In the summer of 2010, researcher Nichar Gregory stood out like a sore thumb in cockfighting rings around Thailand. Amid the arenas’ boisterous crowds watching and betting on the matches, Gregory was usually one of the few women, and a distinctly Caucasian-looking one at that, being only half Thai. But she took it all in, dutifully jotting notes on her clipboard and watching birds fight—sometimes to the death.
“It’s very high energy. It can be contagious. But then you realize it’s about these two birds trying to hurt each other, and it sort of brings you back down,” says Gregory, who never got used to the brutality, even after attending several matches.
After her graduation from the University of East Anglia, Gregory teamed up with conservation biologist Diana Bell, whose East Anglia lab was studying the role of cultural practices, such as cockfighting, in the spread of the H5N1 bird flu in Southeast Asia. Although Gregory had lived all over the world growing up, her family had moved back to Thailand when she was 15, and it just so happened that Bell and her colleagues were looking for someone to explore the cockfighting practices in that country. So Gregory went home for the summer, heading to the region’s four legal cockfighting arenas every weekend for more than 2 months—often with her Thai mother in tow—to interview fighting-cock owners about their birds and their sport.
When you’re talking disease transmission, that’s about as risky as you can get.
—Nichar Gregory, Columbia University
Even between frenetic battles, what she saw was “shocking,” she recalls. She watched in astonishment as bird owners tended to their animals’ war wounds during pauses in matches. “It’s almost like boxing, where you have the guy in the corner [and] the coach is mopping him up,” says Gregory. They would sew up open cuts with a needle and thread, and use bloody cloths to wipe the birds down, holding those cloths in their mouths when they didn’t have a free hand. Some owners would even put their mouths over the birds’ beaks to suck out saliva or blood clots that would get caught in the animals’ throats. “When you’re talking disease transmission, that’s about as risky as you can get,” she says.
Gregory quickly learned that the sport is incredibly important to the country’s culture. “They’re so passionate about it,” she says. “It’s like baseball to Americans.” Plus, there’s a lot of money in cockfighting. Winning birds take home 50,000 baht (about US$1,600) on average, and the chicks of champion birds are sold—often across country borders—for as much as a few thousand baht each, Gregory says. “It’s the sole source of income for a lot of people.” As a result, the owners of fighting cocks often put their birds’ health before their own, leading to some particularly risky behaviors.
After Thailand experienced outbreaks of the H5N1 bird flu in late 2003 and early 2004, the government temporarily banned cockfighting and culled many birds. Since then, the legal rings have implemented new policies to try to curb disease spread, such as disinfecting the arenas between fights and having owners dip their feet and their birds in antiseptic before entering the ring. Cockfighters are now also required to carry passports for their birds, which document the vaccinations the animals have had, and where they’ve traveled for fights. If an infected bird is identified, the government will cull all poultry within a 5-kilometer radius.
Unfortunately, not all bird owners play by the rules. Many do not keep their birds’ passports up-to-date, and if they know a cull is coming, they will hide their birds or move them outside of the cull area—behaviors that only further increase the risk of disease transmission. Indeed, “at least eight cases of avian influenza deaths in Thailand have been linked to cockfighting,” Gregory says. It’s a risk that demands attention, Bell agrees. “There are 15 million fighting cockerels in Thailand,” she says. “It’s another avenue [of H5N1 transmission] that we need to be considering, certainly.”
Of course, cockfighting is just one of a number of ways Southeast Asians interact with their birds. Many people, for example, keep backyard chickens and ducks, which they slaughter for meat, and vendors at crowded outdoor markets slaughter and sell poultry to those who don’t keep their own birds. These practices may be less overtly risky than what Gregory witnessed at the cockfighting rings, says infectious disease epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove of the MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling at Imperial College London, but these birds are much more likely than fighting cocks to carry disease. “Because [fighting cocks] are cared for carefully, the risk that these birds will be infected with H5N1 is much lower,” Van Kerkhove says.
The overarching theme of Gregory’s research is clear: culture matters. With cockfighting a legal and popular pastime in many countries throughout Asia and Latin America, and chickens one of the most commonly kept domestic animals the world over, the potential influence of cultural practices on the spread of avian flu extends far beyond Thailand’s borders. “Although having an epidemiological understanding of disease is important, you really need to understand the social context in which transmission occurs,” says Gregory, now pursuing a master’s degree in conservation biology at Columbia University in New York. “You need to understand why people behave the way they do, why people take part in these risky behaviors, if you’re going to change that.”