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In Puerto Rico, cockfighting has been a tradition for centuries. Now it's on the brink of being declared illegal. The farm bill, passed by the U.S. Congress and sent to the president's desk earlier this week, includes a provision that would ban cockfighting in U.S. territories. NPR's Adrian Florido reports that in Puerto Rico, resistance to the ban has been fierce but futile.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Puerto Rico is only a hundred miles long, but it has almost 80 cockfighting arenas. Cockfighting is such a big part of life here that eight years ago, the legislature declared it the national sport. Of course, Puerto Rico is not a nation. It's a U.S. territory subject to control by the U.S. Congress. Supporters of cockfighting were reminded of that this week.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JENNIFFER GONZALEZ: We've been regulating the industry of cockfighting since 1933.
FLORIDO: Jenniffer Gonzalez is Puerto Rico's non-voting representative in Congress. She spoke during debate on the farm bill earlier this week.
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GONZALEZ: This is an industry that represents more than $18 million in our economy and also more than 27,000 direct and indirect jobs on the island.
FLORIDO: She said wiping those out will be a big blow to the island's already troubled economy. Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rossello, said the ban was an example of the island's colonial relationship with the U.S. and also an attack on Puerto Rican culture.
KITTY BLOCK: Cruelty is not culture. And it is important to look at what it is and what it's doing to the animals.
FLORIDO: Kitty Block is president of the U.S. Humane Society, one of the main groups that pushed lawmakers to include the ban in the farm bill. Cockfighting is already illegal in all 50 states. And the time has come, Block said, to extend it to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and other territories.
BLOCK: It is something that's incredibly inhumane. These are birds that are armed with weapons. And they slash and slash each eyes out, and it's just a brutal blood sport. And it really is something that should have gone a long time ago.
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FLORIDO: Yesterday, the day after Congress approved the ban, the mood was somber at the Cockfighting Club of San Juan. Eighty-year-old Miguel Ortiz walked me over to a wall of cubbies behind a panel of glass. On most fight days, there are up to 80 roosters waiting to fight. Yesterday, there were birds in only 26 of the cubbies.
MIGUEL ORTIZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: Most people stayed home, Ortiz said, upset over the ban. Ortiz said he's been fighting gamecocks since he was a 6-year-old boy on the farm. His dad did, too, and his grandfather, and so does his son - a way of life.
ORTIZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "In Puerto Rico, there are a lot of people who make a living this way," Ortiz said, "by raising roosters, training them, breeding them, selling feed, betting on them." One of those people is Josean Rivera. He raises roosters, charging their owners $5 per week per bird.
JOSEAN RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "We're devastated," he said. "We weren't prepared for this. This is how I feed my family." Like many defenders of cockfighting, he argues it isn't a cruel sport because the birds are raised well and, he said, rarely allowed to fight to the death. He said what's likely to happen when the ban goes into effect in a year is that the fancy arenas around the island will close. But cockfighting will just go underground, like it was almost a century ago.
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FLORIDO: Not yet, though. Last night, the crowd in this arena was small but lively. As soon as the first two birds were released into the ring, the crowd's despair over the impending ban seemed to melt away. Adrian Florido, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico.