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News / Life / Pets & Wildlife

Roosters rescued from Yakima Valley cockfights as state cracks down on animal abuse

By Questen Inghram, Yakima Herald-Republic
Published: May 19, 2024, 6:05am
3 Photos
Cockfighting operation are often in rural areas, making them a challenge for evidence gathering by law enforcement.
Cockfighting operation are often in rural areas, making them a challenge for evidence gathering by law enforcement. (Washington State Gambling Commission) Photo Gallery

YAKIMA — Mutilated, injected and forced to kill or be killed: Roosters raised for the blood sport of cockfighting face a hellish life.

“Usually after a fight, they just throw them away. I’ve seen 55-gallon drums of dead birds,” said Ronnie Cooper, a special agent supervisor for the Washington State Gambling Commission.

Animal cruelty has been in the spotlight following the seizure of hundreds of roosters allegedly used for cockfighting in Outlook and Zillah and a new state law that strengthens the punishment for animal cruelty. It’s a problem that has persisted for years across the U.S. and world, but often gets less attention in the face of other serious crimes.

Cooper said local police often are bogged down with other crimes and there is a sentiment among the public that because this illegal activity is often conducted in rural areas, it isn’t affecting their community.

Animal fighting, usually done with roosters and dogs, is fueled by illegal gambling and can be associated with drugs, assaults, robbery and even murder, according to information from the gambling commission.

“It isn’t just animal fighting, it’s drugs and other crimes,” Cooper said.

Yakima County raid

In March, 20 search warrants were served in the Yakima area alone in an operation targeting the prison gang La Nuestra Familia in Eastern Washington.

When agents made arrests, they seized 37 guns, cocaine, methamphetamine and more than 8,000 fentanyl pills, along with hundreds of roosters from Zillah and Outlook.

Thirty-four people were indicted and accused of a variety of crimes, including attempting to kill witnesses. Two of them were indicted on unlawful animal fighting charges. The joint federal-state operation, led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, began in 2018 and involved over 350 law enforcement personnel across the state and in Louisiana, Colorado, and Arkansas.

This was “the second time in five years that we have encountered a cockfighting enterprise,” said Casey Schilperoort, spokesperson for the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office.

More than 40 of the roosters from the Yakima Valley were sent to Heartwood Haven, a farm animal sanctuary in Roy, near Tacoma.

A new home for rescued roosters

For some abused animals, a happily-ever-after ending is possible.

The adoption of a rescued rooster named Porter back in 2017 is what nudged Kate Tsyrklevich, and her wife, Hope Hillman, to found Heartwood Haven. It is one of the few local organizations that will take seized cockfighting roosters, which would otherwise be euthanized.

“He was such a cool little dude,” Tsyrklevich said of Porter. “He would just hang out with us.”

A sanctuary in North Carolina has offered to take some of the recent rescues. Heartwood Haven has already sent many of the birds in crates on red-eye flights.

Tsyrklevich is urgently looking for homes for roosters. It’s not an easy task, since they can have a public perception problem. Just because a rooster has a cockfighting background doesn’t mean it will be aggressive, she said. Many can be safe around children and hens.

Those interested in adopting a rooster can visit the Heartwood Haven website, heartwoodhaven.org. Heartwood Haven conducts home checks on adopted roosters, as cockfighting organizers have attempted to adopt back their seized roosters before, she said.

“These roosters are deserving of life. They are friendly and good with people,” she said.

Legislature increases penalty for animal cruelty

In March, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law strengthening the state’s animal cruelty penalties.

The Legislature almost unanimously passed House Bill 1961, which reclassifies animal cruelty in the first degree starting in June.

Currently, animal cruelty in the first degree is a class C felony, and animal cruelty involving sexual conduct is a level three on the felony seriousness scale. Soon, all cases of animal cruelty will be ranked level three, which will allow judges to give longer sentences to those who commit animal cruelty offenses. Depending on criminal history, someone found guilty of animal cruelty may now be sentenced between two months and five years, rather than up to one year.

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State Rep. Sam Low, a Republican from Lake Stevens, was the sponsor of the bill.

“Washington state should always stand for justice and compassion for all living beings. Through this bill, we have an opportunity to give a voice to the voiceless and deter future acts of cruelty,” Low said before the bill went to vote.

Mutilations and neglect

Roosters used in cockfighting are abused, Cooper said. The waddles and combs of fighting roosters are cut off. Most of their spurs are cut off, so that deadlier metal spurs, known as gaffs, can be attached.

“They mutilate the birds to a degree,” Cooper said.

Among other acts of cruelty, he said, roosters are sometimes injected with methamphetamine to make them more aggressive. Because animal fighters don’t want to get caught, their animals never see a veterinarian, though they often inject the animals with supplements. A rooster raised for fighting might go for $10,000, if it has a “good bloodline.”

Dogs raised for fighting are often tortured to make them more aggressive. They are also often hung by chains on spring poles to strength their neck and jaws. Dog fights have been busted near Yakima and Snohomish, where heroin exchanges were also conducted.

But there’s hope. Cooper has been around dogs recently rescued from a dogfighting operation. “They weren’t trying to attack me; they just wanted to be petted and loved,” he said.

Long investigations and a call to action

It’s not easy to establish probable cause in an animal fighting case, especially if they are conducted out in rural, hidden places, Cooper said. A wide variety of tactics can be used to gather evidence for this crime, including undercover agents and confidential informants. The investigations can take a lot of time.

Tips from neighbors are often helpful. The Washington State Gambling Commission accepts tips on illegal gambling activities like cockfighting and dogfighting through its website, wsgc.wa.gov. Tips can be anonymous.

Several tips led to the 2018 raid of a cockfighting ring in Port Orchard, which led to arrests of two operators and 27 spectators and the seizure of $35,000 in cash and 300 roosters. Attending an animal fight is a felony under state law.

Signs of animal fighting include lots of traffic in remote areas and crowds gathering in barns. Cockfighting roosters may have their combs and waddles removed, and fighting dogs might have visible scars.

Every time law enforcement takes down a breeder or fight organizer, Cooper hopes that future fights and other serious crimes are prevented. The commission receives one or two tips a month about potential animal fights across the state.

“It’s affecting everyday people,” he said.

Questen Inghram is a Murrow News Fellow at the Yakima Herald-Republic whose beat focuses on government in Central Washington communities. Email qinghram@yakimaherald.com or call 509-577-7674.