The Chicken Story I Don’t Know How to Write About


Today, I’m going to share a story that I tried to write a few times — but I couldn’t quite get it working for me. So this is a story about that story.

Let’s start with the underlying one: In 2011, a 35-year-old California man named José Luis Ochoa died. The cause of death was an accidental stab wound, but the circumstances are, well, unusual. Here’s the important part from a local news report at the time:

Cockfighting can be a fatal activity, not just for the roosters.

A 35-year-old Lamont man died Sunday after being stabbed in the leg by a sharp blade that was attached to a fighting bird, authorities said.

[ . . . ]

An autopsy Wednesday revealed that the accidental death was caused by an injury to Ochoa’s right calf, according to a Kern County Sheriff’s Department news release.

Cockfighting, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is when people take roosters and put them in an environment where they fight each other, often to the death. The people organizing the fight and watching it are often gambling on the outcome, Sometimes, the birds are bred for fighting or otherwise positioned to create a lot of carnage; it’s not uncommon for fighting birds to be shot up with steroids or, in this case, outfitted with weapons. The animals rarely come out well — even if they win their fights — and the practice can be cruel to them. As a result, cockfighting is illegal throughout the United States (although it is legal in some other parts of the world) and if you’re caught involved in the practice, you’ll likely get a sizable fine.

Being killed by a chicken that you or a companion set up as a fighter, well, that’s unusual — a police officer said in the above-linked story that he had “never seen this type of incident.” An unusual story that borders on ironic? That seemed like a great Now I Know story. But when I tried to write it up, I couldn’t get the tone right. My first pass felt like I was taking a holier-than-thou approach to Ochoa’s behavior; while cockfighting is inhumane, I don’t think it deserves a death sentence, comical as it may seem in this case. But my second pass came off as lacking empathy for the chickens. Trying to thread the needle was arguably the worst of all three attempts — I ended up with something like Time magazine did. They concluded their article with “It apparently wasn’t Ochoa’s first brush with cockfights — he had paid $370 in fines previously after he admitted to owning or training an animal for fighting. Unfortunately for Ochoa, it’s a cockfight that seems to have ended where few do: with the rooster winning,” suggesting that (a) Ochoa deserved it (maybe he did?) and (b) the rooster was okay (it probably wasn’t). 

But that’s what the Now I Know Weekender is for, right? I get to share a story in a different way than the normal Monday through Thursday format — which is perfect for a situation like this one.

The Now I Know Week In Review

MondayMinecraft 1, Censorship 0: I love this idea, even though I really can’t seem to get into Minecraft.

Tuesday:  Took it off for the 4th of July. 

WednesdayThe Cold War’s Most Important Hot Dog Stand: As reader Herbert J. points out, there could be a secret bunker there — how would I know? It would be a secret, after all. 

ThursdayWhy Did This Tropical Island Have Igloos on Its Flag?: There’s no ice in the Caribbean, but this flag made it seem like there was.

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads for the weekend:

1) “Cockfighting Is Illegal in the U.S. Why Does It Breed so Many Fighting Birds?” (New York Times, 21 minutes, January 2023). In writing the original stories talked about above, I found this article that asks a simple question: why is there still a large cockfighter breeding industry in the United States?

2) “Facing extinction, Tuvalu considers the digital clone of a country” (The Guardian, June 2023). Tuvalu is a tiny island nation northeast of Australia, and climate change is, effectively, sinking it. As a result, its citizens are leaving, but they’re not all emigrating to the same places. Many of its people want to remain connected even when physically apart; can they create a digital society that will allow them to do that? This story explores their pathways.

3) “The Man Who Broke Bowling” (GQ, 20 minutes, June 2023). The subhead sums it up — “Jason Belmonte’s two-handed technique made him an outcast. Then it made him the greatest—and changed the sport forever” — but this quote is amazing: “Not everyone welcomed his arrival. He’s been called a cheat, told to go back to his native Australia; a PBA Hall of Famer once called the two-hander a ‘cancer to an already diseased sport.'” Yikes! (You can’t argue with the results, though: here’s a video of him throwing a perfect game.)

Have a great weekend!