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Authorities Bust 7,000-Bird Cockfighting Operation In Canyon North Of LA

In what authorities call the largest raid against illegal cockfighting in United States history, 7,000 birds were seized in Val Verde, Calif., on Monday.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department
In what authorities call the largest raid against illegal cockfighting in United States history, 7,000 birds were seized in Val Verde, Calif., on Monday.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department announced on Tuesday that it had confiscated 7,000 birds in the largest-ever seizure of fowl used for illegal cockfighting.

Capt. Jeff Perry described a raid that sounded like a scene from a movie — 100 personnel from the sheriff's office, along with animal control, served a search warrant on an 80-acre property in unincorporated northern Los Angeles County. Officers on horseback patrolled the canyon as suspects ran into the hills.

Perry said approximately 10 people were detained. "Most of the detainees were more the lower level, the caretakers, the people that were entrusted with the feeding and caring for the animals at the scene," he said. "We have identified the property owner and he is the primary suspect in the case. The investigation is ongoing and we anticipate making several arrests."

In addition to the birds, officers recovered a range of evidence indicative of illegal cockfighting: several mobile fighting rings, hundreds of gaffs (razor hook implements that attach to roosters' claws), syringes and steroids. They also found several dead roosters with wounds "consistent with cockfighting," said Perry.

Video of the raid screened during the press conference shows a large, remote area with countless roosters and many dogs. Roosters are hitched individually to blue barrels; their crows ring out across the canyon. Law enforcement officers open fridges that appear to be full of medication. A bag is shown to contain a number of dead roosters.

Unfortunately, the thousands of seized birds will not be adopted; instead, they will be killed humanely.

"There is no sanctuary for fighting birds," Don Barré, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control, told the Santa Clarita Valley Signal. "This is because they are very aggressive and cannot be housed with any other chickens. Even the hens would attack other hens. These are not pets."

The Signal reported that 50 guard dogs were also seized.

Eric Sakach, senior law enforcement specialist with Humane Society of the U.S., said that that site raided on Monday had also been raided in 2007, when approximately 2,700 birds were seized.

"It appears that shortly after that initial one was shut down, they started back up and it's grown even bigger," he said. While it has pits for fighting, he said the site looked to be primarily used for breeding and selling the birds, a business that Sakach called "extremely lucrative."

At the low end, he said, a single game cock will sell for $75 to $100. More often, birds will sell for $250 to $1000; high-end birds from a cockfighters with a reputation for winning will fetch well into four figures. And these sales are often far-flung. "Those are federal felonies," he said, "to move any animal in interstate or foreign commerce for fighting purposes."

Assessing the scale of the operation that was raided, Sakach estimated that in the period of a year, "with birds that would be sold out of there, you'd be looking at millions of dollars."

While the LA County Sheriff's Office and Animal Care and Control emphasized the illegality of cockfighting and dogfighting, Sakach explained why animal blood sports are so enduring and so hard for authorities to eliminate.

"This is an extremely bloodthirsty type of activity; it dates back thousands of years," he said. "It's not unique to any particular culture, contrary to public belief."

"The problem here is that statistically, cockfighting is among the safer crimes that people can commit," he said. "You know, raids are rare. ... and these guys are gamblers. They bank on the idea that they're not going to get caught." And, he added, there's a lot of opportunity for money to be made tax-free.

"Most of the money that's made is pillow money or mattress money, so it's a very difficult kind of crime to go after," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.