesses report cockfighting arenas in nearby Pike County, Kentucky, as well, with West Virginians among the participants.
Game cocks are specially bred, with breeders often keeping careful genetic records and sometimes developing special blood lines of their own. The cocks are smaller than roosters of most domestic food breeds and often exhibit brilliant plumage inherited from their jungle fowl ancestors. Bred and trained for aggressiveness and naturally equipped with dangerous spurs, fighting cocks often have metal knives or gaffs attached to their legs in preparation to fight. The birds attack by flying into each other, slashing or gouging until one is killed or unable to continue. A majority of the losers die as a result of injuries sustained.
Cockpits may be elaborate arenas, modified barns, or even portable set-ups. The actual fighting pit, above-ground and enclosed to contain the combatants, is surrounded by bleacher-style seats. Birds are said to have been ‘‘pitted’’ once they are placed there to fight. The most common type of cockfight in West Virginia is the derby, where several birds are entered and fight in pairs until one triumphs over all the others. The bouts are closely organized, with competing cocks weighed and carefully matched. If a bout drags on inconclusively, the weakening birds may be rotated to a secondary pit while a fresh pair are started in the main cockpit. Owners pay to enter their birds in a derby, with the winner typically taking the entire pot. Gambling is pervasive among owners and spectators, often for sizable amounts.
This Article was written by Ken Sullivan