Cockfighting, its loyal fans keep fighting to the death
The cockfight was three hours old by the time the Okanogan County sheriff's deputies rolled up to the blue barn. Before the deputies' car...
Seattle Times staff reporter
The cockfight was three hours old by the time the Okanogan County sheriff's deputies rolled up to the blue barn.
Before the deputies' car stopped, the barn doors suddenly flew open. Dozens of people bolted, dashing through drifts of fresh snow. One man was caught fleeing with a bloodied rooster. Another had nearly $1,800 in his pocket, half of which he later said he had won that day.
Inside the barn, near the orchard town of Brewster, was a makeshift fighting pit, scales, razor-sharp cockfighting blades, and, in a trash can, five dead roosters.
For a few moments on Dec. 23, the underground world of cockfighting was in the glare of police lights. It has been outlawed in Washington for a century, yet each year there are at least 100 cockfights around the state, supported by about 1,000 breeders of gamecocks, according to cockfighters and police estimates.
The blood sport survives despite some of the stiffest penalties in the country. In 2005, animal-rights activists persuaded lawmakers to make it a felony to raise fighting cocks. Last year, watching a cockfight became a felony.
Those laws, however, are only sporadically enforced. Until the December bust, when four people caught near Brewster pleaded guilty, just one person — an 18-year-old in Pasco — had been convicted under the new felony laws. The four in Brewster were sentenced to about a month in jail, but remain in detention pending immigration hearings and possible deportation to Mexico.
The cockfighting circuit is thriving the most in rural Washington and among immigrant groups from countries — including Mexico and the Philippines — where cockfighting is legal. But gamecock pens have been found in suburban Mountlake Terrace, and the sport's most outspoken proponent is a former state legislator, Jack Cairnes of Kent.
Cairnes said the new laws, however vigorous the enforcement, have scared the insular cockfighting circuit further into secrecy. He said he was scared enough by "the animal-rights wackos" to move to New Mexico in 2005, one of two states where cockfighting is still legal, so he could continue to raise and fight gamecocks.
"Now that I'm out of office, I'm very outspoken," he said. "I'm tired of being scandalized and criminalized for something that should be neither ...
"Why would any rational sheriff want to go out and arrest someone for going out and owning a chicken, with all the other things going on in the country?"
Ray Wakeman, a cockfighting expert with the Washington State Gambling Commission, said he used to drive through rural areas and see roosters, their wattles and spurs trimmed, tethered in huts to foment the birds' natural aggression.
Now, cockfighters are less visible, but no less active, he said. "It happens a lot more that people realize, and it happens in places that people would never guess."
Boxing — to the death
Cockfighting is one of the world's oldest sports, first mentioned in 4th-century Greek texts, according to "The Chicken Book," a comprehensive history. George Washington, cockfighters like to note, was one of them.
The state Legislature banned cockfighting in 1901 as part of Washington's first animal-cruelty laws, but police found cockfighting pits — complete with bleachers and concession stands — in South King County well into the 1960s. The state chapter of the Game Fowl Breeders' Association, which advocates for gamecock breeders, remains an active nonprofit, listing Cairnes' brother, Andy, as president.
Cockfights are bloody and usually short, said Eric Sakach, a U.S. Humane Society investigator who for a decade worked undercover in cockfighting circuits. Roosters are fitted with razor-sharp knives or hooks called gaffs; matches sometimes end with a rooster beheaded or flayed open.
Breeders see their birds as little boxers, and the matches as tests of training and bloodlines.
"They are there to see an animal maimed or killed, like a gladiator fight," Sakach said.
And the money can be very good, he said: The total purse at one cockfight, busted in Oregon in 1989, was $90,000. Offspring of "champion" roosters are advertised on the Internet for $500 or more, for shipment to cockfighting-friendly countries.
"There is a psychological aspect, that cockfighters feel like they are getting away with something," Sakach said. "But when you consider the risk, the chance of being busted is not that high. There are easily hundreds of cockfights [in Washington] each year, but how many do you read about getting busted?"
Cockfighting's best shot at legitimacy in Washington came in the early 1980s, when Jack Ham, a Stanwood cattle farmer, appealed his cockfighting conviction to the state Supreme Court. His attorneys argued that hunting and fishing were just as cruel as cockfighting.
Ham lost the case, and said he gave up cockfighting, but claims he could be at a fight within a few days.
"We're just letting birds do what they want to do — fight each other," said Ham, 78. "Is it illegal for two bears to fight in the woods?"
In 2005, animal-control officers in Kitsap County, one of the reported hotspots for cockfighting in the Puget Sound area, hoped to get a search warrant to bust an active cockfighting ring at a farm near Belfair.
But other law-enforcement agencies, including the state gambling commission, balked when it came time to get a search warrant, said Rance McEntyre, the animal-control supervisor. Instead, his officers simply arrived in uniform, and watched as about 50 alleged cockfighters scattered.
Police and animal-control officers from other counties report similar problems, even though drugs and guns are often found at busts. Most investigations focus on breeders, who can be charged if they intend to fight their birds.
"The difficulty I see is getting prosecutors and public to support and realize that it's an important law," said Will Reichardt, deputy chief of the Skagit County Sheriff's Office, which has active cockfighting investigations. "Birds and animals are getting abused here, but it's just not being prosecuted as aggressively as it should be."
The state Gambling Commission has investigated just a handful of cockfighting cases since 2003, including a restaurant owner in Bellingham. No arrests came in that case or the others recently investigated. Wakeman, the gambling investigator, said cockfighting has slipped as a priority of the agency since the 1990s.
"Cockfighting investigations are more intensive than dope investigations," he said. "With dope, you can go out on the street with cash and make a bust. With cockfighting, they all went to the same high school, all work at the same mill, and they scrutinize the outsiders."
Mark Steinway, co-founder of Pasado's Safe Haven, an animal sanctuary near Sultan, Snohomish County, has another theory: "It's hard for law enforcement to get excited over these cases. They see it as a victimless crime, because they don't see the birds as victims."
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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