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.
“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, which 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 New Times 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.
The owner is still feeding the birds because he’s required to do so under the penal code until the case is adjudicated. The sheriff’s department documents all of the birds, but keeps them at the crime scene due to financial reasons.
“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.”
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 sewed up—are usually put out of their misery sooner.
While it might seem like the Mesa is the Central Coast’s premiere 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.
Rural areas are more hospitable to cockfighting operations because
they’re removed from the eyes of law enforcement and nosy neighbors.
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.
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 one Sunday 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 to be a lot more that that, with people coming to watch the 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,” he 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.
Cockfighting operations come in all shapes and sizes. According to
Davidson, they can be as small as one guy working out of his backyard to a group of established breeders with more than 1,000 birds in a training facility.
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.
The drugs make the roosters, which are already territorial by nature, extremely aggressive.
The birds’ back claws—or spurs—are eventually 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 spur; a knife or gaff is attached to the mounting block, and then tied to the leg with wax string.
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 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. To give some scope of the cockfighting industry and the money it produces, Sacach explained that a betting pot usually starts at about $10,000 to $15,000. There are hundreds of raids each year, he said, “and that’s just scratching the surface.”
The birds are then weighed and paired with fighting partners by a matchmaker. 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.
Sometimes if a bird fights well but ends 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.
When it comes to investigating cockfights, the process is pretty straightforward; it’s when defendants go to court that things start getting 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.
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.
The changes are considered too drastic for some people. Santa Maria resident Jose* saw tons of cockfights as a kid growing up in Mexico. He described the fights as social events where people of all different ages got together to watch the roosters spar.
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.
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.”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.”
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.
Sacach 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.” ∆
*Not his real name
Santa Maria Sun Managing Editor Amy Asman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.