A Crackdown on Cockfighting

They fight in octagonal or circular pits, with knives or gaffs strapped to their back legs in place of the sawed-off spurs with which roosters naturally do battle. They start on lines drawn in the dirt, eight feet apart. They're bred for aggression and fed steroids and stimulants to make them more hostile. Feathers fly, and one bird winds up dead.

Cockfighting, also known as "cocking," is a bloodsport that dates to colonial times in the United States and has offered gamblers a venue for betting around the world. But a string of federal arrests in Washington and Oregon last week should serve as notice to the organizers of rooster "derbies" across this country, authorities say. Armed with a law passed by Congress in 2006 that bans the interstate transport of "gamefowl" for cockfighting, federal agents raided 28 homes and barns from southern Oregon to Puget Sound on March 15, finding more than 700 roosters in one Oregon county, $100,000 in cash, 50 guns, 2.5 pounds of methamphetamine, 1.5 pounds of cocaine, 6 pounds of marijuana and 48 marijuana plants. The agents arrested 51 people accused of sponsoring or participating in the brutal sport, and are looking for 12 more suspects. The arrests culminate a two-year investigation dubbed "Operation Red Rooster" in Oregon and "Operation Tattered Wing" in Washington that involved hundreds of law enforcement officers and other officials.

Headed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of the Inspector General, the work was that agency's third major investigation of animal fighting in the past two years, the second prosecution in the nation after last year's passage of the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act, signed into law May 3, 2007.

"Animal fighting can certainly develop into a large criminal enterprise," says James Mendenhall, who headed the Agriculture investigation. "The OIG will continue to pursue substantive allegations of animal fighting."

The arrests came just a year after Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick's dogfighting charges, which heightened the public's awareness of animal fighting, giving lawmakers the necessary urgency to get a bill passed and authorities the teeth to make criminal charges a worthy pursuit.

Animal rights activists rejoiced at the investigation, which they see as a warning to cockers who continue to defy laws that make the sport a felony in 37 states and a misdemeanor in the rest. Dozens of Web sites direct gamefowl enthusiasts to matches. The tagline at http://www.gamerooster.com is "No sport can be higher than the class of people that support it. Do your part to popularize cocking." The site offers gamefowl hatching eggs for as little as $9.99 for a half dozen. Other sites offer links to the "truth" about animal rights activists and a virulent defense of the sport, including claims that the birds enjoy fighting and that the tradition is steeped in history.

In Louisiana, the last state to officially ban the sport in 2007, only one lawmaker voted against the bill that would make the practice illegal: Rep. Elbert Lee Guillory, a Democrat from Opelousas. Guillory stands by his protest vote.

"The cockfighting industry in St. Landry County is a $12 million industry, in a place where there are very few industries and it's very difficult for people to make a living here," Guillory says. "We eat billions of chickens every day. What we're talking about is putting the interest of chickens over the interests of people."

Guillory says he knows of 600 local families affected by the loss of the industry, working in feed stores, raising roosters and preparing them for battle, and veterinarians who treat their injuries. Chickens raised for consumption, on the other hand, live in "hellish conditions, in stench and chemicals," Guillory adds. "If you come out to look at where a fighting chicken is raised, it's a totally different life. It's the difference between being in prison and being free."

Such sentiments are losing ground nationally, however, especially as the public better understands the carnage involved in cocking. Sometimes the knives on the back of a cock's legs get stuck in the bird's opponent, requiring the referees to call for the handlers to pull the roosters apart, says John Goodwin, manager of animal fighting issues at the Humane Society of the United States. That doesn't necessarily mean the melee is over, however. A cockfight ends only when one bird stops trying or dies.

Circulation at the three magazines that cater to cockers is dropping, thanks to increasingly tough regulations and a growing awareness of the sport's links to drugs, gambling and the spread of avian diseases, Goodwin says. Grit and Steel magazine offered new subscribers a chance of winning a free fighting rooster last month in a contest to stave off declining readership.

"In 2003 in the Southwest there was an outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease that spread throughout the region by the movement of fighting roosters," Goodwin says. "You've got several hundred roosters spraying blood on each other. Half die; half live. If one of them goes into a cockfighting pit carrying the virus, another is going back to the farms alive."

Cockfighting was largely unnoticed until the late 1990s, Goodwin says, when his organization and others started working to pass state-by-state legislation to ban the sport. It was legal in five states then and a felony offense in 17.

Cocking remains prevalent in the mostly Southern states that punish it as a misdemeanor, Goodwin says, estimating that 20,000 to 30,000 people still participate in the sport nationwide.

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon sponsored the House version of the act, frustrated that prosecutors were unwilling to pay attention to a crime punishable only as a misdemeanor.

"In the Northwest they're finding piles of cash, pounds of drugs, evidence of illegal gambling and gang activity, but it was something they wouldn't touch," Blumenauer tells NEWSWEEK. "There's an amazing number of people in denial, people willing to apologize for and protect this shadow enterprise."

Blumenauer credits the Vick case with drawing attention to animal fighting, along with growing concerns about avian flu and other communicable diseases.

"You're transporting these chickens all over the country, exposing them to potential infection," Blumenauer says. "The likelihood of infecting the poultry supply skyrockets."

The defendants in the Northwest face up to 18 years in prison and $1 million in fines, plus the forfeiture of any property involved in cockfighting. Those also indicted on drug charges could face life in prison. Blumenauer and others say they hope authorities' renewed interest in busting cockers will be sustained, and that participants in the practice will be discouraged from keeping up the habit, now that the chickens have come home to roost.