VEGA BAJA, P.R. — Hiram Figueroa rears roosters to fight, a Puerto Rican tradition from the time of the Spanish colonists that he learned as a teenager half a century ago and later taught his son. Together, they exercise their birds, clip their feathers and give them delicate sponge baths.
Now rows of dusty cages lie empty in Mr. Figueroa’s backyard, a reminder of his fading livelihood.
He used to keep some 250 game fowl tucked behind their modest home in Vega Baja, a town west of San Juan, the capital. Now he is down to about half, a drop big enough that a neighbor told him that sometimes he no longer hears the incessant crowing. The men who own most of the birds and pay the Figueroas for their care bought fewer chicks this year, knowing they would not need them for long.
Cockfighting will be outlawed in Puerto Rico and other United States territories in December, a long overdue ban in the eyes of animal welfare advocates who consider the practice cruel and outdated. Louisiana, the last state to allow cockfighting, prohibited it more than a decade ago, in 2008. But unlike state legislation, which was enacted by elected representatives, this ban was passed by Congress, where Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million people do not have a voting member. Lawmakers slipped the ban into last year’s farm bill, catching even the Puerto Rican government by surprise.
Since then, anxiety has gripped Mr. Figueroa and others 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.
“This is our life,” Mr. Figueroa said on a recent morning as he tossed dried corn kernels into the birds’ feeding dishes. “If they take this away from us, what are we going to do? I’m 70 years old. No one else is going to give me a job.”
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 on Dec. 20.
Last week, Judge Gustavo A. Gelpí of the United States District Court in San Juan upheld the prohibition, saying Congress has the power to legislate over the territories, even if an “undemocratic predicament” exists in Puerto Rico. Félix M. Román Carrasquillo, a lawyer for those in the cockfighting industry, said the ban suggested that members of the federal government viewed Puerto Rico as an inferior, regressive colony unable to fend for itself.
“They think this is a savage place, full of prostitutes and thieves,” Mr. Román said.
“In the United States they hunt deer, and what harm have they done to anyone?” said Mr. Figueroa, who began raising gamecocks at 16. “The birds are going to fight no matter what. We prepare them to defend themselves.”
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, who is working on a doctoral thesis on the history of cockfighting on the island.
She said embracing the practice merely endorses one colonial power — Spain, which brought cockfighting to Puerto Rico in the 1700s — over another. The United States previously outlawed the practice in the territory in the early 20th century, and Puerto Rico legalized cockfighting in 1933.
“It has nothing to do with our culture,” Ms. Álvarez said. “And even if it did, culture is not static. Culture transforms itself.”
Santos Martínez, a graphic designer who like many others has used social media to support the ban, said most Puerto Ricans would be thrilled to see cockfights end.
“Most people hate this so-called sport,” said Mr. Martínez, 57, who said that, as a boy, he tried to set free some of his grandfather’s gamecocks.
On a recent evening, a small crowd gathered at the cockpit in the town of Hatillo. Ángel Luis Narváez Rodríguez, the referee, carried a dog-eared copy of the regulations. A government inspector whose family began the local cockfighting club arrived to monitor the proceedings.
Two birds, identified for the fight as Red and Blue, faced off. They briefly circled each other. Then, Blue attacked. Red jumped. Wings flapped. The feathers around their necks flared. Spectators, some holding alcoholic beverages in plastic cups, yelled their bets.
“20 for Blue!” “I pay double!”
Red fell. Clumps of feathers flew in the air. Red staggered back up. Three minutes later, with Blue down and bleeding, Red was declared the winner.
Blue’s eyelids were swollen shut and blood was dripping from its body. A handler rushed the bird to a back room where Geraldy Rodríguez Pérez, 21, washed it in a sink and lathered its crest with anti-inflammatory ointment. Mr. Rodríguez later gave another bird stitches. When a gamecock whose fight ended in a draw came in too badly injured, Mr. Rodríguez broke its neck.
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” behind the Puerto Rican Capitol. It is a bronze rooster statue.
The cockfighting world is made up mainly of men. The wealthier ones — businessmen, doctors — own gamecocks and hire staff to look after them. Some owners have started to move their birds to the Dominican Republic, where cockfighting remains legal, as it is in a few other places in Latin America.
Andrés Ortiz, 79, who runs an animal feed and supply store with his son in the town of Cataño, said sales of fowl feed have gone down 40 percent in anticipation of the ban.
Even before the coming prohibition, though, the number of registered cockfighting clubs has declined to 71 from more than 100. Activists say that is an indication of diminishing interest. Though 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 percent backed the ban and 21 percent opposed it.
“There’s no justification in making money off cruelty,” said Kitty Block, the organization’s president and chief executive. Fights often result in pierced eyes and punctured organs.
“This is all part of America, and there shouldn’t be different standards,” Ms. Block said. “It’s such a gruesome, violent life — and end — for these animals.”
The prohibition bars hosting and promoting cockfights or using the Postal Service to promote the practice. Owning gamecocks and attending cockfights were already illegal before last year’s farm bill — even if those restrictions do not seem to have been much enforced.
Many expect fights to be driven underground, as they have been on the mainland since cockfighting was banned.
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.
For now, cockpits keep welcoming regulars, who insist the pastime already has been made more humane.
The fights are now limited to 12 minutes — 10 minutes for younger cockerels — or less if a bird stays down for 60 seconds. Metal spurs that once sold for $200 apiece are prohibited; the plastic ones used now cost $5 each. Staff members test feathers for doping. “We have evolved,” said Orlando Vargas, president of Club Gallístico de Puerto Rico. “We are not opposed to modifying cockfights. There is certainly always room to better the culture.”
In his backyard in Vega Baja, Mr. Figueroa said he cared carefully for his birds. He tends to their indigestion. He meticulously records their breeding in a tattered notebook. And he notes that his birds live in larger cages than those raised as poultry.
One by one, Mr. Figueroa and his son, José, 28, took the gamecocks to exercise in a fenced pen. To build a bird’s endurance, Hiram Figueroa chased it with a broomstick with plastic strips attached to one end, resembling a large duster. José Figueroa poked at a bird with a rooster-shaped stuffed animal to get the bird to run from left to right in short bursts, simulating a fight.
Afterward, the roosters breathed heavy. They drank a mix of water, honey and orange juice. The Figueroas gave them vitamins and supplements in pills and injections.
The men did not demonstrate a drill in which they let a gamecock practice pecking at an untrained rooster.
“This is like therapy for me,” José Figueroa said. “It’s in my blood.”
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