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Bird Flu Adds New Danger to Bloody Game

"When you raise fighting cocks, you see them from the moment you open your eyes in the morning. You can even recognize the way each one coos," Phapart said, wearing a green work shirt and chomping on an ever-present piece of gum. "You have a very close relationship with your fighting cocks, and the closer you are, the more confident you are about their health. You know their condition."

Emphasizing each word somewhat defensively, he added, "That is why I am not afraid."

Spectators lean in at a cockfight in Thailand's Chiang Rai province, risking contact with blood that could harbor the bird flu virus. (Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post)

On a recent Sunday, Phapart pulled up at the cockfighting arena as the dirt parking lot was beginning to fill with pickup trucks. Spectators, mostly men from surrounding provinces, crowded three rows of concrete bleachers below a corrugated metal roof.

As the elegant, long-legged roosters began to stalk each other, cries rose from the crowd. Many people barked out wagers. Most pressed closer, in some cases leaning into the ring.

It is this proximity to the blood and breath of the frenetic fighters that can make cockfighting so hazardous to humans. But the intimacy of the owners and trainers with their birds also poses a profound danger.

Between the 20-minute rounds, the owners scrubbed the blood off their birds with bare hands, wringing out the rags on the ground. Then, with ordinary thread, they stitched the wounds around their eyes and fed them painkillers. Sometimes, Phapart recounted as he watched the hurried surgery, the injuries are so severe that owners relieve the swelling by sucking out the blood by mouth.

A day earlier, Phapart had made the rounds in his home town of Phayao, where he is admired as one of the most accomplished breeders, and offered advice to other owners. Not a word was uttered about bird flu.

At his first stop, a farmhouse on the edge of town, two trainers were teaching young cocks to feint and dart by thrusting more seasoned roosters toward them. The men clasped the birds in their bare hands, and their forearms were scarred and swollen from the errant attacks of their pupils.

"Train harder," Phapart told them. "They're not really strong enough."

At the next stop, a large exercise facility where several roosters had just completed their morning sparring, the trainer was bathing them with a hot, moist towel, scrubbing each feather individually and massaging their muscles. Then, with his fingertips, he fed them a special dish made from the minced flesh of a river fish famed for its brawny nature, mixed with honey and herbs.

Fighting cocks represent a lavish investment. A proven winner can sell for as much as $2,500, Phapart said.

That is why some owners hid their roosters when Thai officials ordered the mass culling of poultry to contain the bird flu epidemic. Others have smuggled cocks across provincial lines, potentially spreading the disease. Officials in Malaysia blamed the outbreak in the north of their country in September on fighting cocks illegally transported from Thailand.

Thai officials have imposed a system of fighting cock passports that requires owners to get a veterinarian's stamp before taking their birds into another district. Though Phapart said he obeyed these rules, he acknowledged that many villagers did not.

But Phapart dismissed the government's worries about bird flu as overblown and its proposals as unworkable. "The decision-makers analyze the situation just on paper," he said, growing agitated. "Their feet aren't on the ground. They don't really know how we treat the cocks and don't really share our feelings."

He urged that the owners of fighting cocks be left to police themselves because, in his view, they have the most to lose if the virus spreads among the birds. "We care more for the fighting cocks than the health officers do," he argued.

Last summer, roosters on Phapart's family farm in Chiang Mai province developed flu symptoms. Instead of informing the government, he said, he slaughtered all 600 and burned their bodies. For good measure, he gave away 10 others he was keeping in bamboo cages behind his house for fear they might catch the virus.

He has already restocked. The new birds are still young, he said, cradling one in his arms, but he likes their looks. They may even grow to be champions like his beloved rooster Lucky, who died undefeated and whose framed photograph hangs in Phapart's living room.

Phapart leaned forward intently and vowed, "They'll never be able to stop us from doing cockfighting."

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