A bloody business

In her latest Letter from Manila, Iris Gonzales reflects on a violent national obsession that has only grown under coronavirus restrictions.

Illustration by Sarah John

Here in the Philippines, there are some things Covid-19 can’t kill. Take for instance Filipinos’ obsession with sabong or cockfighting.

When the government imposed its first hard lockdown in March last year, almost everything turned virtual – from home-working to online schooling. Cockfighting, dubbed as the national pastime, was no exception.

With the closure of the arenas where the bloody fights were held – usually packed with hundreds of boisterous, wild and testosterone-driven fans – the contests turned virtual. Organizers lost no time in hiring state-of-the-art broadcasting equipment, setting up websites and transforming their breeding farms into studios of sorts.

I was surprised to see this when I spent some time reporting on a cockpit arena in the province of Laguna, just outside Manila. This is where the fights were held and live-streamed daily, around the clock.

Through a subscription-based streaming service and using their mobile phones, television sets or other gadgets, spectators all over the country can watch the games. It’s like Netflix but with only cockfighting on the menu. Punters can also place their bets through it – from 10 pesos (20 US cents) to 10,000 ($200).

Even when the first lockdown eased, there was no question of returning to crowded arenas. Now Filipinos can watch fights till kingdom come from the comfort of their homes, sometimes over a few drinks with their fellow enthusiasts.

According to cockpit operator Atong Ang, demand only increased when the fights turned virtual.

Cockfighting is a passion, a form of entertainment, a diversion from everyday stresses for many Filipinos, he says.

And its fans come from across the social spectrum, including the rich. Former Philippine president Joseph Estrada is one, as are numerous tycoons and lawmakers, including Chavit Singson, a member of the House of Representatives.

No wonder, then, that cockfighting is a 50 billion peso ($1 billion) industry – a figure released by the Games and Amusements Board, the government agency that supervises the sector. And the government also wants its cut, with plans to impose a tax on the profits of online operators.

For some, it’s the only livelihood they know. Like 32-year-old Bryan Fuentes, who is doctor to fighting cocks. He is not a veterinarian by profession but is licensed to work in the industry. He earns 500 peso ($10) for every injured game cock he treats after a game. He usually treats at least four a day.

Ang, the cockpit operator, is keen to point out how his business provides jobs to Filipinos. Industry data shows that an estimated 385,000 workers are involved, including those in the feedstore and poultry-keeping jobs. There are a staggering 20 million game fowls in the country.

Animal rights activists opposed to this ‘sport’ thus have a mountain to climb in terms of shifting public opinion.

Heidi Caguioa, programme director of Animal Kingdom Foundation, says her NGO plans to launch a big campaign against it ‘when the public is ready’.

‘We would need strong international backing and funds to create a serious and impactful campaign, bearing in mind that we are facing politicians and rich families involved in the cockfighting industry,’ she says.

The campaign would also need to address the issue of the livelihoods of the people involved in the industry.

‘We are still hopeful that in the near future we will be ready to stage a campaign to stop this cruel activity,’ she tells me.

Seeing the 24/7 operation of online cockfighting in Laguna, I realized that change won’t come easily because, for a variety of reasons, demand is so strong. The rich see it almost as a royal pastime; for poor bettors, it’s that chance to make some money; and for the rest of the sabong crowd, mostly ordinary folks, it’s a diversion from everyday stresses and struggles.