Cockfighting in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka the majority of cockfights take place during festive seasons, particularly during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in April. When those employed in the city return to their village home for the holidays, cockfighting is arguably the most sought after event in some parts of rural Sri Lanka. A single fight will attract at least 50 spectators, comprising of mostly children, youth and the rooster’s owners. The fights are hugely popular among villagers, who gather to cheer and clap with gusto for the fighting fowls.
The fights are organised by the owners of the cocks, who select the strongest birds for the fight, equipped with sharp blades attached to their beaks and claws. Bets are placed on the outcome of a fight and the stakes are often high. As a police raid in Wennapuwa 2013 revealed, the stakes can be as high as 2.5 million LKR, and the price of a fully grown rooster is now between 5000-20,000 LKR.
Is cockfighting ‘natural’?
Cock fighting enthusiasts justify the practice by arguing that male birds ‘naturally’ fight each other. While it is true that roosters are territorial creatures and will therefore seek to establish their dominance, their natural behaviour ought to be distinguished from the wholly artificially contrived sport of cockfighting. When left alone in a natural setting, roosters rarely inflict serious injuries on each other. Killing or mortally wounding the adversary rooster is not the objective of such fights – it is merely used to establish a pecking order over territory, food or a mate.
During cockfights however, there is the barbaric practice of attaching razor-sharp blades (blades designed specifically to wound and draw blood) to the fowl’s legs. This practice makes the roosters inevitably suffer agonizing injuries such as punctured lungs, broken bones and punctured eyes. Additionally, the birds are forced to fight to the death in the enclosed space of a fighting pit, regardless of their injuries or exhaustion. Finally, imagine how truly frightening it is for the birds to undergo this ordeal with the raucous din of shouting spectators. So it is simply exaggeration to suggest that the brutal drawn out cockfights set up by organisers are a demonstration of the bird’s natural instincts and occur of its own volition.
Harm to humans
Cockfighting is not only harmful to the unfortunate fighting roosters. Apart from encouraging illegal activities such as gambling, there are serious health concerns as the sport has been linked to the spread of the fatal avian flu virus through contact with blood and feces of the fowls.
The events can be traumatic for children who have to witness the excruciating injuries and deaths of the birds. Conversely, observing such violent displays at a tender age can blunt children’s sensitivity to animal suffering, instill enthusiasm to see further bloodshed, teach them that animal cruelty is enjoyable and if bets are placed on the outcome, profitable even.
Animal fights: Legal position
The Gaming Ordinance No 17 of 1889, as amended by No 37 of 1917 and No. 3 of 1946 provides that cockfighting amounts to ‘unlawful gaming’, regardless of whether the fights are public or private events, and irrespective of whether it is accompanied by gambling. This piece of legislation has several drawbacks. Firstly, it is very outdated- thus even if the law was enforced, hardly anyone will be deterred by the pitiful punishment of a Rs 100 fine which in 1889 would have been formidable sum of money. Secondly, the Ordinance only prohibits the keeping or managing of a gaming place i.e. a fighting pit, but it does not outlaw breeding roosters for fights, permitting young children to be spectators at such fights.
With regard to enforcement, outside of major raids, police are reluctant to crack down on cockfights as they take place during the festive season. Indeed with the punishment imposed being as negligible as Rs 100 fine, there is little incentive for the police to take this offence seriously.
Very little case law exists on the issue of cockfighting. The 1913 case of Dissanayake v. Fernando, 17 NLR 114 reflects the confusing and inadequate state of the relevant law. As per Pereira J. “the definition of unlawful gaming includes cockfighting; but the definition of common gaming place does not include cockfighting, It is clear that the Legislature did not intend to punish a person for keeping a place for cockfighting, though it thought it desirable to punish persons who indulged in cockfighting for unlawful gaming.”
India by contrast has made meaningful progress in this regard, having outlawed animal fighting sports in several cases. In S.Kannan vs The Commissioner of Police 2014, N. Kirubakaran J. made the pertinent observation that :
“In ancient times, people would not have much entertainment and therefore the animal fights and birds fight would have provided then needed fun and enjoyment. Now much water has flown under the bridge. Many comforts, entertainments like cinema, video, television,cable T.V. have become essential part of life and in fact they provide entertainment in overdose. “
It is time that Sri Lanka also took such a progressive view and develop into a more compassionate humane society, that eschews animal suffering for entertainment purposes.