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Blood Sport

Cockfighting in Texas has been illegal for decades, but a lengthy Humane Society investigation uncovered more than a dozen active rings throughout the state. What's not illegal is raising fighting game cocks, attending a cockfight or possessing paraphernalia related to cock fights — such as gaffs, the razor blades owners strap to the birds' legs to make them even more lethal. Animal rights activists came close in the last legislative session to getting such activities criminalized, which they say is critical to putting an end to cockfighting. They plan to try again next year.

A rooster that was euthanized because it was severely injured during a forced fight at a southeast Dallas cockfighting ring that police busted Oct. 18.

One by one, Domanick Muñoz pulled bloody and battered bodies out of a pile of feathers, claws and beaks. Roosters that were still gasping for life he put out of their misery, plunging a syringe of drugs into their gouged and lacerated bellies. Those that were already dead animal cruelty officers with Dallas Animal Services gingerly placed into large, black plastic garbage bags.

Nearby, Dallas Police Sgt. Alfred Nuñez surveyed abandoned cars, empty beer bottles, boxes of razor blades, syringes, liquor bottles, marijuana and dozens of cages and makeshift coops with roosters inside. “This is one huge mess,” Nuñez said over the cacophony of crowing birds.

Minutes before, the Dallas police had busted a cockfighting ring in this working-class neighborhood in southeast Dallas. The fight organizers and dozens of spectators quickly scattered into the surrounding woods, leaving behind plenty of evidence. Dozens of birds were dead or dying. Others were juiced up on drugs, ready to fight to the death inside a dirt-floored pit for onlookers wagering which bird would kill the other first. Also left behind: a list of bettors and the box of money collected for admission.

It is not the biggest cockfighting ring these Dallas law enforcement officers have seen — Muñoz said this was a “medium-sized” ring compared to others he had been to. And it is far from the biggest one in Texas, where the blood sport thrives despite the fact it has been illegal for decades. After a year-and-half-long investigation, the Humane Society of the United States says it has uncovered nearly two dozen active cockfighting rings throughout the state. And that is probably just a fraction of the real total, said John Goodwin, manager of animal fighting issues at the Humane Society. “It’s certainly heartbreaking to see all these birds just completely injured and suffering greatly,” he said. “The fact is it’s just extremely cruel.”

While it is a felony in Texas to make roosters fight, it is not illegal to raise fighting game cocks, to attend a cockfight or to possess paraphernalia such as the razor blades, called gaffs, that owners strap to the birds’ legs to enhance their fighting prowess. The Humane Society says these loopholes in the law make it even more difficult to crack down on cockfighting. In 2009, a bill that would have criminalized such activity made it through both the Texas House and Senate. It was scuttled, though, in a last-minute parliamentary move by then-state Rep. Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, who resigned after pleading guilty this year to charges stemming from an unrelated federal public corruption investigation. Hodge said in public hearings she had concerns about how the bill was written. With Hodge out of the picture, animal rights activists are hopeful they will be able to pass similar legislation in the upcoming session.

Opponents of these efforts say cockfighting opponents go too far and that some of the measures would also affect those who raise roosters as show birds. It is impossible to know the difference between a show bird and a fighting bird, said longtime chicken farmer Richard Barnes of Weimar in Central Texas. “I mean a chicken’s a chicken,” he said. Besides, humans have been pitting roosters against one another for centuries, and passing new laws won’t make them stop. “I don’t care if it’s a show chicken, a laying chicken or any other kind of chicken: cocks will fight each other,” he said.

Making chickens fight has long been a lucrative and popular sport. It’s illegal in all 50 states and a felony in 39 states. The last state to ban cockfighting was Louisiana in 2007. Despite the fact that cockfighting could mean six months to two years in jail and up to $10,000 in fines for first and second offenses (a third offense could mean up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine), animal rights activists say the brutal games take place nearly every weekend during the cockfighting season in out-of-the-way spots all across Texas. The Humane Society’s undercover informants found cockfighting pits near Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and in rural East Texas. Their investigation found drugs, prostitution, gambling, hundreds of trained roosters strutting around with deadly gaffs attached to their legs — even parents who attended the fights with their children.

A Humane Society informant who asked not to be identified because he continues to work undercover discovered an ongoing cockfighting ring in Angelina County just outside of Lufkin in East Texas. This one, he said, is invitation-only. And it happens on a property right next door to a local sheriff’s department employee. The Humane Society provided The Texas Tribune with undercover video shot at two separate fights at the ring. The fight organizer can be heard telling the spectators that they need to keep quiet about the location. “Don’t nobody tell nobody else about this place,” he says before informing them that the next fight will happen on Jan. 16 and the entrance fee will be $200 for three gamecocks. The video then shows two men each dropping a rooster into the dirt-floored ring. Red and black feathers flare on the birds’ necks as they fly toward one another, violently grappling. One of the bird handlers yells, “Kill him! Kill him!” Soon, one bird collapses to the ground, flails up once more and then flops over.

At this cockfighting ring, the informant said, the handlers attach thin needles to the birds’ legs that allow them to fight longer and bleed to death more slowly. Some fights last an hour. The video ends with footage of rooster carcasses piled in a truck bed.

In many cases, the Humane Society works with local law enforcement to shutdown cockfighting operations. Footage from one of their informants led to the raid in southeast Dallas last week. Four Humane Society staffers joined police and animal cruelty officers as they converged on the wooded site where a ramshackle brick structure with a dirt floor served as a pit for the fights. Muñoz, a senior Dallas animal cruelty officer, found about 100 birds, including 30 that were dead or hurt. The bust netted just a handful of arrests that day, none of them the fight organizers. Nuñez, the lead officer on the scene, said the bust likely would not stop the operation. “They might move from this location maybe,” he said.

In January, with help from the Humane Society, Parker County authorities nabbed more than 100 people during a cockfight bust. The huge raid made local headlines, but nearly a year later, Parker County prosecutors have only been able to charge most of those arrested with misdemeanor gambling offenses, said Jeff Swain, the county’s assistant district attorney. “As the law stands right now, there is not an offense for being a spectator at a cockfight,” he said. “In our case, all that we could show for nearly all of the people arrested was that they were watching the fights or gambling on them.”

Goodwin, of the Humane Society, said the punishment for being involved in cockfighting in any way needs to outweigh the hundreds or even thousands of dollars people can make from participating in it. “This crime is primarily about financial gain,” he said.

But new legislation won’t change the fact that cockfighting remains a deeply ingrained pastime in many areas of Texas. Barnes, the chicken breeder in Weimar, said there’s a lot more to raising roosters than most people, and especially the Humane Society, recognize. “I keep them fed good, watered good, and I got about four or five dogs in there with them that keeps the varmints out,” he said. Barnes said he’s no outlaw or dope dealer but that he’s been to his share of cockfights, and that they’re not the nests of illegal activity that others describe. “It’s a lot of people who have money into cockfighting,” he said. Although he said he doesn’t raise fighting birds — they’re mostly for shows and chicken dumplings — Barnes said making breeding gamecocks illegal won’t stop the clandestine events.  

“I don’t see how they’re going to enforce it,” he said. And besides, he said, cockfighting isn’t as brutal as some of the industrial killing processes big food corporations use. At least in the ring, he said, the roosters can defend themselves. “They have a 50-50 chance,” he said. “And they’ve been bred thousands of years to fight all over the world.”

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