heypatrick/FlickrAnimal rights advocates say cockfighting is becoming more popular in California.
Cockfighting is on the rise in California, one of the few states where first-time offenders are not charged with a felony for participating in the blood sport, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
Legislators say that making cockfighting a felony isn't possible when the state already has a problem with overcrowded prisons.
Cockfighting statistics are difficult to compile, but animal rights advocates at the Humane Society have noted a significant increase in the number of cockfighting incidents reported by local law enforcement officials in California.
"If people understood how widespread this problem is, there would be an uproar," said John Goodwin, director of animal cruelty policy at the Humane Society.
The topic drew media attention last week when a Central California man died from a wound inflicted by a cockfighting rooster.
But Jennifer Fearing, California senior state director at the Humane Society, said cockfighting extends far beyond the Central Valley. She said spectators and organizers are increasingly traveling to California for their events because the laws are more lax than in nearby states like New Mexico.
"When law enforcement raids a cockfighting derby, they see license plates from all sorts of different states," Fearing said. "We've even heard about people moving to California because the cockfighting laws are weaker than in their jurisdiction."
Currently, a first-time offense for participating in a cockfight – either as a spectator or as an owner of one of the roosters – is a misdemeanor with a $1,000 fine, which is often negotiated down to a few hundred dollars, she said.
"People can easily walk away with $200,000 at these things, it's that lucrative," Fearing said. "So a fine of a thousand dollars is merely the cost of doing business for these people."
A spokesman for state Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, say that he is planning to introduce several bills this session that will discourage cockfighting without making it a felony.
Rocky Rushing, Calderon's chief of staff, said the first bill would raise the minimum fine to $5,000 and allow law enforcement to seize property obtained through the "ill-gotten gains" of cockfighting. That bill is related to one sponsored last year by Calderon, which created a similar provision for dog fighting.
The second bill will allow police to use nuisance abatement procedures to shut down cockfighting arenas.
Fearing said that cracking down on cockfighting may help California law enforcement eliminate other organized crime as well. Several federal Drug Enforcement Administration reports have linked cockfighting with drug trafficking.
Goodwin, the Humane Society director, agreed, saying that the people involved in cockfighting are often "sadistic."
"These are not the type of people you want in your community," he said.