The killer cocks of Oregon

Why does the land o' many Birkenstocks allow fowl to be bred for cockfights?

Published April 18, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

The small, unassuming barn sits just below the horizon from Interstate 5, about 10 miles north of Eugene in Junction City, Ore. Since the beginning of the year, the Lane County vice squad has been snooping around the building. The barn's owner, Hector Santiago, allegedly purchased the barn for tens of thousands of dollars, cash on the barrel. It was suspicious; Santiago had connections with meth producers and drug runners. His lover's brother was reputed to be one of the top meth lords in the Willamette Valley.

At about 7 in the morning in late January, as darkness faded into a winter gray, a dozen officers stormed the barn. They expected to find a web of tubing, beakers and other meth-producing paraphernalia, but what they discovered was far more alarming. Except for a large, square mound of dirt ringed by ropes, the barn was nearly empty. But the cavernous interior of the barn was alive with squawking. Along the walls were nearly 30 metal cages, each stuffed with robust game hens.

"We're a bunch of drug cops," detective Keith Seanor said about his surprising find. "I didn't know exactly what was going on, but it looked suspicious."

About once a year, police in Oregon stumble on the sprawling cockfighting circuits that reach from New Mexico to Washington. Like the drug trade, these networks are well organized and secretive. The popularity of cockfighting in Oregon is unknown, but law enforcement agents estimate the fight circuit will draw around 6,000 spectators during the upcoming spring and summer seasons -- about the same attendance as the recent state high school basketball championships.

Fights are held in arenas complete with concession stands, armed guards and bleachers seating upward of 300. Many take place in barns like the one in Junction City. Just a few years ago a major bust on Deer Island, a few miles north of Portland, uncovered a fight with almost 400 spectators. Currently, law enforcement agents say, they are casing a major breeder who sponsors fights on his several acres of land near Gresham.

As the activity is largely associated with Central America, the popular conception is that cockfighters in the U.S. also are Latino. Most of the breeders, however, are rural, white farmers and most of the cockfighters who have been arrested, at least in the Pacific Northwest, are white, small-town dwellers. There is nothing to suggest that a certain ethnicity or even age group is more apt to breed or fight birds.

Without any vehicles to properly confiscate and transport the roosters found in Santiago's barn -- and with no idea really about what to do with the birds -- the officers left. They had plenty of evidence to support a search warrant for the next morning, though: razors and vials of testosterone as well as videotapes showing roosters being slashed to death. (According to law enforcement agents, the roosters are injected with testosterone to jack them up for their fights.) But when they returned 24 hours later, the birds had mysteriously vanished back into Oregon's secretive and closely guarded world of game fighting.

"It would be a needle in a haystack to find those birds now," Seanor said recently.

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Two birds stand in the middle of a patch of dirt, separated only by a thin piece of plywood. These roosters are elegant animals -- golden brown plumage trimmed with rich black feathers. They both stare at the board, calm, almost indifferent to the encouraging shouts around them. Attached to their twiglike legs are razor-sharp blades hooked like paring knives.

There is a moment of stillness when the board is pulled away and the birds face each other. Then, puffing its chest, one stretches its legs while spreading its wings. In a snap, it looks like the bird has doubled to an intimidating size. The other bird squats low and pulls its body in tight. Then it lunges, beak first, for the exposed chest of its opponent. The fight continues for several minutes until one of the birds is too weak to stand. Pecked, poked and slashed, the loser displays royal feathers matted with blood; it looks as lifeless as a punctured beer can.

It's a felony to fight roosters in Oregon, as it is in 47 other states. But, oddly, it is not illegal to raise game fowl for fighting. Oregon remains one of the few states where farmers can raise and sell game hens and roosters for this purpose.

Animal rights advocates balk at the inconsistency. Like outlawing the use of marijuana but not its production, they say, such uneven enforcement ignores the roots of the problem.

In January, at the start of the latest legislative session in Salem, freshman Sen. Ryan Deckert, D-Beaverton, introduced S.B. 222, a bill to close the loophole on cockfighting. The law would ratchet up the penalties for cockfighting to five years in prison and ultimately outlaw breeding.

Although it is Deckert's first term in the Senate, he served two prior terms as a state representative. He is young and well-liked around the Capitol. The bill, Deckert believed, would sail through committees and into a clear majority vote on the Senate floor. It was more of a formality -- closing a bizarre loophole in the law -- than groundbreaking activism. "In a civilized society," said Deckert, "having two roosters with knives trying to kill each other is not something we should have."

Regardless, within days, the bill was dead. Assigned to the Business Committee -- of which Deckert is a member -- the chairman, Sen. Roger Beyer, R-Molalla, refused to give the bill a hearing, which is regarded as a professional slap in the face. "Now, it's personal," Deckert said.

Although cockfighters and game breeders are notoriously clandestine, they also have an impressive track record for quashing any legislation restricting their trade. Kelly Peterson, program coordinator for the Oregon chapter of the Humane Society, points out that when a citizens group tried to place the matter on the ballot in Oklahoma last fall, signature gatherers were harassed and physically threatened. Eventually the group rounded up enough signatures, but then the game breeders filed a lawsuit that sidetracked the initiative. Hogtied by the contentious legal battle, it did not make the ballot. In Oregon, game breeders have hired a high-priced mouthpiece, local attorney Ross Day, to lobby legislators to vote against any bill that would ban breeding.

"Don't underestimate these guys," Peterson explains, referring to the state's game hen breeders. "You don't hear a lot from them on an average day and then, all of a sudden, they are everywhere."

At stake is a piece of the industry's profits -- roughly a billion dollars a year globally, according to law enforcement agents and breeders. One breeder in eastern Oregon claimed that he had sold several breeding hens to the father of heavyweight boxer Oscar de la Hoya for about $500 a head. He also said that he had been contacted by a major U.S. airline, which inquired about the logistics of retrofitting a cargo plane to transport game hens. The airline, he said, was planning to begin weekly shipments of game hens to the Philippines, where the sport is widely popular, and legal.

Also at stake is a sport that historians can trace back 6,000 years to Rome, where the spectacle of two birds slashing at each other was used to warm up crowds for the main events. Currently in the United States, three monthly magazines are dedicated to cockfighting and breeding. The oldest, Grit & Steel, has a circulation of more than 50,000 and has been around longer than Time magazine.

But the public's enthusiasm for animal husbandry and the use of animals for entertainment has chilled over the past 20 years. With Deckert's bill languishing in the state Senate, the Humane Society turned around in early February and lobbied members of Oregon's House of Representatives to propose another bill to ban breeding. The Humane Society's Peterson found an unlikely audience with Rep. Jeff Kropf, R-Halsey, a farmer and a Republican. In turn, Rep. Kropf has cosponsored H.B. 2930, a carbon copy of Deckert's bill.

Even with bipartisan support, Peterson is cautious about the chances for either bill. The House bill has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee and has been churning slowly through work sessions and hearings. But breeders can be tenacious -- they've been known to sabotage committee hearings by stuffing 60 supporters into a hearing room that holds only 80, leaving just enough room for committee members and the media. The breeders' presence can be overwhelming and, as one of the last states to permit breeding, Oregon has emerged as the game breeders' Alamo.

At the first public hearing on March 29, a few dozen breeders and their lobbyist attended. As representatives saw the faces of the breeders, Peterson sensed a cooling in the determination to ban breeding.

What makes Oregon's proposed breeding ban such a salient issue is that, unlike the wild dolphins or wolves that animal rights activists seek to protect, game cocks are domesticated animals. For the first time on such a large, coordinated scale, this proposed ban -- and similar legislation on the national level -- has brought the battle over animal rights smack-dab into the barnyard.

The concentrated effort to absolutely eradicate cockfighting began about 20 years ago. In an attempt to crack down on animal abuse in 1976, Congress amended the Animal Welfare Act to prohibit interstate trafficking of dogs and other animals for the purpose of fighting. But before the new law was finalized, a Southern state senator stepped forward and added an exception for fighting birds.

"There are lines you draw in society and this is one of those lines," says Peterson, explaining her support for the ban on game fowl breeding. Peterson is at the forefront of the crusade in Oregon, and is responsible for Deckert's and Kropf's decision to present their anti-breeding bills. Growing up in rural Lebanon, Ore., many members of Peterson's family still work in lumber mills and hunt on weekends. After graduating from the agriculture-heavy Oregon State University, she went into sales for Cellular One (now Cingular) -- not the typical seeds from which animal rights activists spring.

A few years back, while still working as a sales rep for the cellphone company, Peterson began volunteering as a fundraiser for environmental causes. About a year ago, she jumped full time into the animal rights movement, working with the campaign to pass Measure 97, a ballot initiative that would have placed broad restrictions on animal trapping.

Peterson is part of the generation indoctrinated by magazines like Ranger Rick and "Save the Whales" publicity campaigns -- a generation born alongside the modern-day animal rights movement. "I'm living by what my conscience tells me," she says.

An important thing happened for the animal rights cause when Peterson was a child. For years, animals were largely protected as part of land use laws. National forests and parks were set aside to preserve migratory routes and breeding grounds. But the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 marked a significant philosophical change: Instead of holding animals up as a subset of land use protection laws, individual species became the top priority.

Now, ironically, the Endangered Species Act has proved detrimental in some areas of animal rights. Because a lawmaker must petition for a species to be included for protection, animal rights, in a very real sense, have become a popularity contest. Dolphins, for example, have received sweeping legal protections, while ferocious -- but severely endangered -- great white sharks have been left woefully unprotected.

And here emerges a substantial defense for game hen breeders: They can claim discrimination, that they have been singled out. One breeder from Salem pointed out that Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., who has cosponsored a federal bill to make the interstate transportation of fighting birds illegal, owns a mink farm. What's more, the breeder said, Smith's daughter serves on the board of directors for the Pendleton Round-Up, a popular Oregon rodeo. (The breeder refused to provide his name, saying that he was fearful about animal right activists burning down his barn.)

"And what about falconers?" asked the breeder, pointing out that there are about 80 falcon trainers in the state -- a number that's just half that of game fowl breeders -- who train birds to kill rabbits and doves. "It just isn't fair."

In the '80s, faced with regulations that would cripple their industry, loggers argued that protecting animals like the pint-size spotted owl would cost hundreds of jobs. A popular bumper sticker read: "A logger only needs the backseat of his truck to make love, why does it take the whole woods for an owl?" It was a plea to lawmakers: Certainly the value of a man's lifestyle and livelihood trumps the rights of a single species. That argument still gets some sympathy, but by and large it has been losing in recent legislative and legal battles. A fluid job market and the ability to retrain workers for different industries undermined the "jobs vs. animals" case.

The economic argument against game hen breeding took a back seat to the more salable freedom argument. (Breeders kept relatively quiet about the size and scope of the industry that would be shut down.) Their most successful rhetoric echoes civil rights and pro-choice campaigns: Keep your laws off our industry. These are complicated debates precisely because breeders have adopted the very language and philosophy of liberal movements -- the same set of ideals with which many animal rights supporters identify.

"Their agenda is to take away liberties of everyone in the United States," explains Dale Potter, a breeder in eastern Oregon. Potter got involved when a neighbor brought over a few chickens and offered some theories about genetics and breeding. The science captivated him. "It's like my brains against other breeders' brains," he says, referring to the riddle of producing strong game hens.

Like many breeders, Potter thinks the animal rights movement unfairly singles out breeders and, moreover, goes too far with proposed regulations. He characterizes the activists as zealots. "Their agenda is to eliminate all animal usage," says Potter. "First it's circuses and from there they constantly try to upgrade. What are they going to do next -- regulate dogs and cats?"

The argument that breeders are discriminated against has halted many liberal politicians from supporting outright bans. Unlike the economic argument, which usually bought votes only from conservative representatives, it's as if the liberal rhetoric has come home to roost.

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Ten years ago, Eric Sakach infiltrated the Oregon cockfighting circuit. He spent two years hanging out at livestock auctions, showing interest in birds and, ultimately, going to fights.

The crowning achievement of his undercover work was a bust on Deer Island. Sakach led a small army of sheriffs, local police and Drug Enforcement Administration agents into a sprawling ranch where three rings were patrolled by armed guards. The agents found nearly $100,000 in cash and arrested 384 people. Even more disturbing to Sakach is that while rifling through drawers at the site's office, he came across several photographs of himself. After that haunting discovery, Sakach requested a desk job. He's now the director of the West Coast Regional Office for the Humane Society in Sacramento, Calif.

Sakach is one of only a handful of experts and law enforcement officers with a keen knowledge of cockfighting and breeding; unlike in the drug trade, enforcement agents are few and far between. One Oregon agent with an extensive background in dogfights and cockfights in Nevada recently moved to Lane County to work with law enforcement agents. Another officer with a record of monitoring cockfighters and breeders works with the game division of the Oregon state police, but was recently promoted, taking him a step away from on-the-ground patrolling. Not surprisingly, there is scant funding for cockfight patrols.

"The statistical chance to be busted is not higher than being caught for dealing drugs," says Sakach. He points out that even as laws restricting fighting and breeding are amassing, the popularity of the sport is swelling -- as are the cash bounties to be won. One bird can easily win $5,000 at a single fight. "They are playing the odds that they are not going to get caught," Sakach says.

Sakach doubts Sen. Deckert's and Rep. Kropf's bills will survive the gantlet of committee meetings and lobbyist attacks. A much more likely scenario, he says, is that Oregon will stand alone as the Western state where breeding remains legal and penalties for cockfighting lax. Washington, Idaho and California all have outright bans.

"If that happens," says Sakach, "you can expect that Oregon will become a magnet for cockfighting."

By Phil Busse

Phil Busse is the managing editor for the Portland Mercury, in Oregon.

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