The Last Days of Legal Cockfighting in Puerto Rico

A cockfight at Club Gallístico de Puerto Rico in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Oct. 18, 2019. Congress passed a ban on cockfighting in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories that begins in December of 2019. The imposition has struck most of those who have long engaged in cockfighting here as a violation of Puerto Ricans’ rights to make their own decisions, but there are also many residents who support the change. (Erika P. Rodriguez/The New York Times)

Patricia Mazzei and Erika P. Rodriguez

c.2019 The New York Times Company


VEGA BAJA, Puerto Rico —Cockfighting will be outlawed in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories in December, a long overdue ban in the eyes of animal welfare advocates who consider the practice cruel and outdated. But this ban was passed by Congress, where Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million people do not have a voting member.

Anxiety has gripped those who make a living from cockfighting. A recession has strangled the Puerto Rican economy for 13 years. The industry estimates it directly and indirectly employs some 20,000 people.

In a territory where people feel deep resentment over frequent slights from Washington, the imposed ban has struck most of those who have long engaged in cockfighting here as a violation of Puerto Ricans’ rights to make their own decisions and protect their cultural heritage. Some of them sued in federal court, seeking to overturn the ban before it takes effect Dec. 20.

Last week, Judge Gustavo Gelpí of the U.S. District Court in San Juan upheld the prohibition, saying Congress has the power to legislate over the territories.

Breeding aggressive roosters to fight, often to the death, for the sake of gambling and entertainment is barbaric, said Yolanda Álvarez, the former director of the Humane Society of Puerto Rico.

“It has nothing to do with our culture,” Álvarez said. “And even if it did, culture is not static. Culture transforms itself.”

The gamecock — el gallo fino de pelea — is ubiquitous on the island. The mascots of the University of Puerto Rico’s main campus are a rooster and a hen. This summer, state lawmakers unveiled a monument to “the gentlemen’s sport”: a bronze rooster statue.

Even before the coming prohibition, the number of registered cockfighting clubs has declined to 71 from more than 100. Although there has been no independent polling, the Humane Society of the United States, which lobbied Congress for the ban, commissioned a survey of 1,000 Puerto Ricans in 2017 that found that 43% backed the ban and 21% opposed it.

Many expect fights to be driven underground.

In hopes of providing alternative sources of income, the Puerto Rican government, which legalized sports betting in July, said it would waive licensing fees for cockpits that turn into gambling halls.