A Vegetarian Walks Into a Cockfight

Tenley Nordstrom is a vegetarian. She went to a cock fight. Here’s her story:

Somehow I managed to score a studio apartment above what must be the only Irish pub in Nicaragua. The town of San Juan Del Sur has approximately five streets running one way and five streets the other way. It sits on a bay on the Pacific Ocean. It has become a favorite stop for surfers. It was my choice spot to run away from the Western world for a while. San Juan is a small fishing town that lived under a brutal dictatorship from 1936 to 1979 until the Somoza family was finally overthrown in a revolution. They have had to endure subsequent bombings, death squads (Iran-Contra anyone?) and an embargo at the hands of my own country. Nicaragua remains the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere only after Haiti. San Juan Del Sur has an immense amount of charm. The houses and other buildings are painted bright colours such as yellow, purple or teal. The Sandinista black and red is everywhere. The streets are paved, by hand, one block at a time leaving a European cobblestone vibe. There is a street lined with ladies slanging snacks and juices out of coolers for a dollar or less. My place was situated three blocks back from the bay. The balcony was a fantastic spot to watch sunsets over the water and to people-watch.

One night, my friends and I were enjoying the evening on my balcony. As we were bullshitting and drinking Flora de Cana, the local rum, a bird landed on the haphazard electrical system, got electrocuted, and immediately started on fire. A discussion ensued as to what should be done. It was a small fire, but the immediate question was, who the fuck puts out fires in this town anyway? I had heard of a volunteer fire department of loose sorts, but I hadn’t seen them around. The nearest town with real services? 30 minutes away. That’s how you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. There is a damn fire on the street and no one seems to be there to put it out. Soon, a mix of people gathered below. Everyone was transfixed on the fire wondering if it would go out or only get bigger. We had just recently dealt with the water being out for three days straight due to a broken pipe. It was bad enough not having hot water, but no water was hell. You can’t flush your toilet. You can’t wash your dishes, and of course you smell. At least we all smelled together. Electricity going out was normal even from rain. We all waited together, on edge, until it finally seemed as though the fire was out and everything was ok.

The conversation was already on birds, so my friend Ally mentioned there was a cock fight the next day. The cock fights go down every Sunday. There is a lot of gambling and all the things that go along with sports. I had heard my friend Erika mention it before, but she hadn’t gone for fear of major scarring to her psyche. I jumped on it and said, “Let’s do it!” This is the thing of legends, and it was happening every Sunday right under my nose. I needed to go. Part of the reason I was traveling Latin America was to see places that were unfamiliar to me; to see new and different cultures. We made plans to meet back at my place the next day and said goodnight.

The next morning I woke up super excited to be doing something completely out of my realm of experience. I had gotten used to chickens, cows, and pigs being on the scene around town. There is a connection to food in places like this that you just don’t see much anymore in Western societies. We pick our meat up at the supermarket in a package. Easy. Mess-free. I got my camera and spliffs together and waited for my friends. Soon we were all together again and heading up the street. Our Nicaraguan friend’s mom shouted to us, “Bring back a chicken if you can, for stew!” We walked for a little while then took a right in between a little shop and a house. We found ourselves on a path weaving through the backyards and soon we saw it; a little ring. It reminded me of a miniature rodeo. It was even appeared to be sponsored by a major soft drink company.

I was a little bit nervous about taking pictures. The gringa invading. But right away I was put at ease. I saw two men come out with their fighters. A guy with a huge smile kept telling everyone to get out of my way and flashing a grin. Then I saw a guy who works at the local surf shop and we struck up a conversation. I watched as the first fighters were being weighed in a strange metal cone hanging from a scale. I took a photo of the next competitors in their cages. I gulped my beer and took a deep breath. I snapped a few photos of proud men with their chickens. I asked how long it took to get them ready to fight. I was told anywhere from a month to two. The fights were about to start, so I took my seat in the front row. I looked back at Erika and she seemed extremely nervous for what was next.

First the men and their chickens entered the ring. Then, one of the men opened a door in the side of the ring and grabbed another chicken from inside. He used it to tease the competitors and get them riled up for the fight. He put the chicken back in its trap door and things got started. The official came out and placed a piece of wood in between the two chickens about to fight. He rang a bell and lifted the divider. The men stayed in the ring with their chickens. Things started to get intense very quickly. The chickens went after each other. They were surprisingly feisty. They pecked at each others bodies. They clawed at each other. They faced off as if they were strategizing and then attacked. Blood started flying right away; the white chickens were worse to watch because their feathers became stained in red almost immediately. Then the feathers started flying everywhere. The men danced around cheering on their fighters. I wasn’t sure what to feel as I watched, but somehow it was less brutal than I expected. I certainly wasn’t in tears, but I wasn’t loving the fights either. The real shock came when the break happened. It’s a little bit like when boxers go to their corners and their coaches start patching up their faces. Only these are chickens and their owners. The man picked up the chicken and started sucking on its head. I kept taking photos while I yelled at my friend, “What the hell are they doing that for?” She explained that they were getting the blood out of the animal’s eyes. I was floored. But before I could totally react, the fight was back on and I was back to taking photos.

The end of a fight seemed like sort of a grey area. The first fight was pretty simple. The chicken just collapsed. But as the day went on it tended to be more about a judgement call. That call was whether or not the chicken could go on. Honestly, the whole thing started resembling boxing more and more but with chickens. You can go with the knockout or you can just wear your opponent down and win the rounds. Here’s the thing though, I’m not a huge sports fan. I love hockey, and I think baseball games are fun, but I really don’t have that sort of sporting spirit. I also don’t understand gambling. I mostly felt like an observer. I didn’t get into cheering for anyone one way or another. I was too busy taking pictures with my eyes bugging out of my head. I will say that these men love their chickens as pets. To add to it, when the chickens leave, they are taken home and made into food; every single part of it. These are poor people who come together every Sunday and have a bit of sporting fun. I left mainly ambivalent about the whole thing. No, I didn’t like the fight that I thought they should have called much earlier. I didn’t like seeing them fight, but I was also surprised at how the chickens seemed to naturally want to fight each other. That could be all training though. I was surprised that I didn’t feel more strongly about stopping the whole thing. I didn’t have that same feeling I had when I started to discover where America’s food comes from. I cried when I first saw videos of chickens, cows, and pigs being abused in factory farms. It’s one of the many reasons I don’t eat meat. Somehow watching these cock fights, in this context, didn’t outrage me. I didn’t like seeing the animals get hurt, so I wouldn’t get involved, but I don’t judge these people for it either.


Words and pictures by Tenley Nordstrom.