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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on April 30th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 8 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 8

Feathers and knives

Faced with the increasing popularity of cockfighting, authorities pressure lawmakers to make the blood sport a felony


Gleaming steel knives sit in a red velvet-lined box. The curved three-inch blades are menacing, despite their size. At first glimpse, it’s difficult to tell what purpose they serve: They’re too sharp to be part of a Freddy Kruger-inspired costume, and too thin for woodworking. When paired with a coping saw, the strange daggers look like part of a field surgery kit from the 1800s.

After fights, owners often dispose of dead birds by tossing them in the trash, burying them, or burning them. These photos were taken last year at an investigation in rural Morro Bay. The bloody claw with the remnants of a mounting block wrapped around it proves the bird was used for fighting.

“These are the long knives. We found them in a guy’s bedroom during that operation on Grace Lane back in 2010,” explained SLO County Deputy Sheriff Darren Davidson.

The operation he’s talking about isn’t of the medical kind, though the tools fit the bill. On May 4, 2010, Davidson and his colleagues in the sheriff’s rural crime unit served a search warrant on a suspected cockfighting operation at a farm on Grace Lane in Nipomo. They ended up arresting three men and seizing 600 birds, along with a collection of cockfighting paraphernalia, including knives, saws, veterinary drugs, and more. Knives and other sharp implements are attached to the roosters’ legs to make the fighting more deadly and therefore more high-stakes for betting purposes.

The action on Grace Lane was just one in a string of cockfighting busts that have played out over the past several years in the Nipomo-Arroyo Grande area, commonly referred to as the Mesa. Last month, sheriff’s deputies and animal control officers served a search warrant about a mile away from the 2010 bust at a rural property on Orchard Road. Authorities netted 233 birds and various paraphernalia, but the birds’ owners were nowhere to be found.

Davidson recently told the Sun that a Santa Maria resident has stepped forward to claim ownership of the birds. Deputies found the man’s phone number and were attempting to contact him through a Spanish-language interpreter as of press time.

“We’ll find this guy. He’s still feeding the birds so we’ll either catch him when he goes [to the property] to feed them or we’ll get an address for him,” Davidson said, explaining that the seizure process for roosters is a little unusual.

“Under the penal code, the sheriff documents each bird by photographing it and putting a band on its leg. And then it’s ‘held in place’ [at the crime scene], which is the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard in my life,” he said.

When a bird is “held in place,” authorities post signs at the crime scene informing potential lawbreakers that the birds now belong to the court and can’t be removed from the property. However, the birds’ owners are still responsible for feeding and caring for them until the case is adjudicated.

“And these law-abiding citizens are supposed to follow that law,” Davidson said. “But a lot of the birds end up going missing. The owners either take them and leave or they sell them.”

So why doesn’t law enforcement remove the birds from the property?

“I think it’s a financial thing; we don’t have a facility to house all the roosters,” Davidson explained.

In almost every case, the birds are too aggressive to be rehabilitated because they’ve been pumped full of hormones and trained to fight, so they’re kept as evidence until the case is prosecuted and then euthanized en mass. The birds found in horrible conditions—half-dead, necrotic, and rudimentarily sewn up—are usually put out of their misery sooner.

“The birds are almost always ordered to be euthanized,” Davidson said. “I had one case where that did not happen; the judge let [the owner] keep them.”

Why is it so popular?

While it might seem like the Mesa is the Central Coast’s premier breeding ground for cockfighting, the crime isn’t unique to that community.

“Cockfights happen all over. They’re kind of clandestine. It’s not just this area—it’s all rural areas of California and other parts of the country as well,” Davidson said.

This is one of the fighting pits from the operation in Morro Bay. Davidson said the defendants in this case were the first people in San Luis Obispo County to be charged increased fines. According to court documents, the ringleader received five years’ felony probation and paid $15,000 in fines.

Rural areas are more hospitable to cockfighting operations because they’re removed from the eyes of law enforcement and nosy neighbors. Plus, rural areas tend to have more farms, and where there are farms, there tend to be roosters.

Another misconception is that cockfighting is a primarily Latino phenomenon.

“Really, it’s not cultural. I think it interests anyone who’s interested in gambling and blood sport,” Davidson said, adding that cockfighting has been around since Roman times.

When the SLO Sheriff’s Department raided a large cockfight tournament on the Mesa in January 2010, he said, there were people of all ethnicities attending.

“There were close to 300 people there; it was madness,” Davidson recalled of the raid. “There were people running in basically all directions, including at us.”

A concerned citizen called police early that morning to let officers know that a line of about 12 cars had materialized in front of a neighbor’s property. Based on the number of cars present, officers estimated they’d find about 50 people on site.

“It turned out people had gone in the night before or possibly very early that morning and they were parked on another side of the property that you couldn’t see,” Davidson said. “There were 30 or more cars parked on the other side.”

He said people came to that fight from as far north as San Jose and as far south as Santa Paula.

“[Cockfighting] has always been around in this area, but nothing like what we’ve seen in the last 10 years,” Davidson said. “I call it Starbucks; it’s popping up on every corner. It seems like there are people raising roosters on every corner.”

The going theory on why cockfighting has become so popular has to do with state laws. The act of pitting birds against each other in a fight to the death is illegal in all 50 states, and it’s a felony in 40 states. California is one of the 10 remaining states in which cockfighting is a misdemeanor.

When legislators in Arizona and New Mexico made cockfighting a felony back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, people with fighting birds started flocking into Southern California and making their way north.

In the pit

Cockfighting operations come in all shapes and sizes. According to Davidson, they can be as small as one guy raising and training a handful of birds in his backyard to a group of established breeders with more than 1,000 birds in a training facility. Birds can cost anywhere from $75 to more than $1,000 each, depending on their lineage.

The cockfighting season begins in mid-fall after the birds are done molting; owners pick their best birds and start the training process by injecting them with a potent concoction of testosterone and vitamins. Sometimes they’re slipped caffeine pills or even amphetamines.

“Anything that will give them a boost,” Davidson said.

The drugs make the roosters, which are already territorial by nature, extremely aggressive. Most of these substances can be bought online or at feed stores and come with fowl-themed names like “Rooster Booster” or “Super Gallo.”

The birds are kept in individual coops that are generally made out of solid wood so they can’t see or attack each other.

“The owners want to keep them calm and quiet,” Davidson said.

SLO Deputy Sheriff Darren Davidson said “it’s about 50/50” what condition they’ll find birds in when the rural crime unit serves a search warrant on a suspected cockfighting operation. Pictured here are the coops from last month’s investigation on Orchard Lane in Nipomo (above) and the coops from a 2012 investigation in Morro Bay (left).

The birds’ back claws—or spurs—are partially cut off with a saw to make it easier to attach the fighting implement. A “mounting block” made out of rawhide or some other sturdy material is slipped over the remaining spur; a knife or gaff is attached to the mounting block, and then tied to the leg with wax string. The whole process is called “heeling.”

Owners get the birds into prime fighting condition by making them walk repeatedly up inclines or on treadmills. They’ll often flip the birds up into the air to get them used to falling down and flapping their wings.

When a cockfighting derby comes up, owners pick out four or five of their top birds and enter them in the competition by paying a pre-determined fee, which is put into a pot.

Eric Sacach is a senior law enforcement specialist with the U.S. Humane Society who works with anti-crime agencies to stop animal fighting.

Early in his career as an animal cruelty investigator, Sacach went undercover to cockfighting derbies across the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest. He’s now considered one of the foremost experts on cockfighting in the country and is involved in efforts to enact more stringent legislation against the sport.

“The amount of money that changes hands [in cockfighting] is phenomenal, and of course it’s all untaxed and under the table,” Sacach said. “Say there are 30 entrants and each of them pays $500; right away, that’s a $15,000 purse, without any betting.”

To give some scope of the cockfighting industry and the money it produces, Sacach explained that there are hundreds of raids each year, “and that’s just scratching the surface.”

The birds are weighed and paired with fighting partners by a matchmaker, whose main job is to make sure two birds with the same owner don’t fight each other.

Depending on the kind of fight, the birds are outfitted with short knives, long knives, or gaffs. Popular in the United States and Mexico, short knives are typically an inch or two long; long knives, which tend to be popular in the Philippines, are two to three inches long.

Gaffs are metal rods that are sharpened on the end, and they’re typically 2 1/2 inches long.

“The slasher fights usually have a 10- to 15-minute time limit because by that time one of the birds is mortally wounded. The gaff fights go as long as one bird is capable of attacking the other,” Sacach said.

Derbies tend to have one main pit for larger fights and several smaller pits for non-headliners. Prior to a match, the roosters’ owners check in with the referee, who has them “bill” or “flirt” the birds in the center of the ring by swinging them in their arms and holding them bill to bill. The birds are then released on the score line to fight, or sometimes they’re tossed up into the air and the fight starts as they fall to the ground. The referee and a scorekeeper judge the battle, which is stopped only if the birds fail to engage each other or if one of them gets “hung.”

“That’s when one of the bird’s implements gets stuck in the other bird’s bone or jammed in so tightly they can’t get it out,” Sacach said. “Or it gets stuck in the wall or in the dirt.”

At the end of the night, the person with the bird that won the most fights takes the pot. Spectators also place odds on favorite birds.

“The odds change as the fight goes on,” Sacach said. “Someone walks around placing wagers for the house; their hands are full of cash and they’re very good at remembering who they make bets with.”

Sometimes the house—the fight promoter or person who owns the property where the fight is staged—will have a lottery. The spectators buy tickets, and the person with the ticket that matches the winning bird gets the pot. Of course, the house gets a cut, too.

Evidence seized from a 2010 investigation on Grace Lane in Nipomo included long knives, veterinary drugs, saws, wax string, and more.

The roosters that lose their fights, and most likely their lives, are tossed in trashcans, buried in mass graves, or placed in large metal barrels and set on fire.

“The contempt that losers are viewed with—and it’s the same for dogs—leads people to do things that are especially heinous,” Sacach said.

He said law enforcement often finds birds that are still alive mixed in with the carcasses. In those cases, the owners are automatically charged with a felony because it falls under animal cruelty statutes.

“They don’t even bother to wring their necks or put them out of their misery. It takes an especially callous person to do something like that,” Sacach said.

Sometimes if the bird fought well but ended up losing, the owner will try to keep it alive for breeding.

“They’ll sew them up—not for the love of the bird, but because they want to squeeze every last dollar out of it,” Sacach said.

Misdemeanor versus felony

When it comes to investigating cockfights, the process is pretty straightforward; it’s when defendants go to court that things start
to get complicated.

Prior to 2012, people convicted of fighting birds in California could pay a fine of up to $5,000 and serve a probation sentence of up to one year. People convicted of attending a fight or owning birds or paraphernalia could be fined anywhere from $500 to $1,000 and six months to a year of probation.

According to Davidson and Sacach, the sentences in California were all over the board and often depended on the court or prosecutor’s attitude toward cockfighting.

In the summer of 2012, Davidson and a handful of other law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and animal advocates testified before the state Senate in an effort to make cockfighting a felony. The Legislature ultimately failed to do so, citing policies that ban lawmakers from creating statutes that would increase the state’s already-maxed-out prison population. However, they did vote to raise the fines for fighting roosters from $5,000 to $10,000 and spectator fines from $1,000 to $5,000. The probation terms were increased as well.

“I was happy that they did something. It wasn’t the results that I was really looking for, but I was happy that they did something,” Davidson said. “Prior to that, the fines that we saw coming out of these cases were miniscule. You could run a stop sign and get a bigger fine. I’m not kidding.”

By comparison, dog fighting was made a felony in 1975. Davidson credits the discrepancy to prison overcrowding and the relationship humans have with dogs.

“Dogs are man’s best friend,” he said. “People look at roosters and say, ‘They’re just chickens.’”

But people like Davidson and Sacach argue that the only difference between cockfighting and dog fighting is the species.

“It doesn’t matter what you’re fighting—pigeons or whatever—it’s organized crime,” Davidson said.

In addition to the illegal gambling and animal cruelty that occurs at fights, authorities say there tends to be a lot of drugs, violence, and prostitution. Davidson said one of his cockfighting informants told him people can get any drug they want at a fight, especially if it’s a big promotional one.

The Sun reached out to several people who have either raised birds or attended derbies to get their perspective on cockfighting.

Santa Maria resident Jose* saw tons of cockfights as a kid growing up in Mexico.

“It was very popular in Mexico. It’s like Friday night at the Elks, except it’s Friday night at Don Pepe’s backyard. That’s the way it was,” Jose told the Sun in a recent interview. “On a slow night, there were about 150 people. On a busy night there were about 500.”

He described the fights as social events where people of all ages got together to watch the roosters face-off.

“Everybody’d be betting and betting. They’d mostly bet amongst themselves, on favorite birds,” he said.

When his family moved to the United States, the tradition of cockfighting came with them.

“My uncle had about 20 roosters on his ranch, and he’d take some out to fight,” Jose said, adding that he and his children would sometimes watch the birds spar with little boxing gloves covering their natural spurs.

“They got a kick out of that,” he said.

But his uncle saw the violent side of cockfighting, too.

“About four years ago, somebody got shot in front of him at a cockfight. Things went wrong … there was a big dispute and somebody got shot and killed in front of him. So he gave it up for a good two years,” Jose said.

Despite the potential danger, Jose said, cockfighting is just a way of life—“a way to make a dollar”—to a lot of people, and they don’t understand why it’s illegal in this country.

“They don’t realize what the outcome is going to be—all the fines—until it happens to them,” he said. “And to other people, it’s just a gambling addiction.”

While Jose went to some fights, he never wanted to raise his own roosters.

He said the way the birds are treated bothers him “because they’re still birds; they’re not man’s best friend, but they’re still birds.”

But he admitted that the fights are “pretty exciting.”

“They get your adrenaline going,” he said. “You look at yourself and think how can two roosters make you so excited? But they do. It’s the whole underdog thing.”

For people like Davidson and Sacach, it’s more black and white: “[Cockfights are] a melting pot of crime,” Sacach said. “But we are starting to see changes.”

He said the bill that increased the fines and probation time for the crime, SB 1145, “sent a message that the state isn’t going to be very forgiving when it comes to cockfighting.”

* This source’s name has been changed.

Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at Staff writers Kristina Sewell and Matt Fountain contributed to this story.

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