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CIEGO DE AVILA (Reuters) - Cuban farmer Pascual Ferrel says his favorite fighting cock's prowess was "off the charts," so after it died of illness he had the black and red rooster preserved and displays it on his mantelpiece beside a television.
"He fought six times and was invincible," the 64-year old recalled fondly, talking over the crowing of 60 birds in his farmyard in the central Cuban region of Ciego de Avila.
Though it is banned in many parts of the world, cockfighting is favored throughout the Caribbean and in Cuba its popularity is growing.
Last year, Ciego de Avila opened its first official cockfighting arena with 1,000 seats, the largest in Cuba, to the dismay of animal rights activists who see it as a step backward.
Cockfighting is a blood sport because of the harm cocks do to each other in cockpits, exacerbated by metal spurs that can be attached to birds' own spurs.
After the 1959 revolution, Cuba cracked down on cockfighting as part of a ban on gambling, recalls Ferrel.
Over the years that stance has softened. Official arenas have opened and hidden arenas are tolerated as long as there are no brawls.
"'People say: if the government is allowed to hold cockfights, why can't we?" says Nora Garcia Perez, head of Cuban animal welfare association Aniplant.
Enthusiasts argue that cockfighting is a centuries-old tradition. Critics say it is cruel, and they blame its popularity on lack of entertainment options, poor education on animal welfare, and its money-making potential.
In Ciego de Avila, there is a different clandestine arena for every day of the week, some hidden among marabu brush or in sugarcane fields, down dirt tracks with no signs.
People carrying cockerels in slings or under their arms travel to these venues by horse-drawn carriage, bicycle or in candy-colored vintage American cars.
Arenas made of wood and palm fronds operate like fairgrounds. Ranchera music blasts from loudspeakers, roasted pork and rum are sold and tables are set up with dice and card games.
"You'll see how fun this is," says Yaidelin Rodriguez, 32, a regular with her husband, writing in a notebook bets she has placed on her cock.
Gambling is outlawed in Cuba but wads of cash exchange hands at most arenas. Enthusiasts wear baseball caps that read "Cocks win me money, women take it away."
In the Ciego de Avila official arena, foreigners pay up to $60 for a front row seat. At concealed arenas, mainly a local affair, seats are $2 to $8, a princely sum in a country where the average monthly state salary is $25.
"We can earn about $600 a day from entrance fees and the sale of seats," says Reinol, who declined to give his full name.
He splits that sum with his business partner and still earns more from it than from his regular job as a butcher.
Cuba also exports cockerels, breeders say, adding that cocks with proven fighting prowess could sell for up to $1000.
At a secluded arena near Ciego de Avila one recent afternoon, cigar-smoking, rum-swigging owners guarded their birds to make sure no one hurt or poisoned them before the fight.
"Come on," "Go for it," onlookers screeched once it began, the cocks flying at one another in rage.
"You have to train the cocks like they are boxers, so they are prepared," says Basilio Gonzalesm adding they must also be groomed, scarlet legs sheared and feathers clipped.
Some, like cockfighting enthusiast Jorge Guerra, dream of making more money in countries where betting is legal.
"I'd like to go somewhere with big competitions and bets like Puerto Rico," the farmer said. "I'd like to show someone how much money I could make for them breeding cocks."
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Editing by Christian Plumb and; Toni Reinhold