Cockfighting in Bali: A relic or a right?

If cockfighting in Bali is, due to Javanese disapproval, a secret then it’s a very open one. Every roadside here is littered with big upturned baskets in the same way fishermen’s’ netted baskets punctuate every five yards of Britain’s Cornwall. And those baskets have all got one resident: a fractious cockerel.

As one of nature’s loudest creatures, typically not afraid of noise, people, and general mayhem, roosters are conveniently inured to all types of fear that might make them ‘flighty’ instead of ‘fighty’ when it comes to show time. 

It’s a tradition with a long past. The Romans notoriously used all sorts of animals when it came to sacrificing to the gods. (ASIDE: My favorite Roman-time anecdote being Publius Claudius Pulcher, who, when his chickens failed to eat and therefore augur the ‘correct’ future before a naval battle, promptly drop-kicked them into the sea, insisting they must be thirsty. END OF ASIDE.)

And Bali, is no different. There is a ceremonial aspect of cockfighting on the island. Blood spilled in the fights — which are often a staple in temple ceremonies — is considered a sacrifice.

Indeed, far from the madding crowd of Ubud and a few other big towns like Padang Bai, is usually an even madder one. But you have to be willing to find it. After all, finding a cockfight is an experience similar to the expat’s search for a secluded villa. It’s a Pandora’s box of inauspicious corners, angry packs of dogs, endless dirt tracks, and paddy paths on what must surely be private property. Perhaps the hardest part of cockfighting isn’t the search or the spectacle, however, but rather getting the tip-off in the first place. The Balinese can be suspicious of opinionated bule sticking their noses in everything, so it may require several approaches before a welcome beckons.

Once trusted, access to certain barns, jungle clearings, and temples follow. These gatherings can range from 10-1,000 men (no women allowed), standing on terraces around a dusty ring. There’s something very Russian Roulette-ish about the whole thing. The tension is sky-high from the off: manic gesticulations from betting men; an almost self-parodic series of emotional fireworks from sweaty spectators; then intense frowns crumpling the faces of swaggering owners whose money and machismo is on the line too.

Not that it’s on the line for long. Giant metal razors are attached to the cocks, making each resemble velociraptors out of Jurassic Park and, more importantly, means it only takes a mercifully short flurry of Bruce Lee movements before a bird is left incapacitated and, most likely, finds itself shoved unceremoniously into an ayam pelalah by the winner’s owner. 

It’s all very far from the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ brigade who love to colonize Bali with passive aggressive platitudes and oversized clothing. However, animal welfare is a global concern, not just the province of a few chakra-bleating New Agers, and so deserves serious attention. The waters are muddied in this respect mostly because the ethics of cockfighting is really a conversation about the ethics of development. Societies that have replaced animal cruelty on a festival level with cruelty on a mass scale in food production hardly occupy the moral high ground, yet neither does the weight of custom excuse gratuitous injury and death.

The reality, therefore, is that cockfighting should be condemned but left alone, which is exactly the status quo favored by the Indonesian government (it was technically banned for non-regligious purposes in Indo, but Bali quietly continues on).

Cockfighting persists as the last retreat of honor politics, an outlet for our gladiatorial nature. Nowadays, honor might get short shrift from a West that deems it anachronistic but, like many things in the world, it is actually double-edged. It can be used to excuse terrible things such as vendettas, yet also to sustain trustworthy and predictable behavior in societies with no strong legal framework. The West, it could be argued, is suffering a very expensive societal asphyxiation from a lack of honor and its close cousin, trust. Bali, on the other hand, doesn’t. And since the path to the world’s premier league of countries is hardly historically predetermined, each nation must make its own mistakes and garner its own achievements. 

Who knows whether cockfighting will go the way of bear-baiting or fox-hunting, but one thing is for sure, it’s usually compromise that wins the day.

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