Growing up on Molokai during the plantation days, chicken fighting was a way of life for Ronnie Rapanot Jr.
“This is not only our culture but our recreation … this is like church,” said Rapanot. “So why I got to hide?”
Sitting at a cockfight on Sunday at an undisclosed location in Molokai, I gave this moral and legal question serious thought.
Rapanot believes that chicken fighting is not illegal in Hawaii. “According to white man’s law, it’s illegal to fight with knives on them. No law that I know of that makes it illegal to fight the birds with the natural spurs.”
I watched a half dozen fights, all ending in a minute or less. There was little or no blood and the chickens are virtually silent. The real noise comes from the fans on either side urging on their bird.
After two chickens are matched for weight and size, they are prepared for battle. Supporters say using metal blades is less cruel then allowing the birds to use their natural spurs, which can unnecessarily prolong a fight and cause more injuries.
Then the ritual begins. The two handlers thrust their birds back and forth at each other beak to beak.
When the birds are placed down, the aggressive instinct of the animal takes over. In the flurry, hackle feathers and tail feathers go up as each bird bites, cuts and thrust its gaff into the other one.
Perhaps the most surprising sight was the amount of dust and feathers two little birds can kick up in such a short period of time. The lightning-quick chicks fly at each other in an effort to get the first strike.
Chicken fighting is fast. Don’t blink or you might miss the action. Once a chicken clearly displays its dominance the fight is ended. If the losing bird is not badly hurt it will be sewn up and prepared for its next fight. If it is injured it will probably end up as a hulihuli chicken plate.
Rapanot sees no problem.
“I don’t see anything cruel,” he said. “In our eyes this is not cruelty. The law is too broad on cruelty.”
Most of the 75 to 100 people in attendance came with family. Kids of all ages wandered around, playing, talking and looking at the chickens. There was some beer drinking but no drugs or unruly behavior could be seen.
At other chicken fighting locations in Hawaii, authorities have confiscated illegal drugs, creating a negative image for the sport. “They think we are thugs and drug dealers,” said Rapanot. “That is bullshit.”
At the fight sat Mike DeCoite, 90. Asked when he attended his first chicken fight in Hoolehua, Uncle Mike thought for a moment and said, simply, “can’t remember. This is good enjoyment,” said Decoite, emphatically. “If you want to fight you fight, if you don’t, you don’t.”
One breeder couple, Randall Corpuz, and his wife Hoku, were in attendance to socialize with other breeders. With an average fighting cock selling for $300 to $400, Corpuz is able to make a living as a top breeder. He estimates that there are seven or eight breeders on Molokai.
Because of the high caliber of their game birds, the Corpuzes were invited to the Phillipines in January, where cockfighting is legal. During the visit, they were able to participate in the World Slasher Eight Cock derby, the world’s premier event in the sport.
Thousands of spectators watched the World Slasher events, which attracts top breeders from around the world. “Because it’s illegal here, a lot of the good breeders have moved to the Phillipines,” said Hoku Corpuz.
Local cockfighting enthusiast Mike Arce is concerned about the future of the sport. He has studied the culture of cockfighting closely for the past two years. “What can we do to preserve this culture?” asked a concerned Arce, who said that eight to 10 years ago crowds at a typical Molokai fight were at least five times the number that showed up on Sunday.
“They want to take it away from us and be the picture of what they think we should be,” said Arce. “We should be able to do what we want to do.”
Arce believes that those opposed to cockfighting are actually in the minority but have strong financial backing from animal rights groups. “As a cultural practice they have got to give us some leeway. These birds fight naturally.”
Historically, cockfighting in Hawaii was a traditional way to resolve disputes. He said that rival tribes would often bet for land and for people. “It’s better than having a whole army, one versus another,” said Arce.
Cockfighting is actually a seasonal sport, Arce explained. In the summer the chickens molt their feathers and are not able to fight. Winter is the top season for fighting.
Typically, it takes one month to train a two year-old chicken to fight. This involves feeding the bird high quality feed, exercise in specialized pens, and providing scratching materials to build leg strength. The birds also receive sparring practice before the actual fight.
Compared to the life of a chicken bred for eating, pumped full of steroids and forced to live in a pen that doesn’t allow it to turn around, it is not unreasonable to question if cockfighting is cruel or simply the continuation of a popular cultural practice.