Crime and NO punishment
Justice hard to come by for dogs, roosters of fighting rings in Ventura County
By Chris O'Neal 03/27/2014
This story has been updated.
Late Saturday morning, just off Briggs Road on the outskirts of Santa Paula, several volunteers took various breeds of dogs through the dusty streets of the industrial neighborhood. A frisky Labrador followed behind a mixed-breed Catahoula leopard/pit bull terrier named Betty as she sauntered alongside her human, ignoring other dogs, cars and people.
Betty hasn’t always had such a mild demeanor. In 2011, Betty was found in the backyard of an El Rio home, staked to the ground on a short leash alongside 23 other dogs, mostly other pit bull mixes. Several showed signs of having been involved in fights. The suspect homeowners were arrested, four in total, and 15 of the dogs, some of which were puppies, were confiscated and kept as evidence. Later the dogs were scheduled for euthanasia. It was then that the Canine Adoption and Rescue League (CARL) stepped in.
Finding dozens, if not hundreds of birds for use in fighting
is not a rare occurrence in Ventura County.
“The ones that we got were under the age of 2 and they were basically feral dogs,” said Mary Saputo, president of CARL. “It has been probably a year and a half or two to get them socialized enough so that they’re now out in the general population.”
Several puppies were adopted immediately, but the older dogs, including Betty, remain at the facility, a total of seven in all. This is far from unique — across the county, many dogs rescued from facilities, homes or elsewhere, involved in suspected fighting circles or simply abusive situations, are either not adopted or are subjected to euthanasia.
“We think that maybe sometime we’ll get these guys adopted,” said Saputo. “If not, they’ll lead the rest of their lives with us.”
Many animals end up in shelters or rescues around the county after being seized from abusive situations. On March 11, 17 dogs were rescued from a home in Santa Paula. (See sidebar.) Most of the dogs were pit bull terrier mixes and all showed signs of neglect, some with open wounds, others with clipped ears and infected sores. The case is still under investigation.
Incidents involving dogs, however, are rare compared to those involving roosters. Cockfighting in Ventura County — and across the country — is at epidemic proportions, involving not dozens but hundreds of animals in oftentimes cruel and unusual situations. Unlike the fate of Betty and her lot, when roosters are found in similar situations it often means death for the animals.
Regina Wilcox is the veterinary liaison and human resources manager for the Santa Paula Animal Rescue Center (SPARC). In 2012, just one month after SPARC became the official animal control center for the city of Santa Paula, Wilcox was at the Ventura County Fair when she received a disturbing call.
“We knew we were the municipal pound for the city of Santa Paula and we knew that something like this could happen,” said Wilcox.
That day in August, the Santa Paula Police Department raided a home after the death of a local man, stabbed during what was believed to be a gambling incident. At the scene, officers discovered 547 birds — a vast majority of them roosters.
“All of these birds had been left for days without water in a greenhouse in sweltering heat. Most of them were already ripped up from the fights,” according to Wilcox.
Officers notified SPARC and the Humane Society, who arrived on the scene and, with no other option, euthanized the birds. SPARC, without enough materials to euthanize the animals, acquired syringes and formulas from the Humane Society in order to complete the task.
“There were dozens of them in piles, dead on the ground. They were stacked one on top of another in cages five high. There were quail and they were all diseased with green goo coming out of their beaks. They were stuffed in cages with 10 to 12 per cage.”
In order for a rooster to be trained to fight, it must be prepped — much as a dog is. Its comb and wattle, the red fleshy parts of its head, are removed (a dog has its ears and tail clipped); tail feathers are trimmed close to the body; and the spur on the back of the leg is often whittled down to better fit accessories. Attached to some birds are customized blades and razors shaped like miniature scythes (called gaffs) ranging in length and width and varying from crude to professional, depending on the worth of the bird to the owner.
Steroids are often pumped into the birds to promote growth and aggression; during fights, the birds are given cocktails of chemicals to further agitate the animals and promote viciousness.
Often the birds show signs of deep scarring on their breasts, if they survive the fight. Never are they able to be rehabilitated, and they will strike, kick and bite other birds, humans and animals. For these reasons, roosters will more often than not be euthanized regardless of the condition they’re found in.
“Fighting cocks cannot be rehabilitated. A fighting dog can be. A fighting cock can’t be,” said Wilcox.
A selection of weaponry known as gaffs shown here
are attached to a rooster’s spur in order to inflict damage.
That hot August day wasn’t unique to Santa Paula, and this wasn’t the first such find in the year — nor the largest.
Earlier in 2012, more than1,000 roosters were found and euthanized in El Rio; in 2011, 80 were discovered after a fighting ring was uncovered in Fillmore; and in 2013, cockfighting paraphernalia was found in an agricultural field in Camarillo with several dead birds left behind by fleeing spectators, owners or gamblers.
In 2012, a total of 21 people were arrested and booked on charges of animal cruelty in relation to cockfighting. Several years later, none has been prosecuted for those charges by the Ventura County District Attorney’s office. In 2011, however, 43-year-old Michael Lim, one of 16 arrested at the scene of a suspected cockfighting ring in Oxnard, was charged with a misdemeanor for his role and sentenced to one year of probation, four days in jail, and was subject to search terms allowing the police department to search his property.
UPDATE: After this story went to press, the Ventura County District Attorney's office informed the VC Reporter that in 2012 a suspect was charged and prosecuted under penal code 597 (b), a subsection of the animal cruelty law. Luis Ziranhua of Oxnard was given 36 months of probation and fined $250 for causing or allowing a cockfight for amusement or financial gain. This brings the total prosecutions for promoting cockfighting to two since 2011, plus a further two prosecutions for being a spectator at a cockfight (penal code 597 (c)), according to Supervising Deputy District Attorney Kevin Drescher.
Prosecution otherwise is rare.
Detective Ray Dominguez with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department major crimes unit says that breeders will often leave behind evidence, including paraphernalia and cages as well as detailed descriptions of regiments and diets the birds are placed on.
“I’ve found notes and notebooks with training regiments and what type of feed is used, just like someone training for a fight, like a professional fighter,” said Dominguez. “It is a bloodsport and people do get enjoyment from it, as sick as it is.”
Dominguez says that though he has come across several instances of suspects clearly training birds for fighting or actively engaging in an event, prosecuting those who are arrested remains difficult.
“If they’re caught and are actually involved it’s much easier than if we simply find the birds,” said Dominguez. “We certainly have to find evidence . . . they will claim they are breeding the birds for show purposes. If we’re showing evidence to the contrary then that’s a different story.”
Even if the suspects are arrested, there is no guarantee that the individuals will be prosecuted.
“It can be frustrating at times for me. A lot of time and effort is put into these investigations, and a lot of times you don’t get a whole lot of bang for your buck,” he said.
The success of a prosecution rests on the finding of fighting instruments. According to Santa Paula’s Animal Services Coordinator Adam McPhail, in the case of 2012’s rooster bust, no paraphernalia were found on the premises. The case was handed over to the Humane Society, who then charged the suspects with animal cruelty, a power given to them through their use of peace officers. Animal cruelty is a felony in California, but according to SPARC Administrative Liaison John Brockus, who was the Humane Society’s director of investigations at the time, the case was presented to the DA but hasn’t moved forward.
“We physically make the arrest, present the case and give it to the District Attorney’s office,” said Brockus. “If the DA chooses not to file the case, nothing happens.”
Camarillo Animal Shelter Director Donna Gillespie says that while finding dogs bred for fighting in the County is rare — and in her recollection, she hasn’t been part of a bust since the late 1990s — coming across instances of cockfighting is a yearly occurrence.
“That’s a whole different story,” said Gillespie. “Every year we go out. Usually several times a year we’re called out for rooster fighting.”
So far this year, Gillespie says that there have been no calls reporting rooster fighting, but she expects that when spring and summer arrive, she’ll see an increase in activity, noting that fights tend to take place around other outdoor social activities. Gillespie says that most of these discoveries are made in the unincorporated areas of the county, in places like avocado orchards far from roads.
“The last time we brought roosters in, they came in with knives and gaffs still attached to them, which makes it super-dangerous for my staff.”
Particularly dangerous for the animal control officers is the complicated manner in which breeders sometimes build paths to the cages, utilizing small tunnels and trap doors to prevent officers from finding the birds. Gillespie says that while the discovery of birds in poor condition happens, often the opposite is true.
Crude cockfighting rings are not uncommon
to find among other paraphernalia.
“From my experience, they’re very well-kept,” said Gillespie. “They look good. The losers don’t look good.”
Gillespie says that when officers are called to a location, it isn’t unusual to discover 300 to 400 birds. Though it’s illegal to fight the animals and a misdemeanor even to be a spectator at a fight, catching the perpetrators isn’t easy, says Gillespie, and proving that the animals were fighting is difficult.
“When we truly think that they’re breeding these birds for fighting, if there is no paraphernalia there, then we have a problem with prosecution because they could just be show birds. It’s really disheartening.”
When asked whether or not any of the suspects caught with cockfighting birds and paraphernalia found in 2013 have been prosecuted, Gillespie said that she would “venture to say none.”
Deputy District Attorney Alvan Arzu says that he can’t comment on any specific cases, and the DA can only prosecute suspects if the cases have been handed to them by local law enforcement. The last case of animal cruelty Arzu can recall that received full prosecution involved the October 2012 incident of a Camarillo teen setting his family dog on fire. The teen was given a 16-month prison term.
As far as specific cases involving roosters — such as the Santa Paula case involving SPARC and the Humane Society — Arzu says that if the DA were to get the case, it would receive the same treatment as any other animal cruelty case.
“It goes through the process like any other criminal prosecution,” said Arzu. “We’d get the evidence, evaluate it and make our determination of what should be done.”
A felony charge of animal cruelty can bring up to three years in prison, but Arzu cannot recall any suspects who have been prosecuted in recent years aside from the Camarillo teen. Other attempts to reach the Districty Attorney’s office failed to produce any further information.
“There are probably four different locations off the top of my head in Ventura County that I could take you with over 1,000 roosters,” said SPARC’s John Brockus. “Why would this person need 1,000 roosters and five hens? There’s nothing disallowing it so that’s why we have that big problem in the County.”
Brockus was a part of the raid in 2012, wherein 547 birds were euthanized. Brockus says that cockfighting in the county is a serious problem because the laws in place are rarely enforced, and the zoning codes are either out of date or simply ignored by property owners.
Although in December 2013, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors passed a mandatory spay and neuter ordinance for all cats and dogs in unincorporated areas of the county, as of yet, there are no specific requirements dealing with the problems related to roosters. The only limitations are that in the city of Ventura, homeowners are allowed hens but no roosters, and the same is true for Oxnard.
According to the noncoastal zoning ordinance for Ventura County, roosters count as only one-tenth of an animal. Property owners in unincorporated portions of the County are allowed two animals for up to a 19,000-square-foot property, and those numbers increase as the property size increases. A total of 20 roosters are allowed on the smallest property size.
El Rio, Piru, Meiners Oak and other unincorporated areas of Ventura County fall under this zoning category. According to Winston Wright of the Ventura County Planning Division, those who violate the code are given a 30-day notice to comply with the ordinance.
“When you ask the question, ‘Who is responsible for enforcing this?’ it comes down to any agency that has law enforcing abilities. In the context of things, they have a lot of things they’re tasked with. Fighting animals kind of takes a lower priority.”
Brockus has been involved in several cases of animal cruelty leading to convictions, and as the director of investigations at the Humane Society for a time, he was given peace officer powers as they relate to animal law. Gambling, says Brockus, is only one of the reasons why people get involved with fighting roosters.
“There’s a lot of money to be made,” Brockus says.
According to the Humane Society of America, everything from homicide to illegal immigration and narcotics coincides with busts on cockfighting rings.
In 2013, Brockus was invited to attend an in-progress raid in Compton involving the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) and several Los Angeles-area animal control services. At the scene, 43 arrests were made and more than $100,000 was seized. Twelve of the arrested were illegal immigrants who, once arrested, were almost instantaneously deported, free to continue raising and fighting roosters. The only direct punishment was the seizure of some assets, according to Brockus.
“It’s a big business,” Brockus said.
At SPARC, an appointment of Brockus as an animal control officer would allow him once again to wield the powers of a peace officer, but cooperation at the District Attorney’s office needs to follow suit, said Brockus.
“While I was with the Humane Society, I would be working with a different DA every three months because they’d rotate them out,” said Brockus. “They need to become well-versed in this animal law to know what they’re looking at, but then the next thing you know they’re off to a new division. I think it’s really extremely low on their priority list.”
In speaking with Deputy District Attorney Arzu, he stated that he had only been in the department for close to 10 months.
At CARL, after returning Betty to the kennels, another volunteer takes one of the dog’s fellow pack members on a walk through the streets. Half of the kennels are open to the public for boarding while a large portion of the 110 runs are used for sanctuary.
“They were going to kill all of the dogs that we have,” said Saputo. “Animal Reg doesn’t have the resources or the time to say, ‘Well, even if we don’t adopt them we’ll keep them until they die naturally.’ That’s what CARL does.”
For roosters, there is no such option.
“The two employees that helped were both young employees in their early 20s who had never seen anything like that,” said Regina Wilcox of the August 2012 raid. “They were there for about seven hours holding birds while they were humanely euthanized. It was something I don’t think they’ll ever forget.”
Wilcox says that she hasn’t heard anything regarding the prosecution of the individuals involved in the case.
“When your whole job is about proving that animals can be saved and that they don’t have to be euthanized for lack of space, behavior or medical problems, it’s hard to be a part of things like that,” she said.
For more information about CARL, SPARC or any of the animals mentioned, visit www.carldogs.org or www.santapaulaarc.org.