State legislators voted in support of two bills in the past week to curb cockfighting, an ancient blood sport animal rights advocates say is thriving in California because current laws aren’t tough enough.
“The type of elements that this activity draws is dangerous to the community,” said Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, who proposed two bills this year that would increase penalties for cockfighting. “The drug element, the gang element, and in many cases there are firearms.”
The first bill, SB 425, would raise the minimum fines for cockfighting, possessing cockfighting instruments and watching a cockfight. It would also make cockfighting a public nuisance, which would allow law enforcement officials to seize property purchased with proceeds from cockfighting. The state Senate last week voted 36-1 in favor of the bill, which is now in the pipeline for the Assembly.
The second bill, SB 426, would expand on the property forfeiture provision of SB 425 by allowing landlords and property owners to evict tenants who raise or keep fighting birds or host cockfights. SB 426 would also grant officials authority to seize the property if it is used repeatedly for cockfighting. The Senate approved the bill Monday with a 39-0 vote. It’s now headed to the Assembly as well.
The bills come amid a national campaign to clamp down on cockfighting, a practice that while illegal in all 50 states and a felony in 39, has surged in California the past three years. Earlier this month, for example, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies busted a backyard cockfight in Valinda involving 45 birds and about 100 spectators, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
“We’re throwing out the welcome mat for people involved in this at the higher levels,” said Eric Sakach, senior law enforcement specialist for the humane society, the group leading the charge to squelch the activity.
In cockfighting, two roosters selectively bred for their fighting prowess are outfitted with steel blades on their legs and pitted against each other in violent death matches. Though the activity was outlawed in California more than a century ago, cockfighting persists, as do crimes associated with it: illegal gambling, drug trafficking and, on occasion, murder.
The humane society estimates that cockfighting-related activities – fighting, breeding and training fighting birds – are taking place in 50,000 back yards in Southern California. At least 110 incidents involving more than 21,000 birds have been reported statewide since 2008, according to humane society figures.
Sakach said cockfighting in California is reaching “epidemic” proportions because California laws aren’t harsh enough. A first offense in California is a misdemeanor while in surrounding states it’s a felony. A second offense is a “wobbler,” meaning it can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony.
Often, Sakach said, two-time offenders walk away with small fines. But passing legislation to make the crime a felony in California isn’t feasible given overcrowding in the state’s prisons.
“In light of that, we’ve been trying to find ways to provide some real, meaningful tools for law enforcement to crack down on the way these activities are exploding here,” Sakach said.
Calderon’s proposals could have an unintended consequence for the state’s poultry industry. The California Poultry Federation relies on backyard breeders to voluntarily submit their birds for health examinations and vaccinations, and to alert authorities about disease outbreaks.
Federation President Bill Mattos says ratcheting up the punishments for breeding fighting birds might scare away show bird breeders from participating in the vaccination program because the two types of birds are groomed in a similar fashion. He says the laws would jeopardize his organization’s ability to detect and defend against disease outbreaks.
“They already don’t want to talk to us,” Mattos said of many backyard breeders. “The problem with legislation like that is that they might go underground ... (which) could mean more of a disease problem in the future.”
Mattos’ concerns aren’t unfounded. Experts traced an epidemic of Exotic Newcastle Disease that spread through California in 2002 and 2003 to Mexican roosters brought into the state for a fight. The disease infected about 3.5 million birds and cost the state’s commercial poultry industry $160 million, according to the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center.
Sakach said that outbreak is just cause for increasing penalties for cockfighting in California. He called the Senate’s decision a milestone of animal protection laws, “but not an endpoint.”
Calderon agrees. “A felony conviction for cockfighters is what California needs,” he said.