County agencies continue investigation following illegal cockfighting bust
Sixty-one caged gamecocks, 26 vehicles, and some boxes of beer and doughnuts. That’s all that remained at a cockfighting venue in rural Watsonville after 60 to 80 suspects fled as authorities approached on the morning of Sunday, July 14.
Guided by an anonymous tip, Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s deputies and animal control officers traversed wide strawberry fields and walked a narrow, streamside path, arriving at the match just 20 minutes before participants were going to pit their gamecocks against one another in a fight to the death.
At the center of the gathering was a fighting ring constructed out of plywood, says Todd Stosuy, the field services manager for Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter, which is leading the investigation. Alongside it was a betting table.
No arrests were made but officers recorded all of the license plates on the vehicles and traced them back to their registered owners, many of whom came from other counties, including Monterey, Ventura, Fresno, San Jose, and one in Arizona state. A few were traced back to Santa Cruz County.
Animal control officers will follow up by contacting law enforcement agencies from the suspects’ respective communities, Stosuy says.
“The goal is to see if we can place people at the cockfight, show that they were there with criminal intentions, and if we can prove that, we’ll definitely file charges,” Stosuy says.
According to Sheriff’s Deputy April Skalland, cockfighting may have been going on at the location of the bust for a considerable amount of time.
Stosuy says authorities believe cockfighting happens fairly often in Santa Cruz County, though most of it occurs in the unincorporated parts of Watsonville.
Authorities more commonly catch people who are breeding roosters for cockfighting, he says. In the past 10 years, he estimates there have been about 10 felony convictions for cockfighting-related violations and many more investigations.
Cockfighting is illegal in all U.S. states, but California is one of the only states where the first-time offense is only a misdemeanor.
While the goal of the laws against cockfighting are to prevent animal cruelty, the activity—which local historian Sandy Lydon calls one of the oldest spectator sports in history—has deep roots in some immigrant groups’ history and culture.
“Cockfighting, bull, and bear fights are all part of our California history,” Lydon says.
Cockfighting, traditionally, was extremely important to the early Asian immigrants in California, primarily the young Filipino men who came over in the 1930s to work on farms. Cockfighting was their means of recreation after long grueling workdays for minimal pay, and it was a legal part of their culture back in the Philippines.
“What gambling offered to the early immigrants was hope—a chance to get even and get out,” Lydon says. “That lure is still here in America, if you look at casinos, horse races, all of it. What we have here is an intersection where culture and tradition encounter 21st century sensibilities.”
For some, he says, outlawing it is seen as a form of cultural imperialism—the values of the majority being imposed on immigrant minorities.
When officers arrived, most of the roosters were still in their cages. This was lucky because the birds were in a several-week conditioning process leading up to the event that makes them extremely aggressive. Several had to be corralled by officers and placed in cages, but no one was hurt, Skalland says.
Stosuy says it appears that around 15 to 20 participants brought about four birds each for the fight based on the number of areas for pre-fight prepping.
If the fight had not been interrupted, Stosuy says the owners would have placed their fighting roosters into flight pens, gotten them riled up, and then attached small blades to their feet. The birds would then slash at each other until one was dead.
Cockfighters begin preparing their birds almost a month in advance of a fight, feeding them high-protein diets of tuna and vitamin supplements, sometimes giving them steroids, and “flighting” them, which entails letting them fly up into the air and then pulling them back down by the feet to strengthen them.
“It’s very competitive,” Stosuy says.
These cockfights often have large sums of money involved. The betting pot can get up into the thousands of dollars depending on the size of the fight, Stosuy says.
The price of a fighting bird alone can run from $200 up to four figures if the animal has won multiple fights, says Eric Sakach, a senior law enforcement specialist for The Humane Society of the United States, who has investigated hundreds of cockfights.
Cockfighting season, which correlates with the time roosters are molting, wraps up near the end of July. It drops off for about three months, re-starts around September, and is back in full swing by Thanksgiving time.
Sakach says he is not surprised arrests were not made during the bust, primarily because there were so few deputies—just three—and confronting a crowded cockfighting event can be dangerous.
He says it is common for officers to encounter concealed weapons, narcotics, and sometimes a gang presence because there is so much money involved.
“Experience has taught us that a good number of the characters are involved with other crimes, ranging from gambling, conspiracy, and narcotics,” he says. “Assaults and murders have also been connected.”
Because California lacks a first-time felony law against cockfighting, Sakach says the state is a magnet for the activity.
A second offense for cockfighting charges does constitute a felony, as well as provable bird-mutilation, he says.
On the scene in Watsonville, authorities found several decomposing rooster heads from previous fights, but no freshly killed birds.
Officers did not recover any of the blades used for cockfighting, though, Stusoy says, “It would be about a 99.9 percent chance that they were there and just hadn’t been placed on the birds yet.”
Sakach explains that cockfighting, while having its immediate history in Mexican and Filipino culture, originated in ancient Greece and Rome, dating back 3,500 years.
The first anti-cockfighting law in the United States was imposed in 1836, and most of the other states followed suit. It was only up until the last decade that cockfighting was still legal in a couple of states. Today, it is a first-time felony in 40 states, he says.
The 61 gamecocks, which are currently being held at the County Animal Shelter, have been conditioned to be so violent toward one another that there is no way to re-recondition them and find homes for them on farms, Stosuy says.
The birds will be held for about two weeks and euthanized soon after July 28, according to the shelter.
The birds are all currently confined separately but are wildly trying to attack each other through the cages, Stosuy says.
“They want nothing more than to fight each other,” he says.
Stosuy explains that their means of putting the birds down is much more humane than how they would suffer and die in a fight.
“We inject them using a small needle with Sodium Pentobarbital and they die within two to three seconds—very painless,” he says. “Whereas what was going to happen to them [was that] they would be thrown into the pit and they’d brutalize each other until one is dead. And sometimes the winner is so injured, he can’t be salvaged. At least there’s solace in the fact that they’re not going to suffer.”
Lydon, who has seen cockfighting in Hawaii, says he respects the intention of animal protection agencies to prevent cockfighting, but that it’s important to understand where the practice comes from and what it means, traditionally, to the people who engage in it.
“I am so ambivalent about this because I can see both sides,” Lydon says. “It’s nasty stuff. But on the other hand, it’s part of our cultural and historical landscape. [By criminalizing it], I think there’s collateral damage here.”
To reduce cockfighting, the Humane Society offers up to $5,000 in reward for information leading to arrests and convictions relating to cockfights.