AR-News: Cockfighters into taxpayer pockets
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Snugglezzz at aol.com
Wed Jul 30 18:18:48 EDT 2003
The following article is from the Bakersfield Californian
Crying fowl over compensation
Owners reeling from sudden slaughter of birds
By MARYLEE SHRIDER , Californian staff writer
e-mail: mshrider at bakersfield.com
Saturday July 26, 2003, 09:48:00 PM
Henry A. Barrios / The Californian
Mary Denny's small piece of land south of Mojave is
under quarantine because she owns birds that may have
been exposed to exotic Newcastle disease. The state is
trying to keep the deadly disease from spreading to
birds throughout the state.
In the 10 months since a deadly poultry virus was
first found in California, taxpayers have doled out
$22.3 million to bird owners, with nearly half of that
money going to owners of fighting cocks.
Cockfighting is illegal in California, but that hasn't
stopped owners of 80,000 game birds from collecting
$9.3 million in compensation for birds destroyed in
the battle against exotic Newcastle disease.
But exactly who got all that taxpayer money is
impossible to know.
State and federal officials say it's nobody's
Officials flatly refused to answer any questions about
taxpayer-funded bird compensations when first
questioned by The Californian in March. Now, four
months and two Freedom of Information Act requests
later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has released
a 377-page report listing the types of birds destroyed
and compensation paid, but still refuses to identify
most of those getting the money.
Taxpayers footing the bill
What is clear in the report, is that owners of game
fowl -- any bird trained or bred for cockfighting --
have received about 42 percent of the total
compensation paid to California bird owners.
Since exotic Newcastle disease was first discovered in
a backyard game-fowl flock in Los Angeles, the virus
has made its way into Arizona, Nevada and Texas,
costing taxpayers a combined $31 million in
compensation payments alone.
Ag officials and animal rights advocates have
repeatedly pointed to cockfighting as the likely flash
point for the highly contagious virus. Cockfighting is
illegal almost everywhere in the United States, but
California Department of Food and Agriculture
spokesman Larry Cooper said the task force's hands are
tied when it comes to the compensation bird owners
It is illegal to fight the birds, Cooper said, but
it's perfectly legal to own, breed and show them.
"It's simply not within our regulatory process to
determine that those birds are being illegally used,"
he said. "That cannot be proven until they're raided
by a local law enforcement officer. That's not our
Bird prices were established early on by the combined
state and federal Exotic Newcastle Disease Task Force.
Compensation amounts have ranged from $2 for an
egg-laying hen to $1,850 for an exotic double
yellow-head parrot. Some game fowl, like roosters and
brood hens are valued as high as $500, according to
task force pricing rules. Bird owners, Cooper said,
are repaid fair market value for their birds, but if
they can produce evidence the birds are worth more,
the task force must pay that amount.
"They have to provide written documentation to support
their contention," he said.
In California, nearly 4 million birds of all types --
from barnyard chickens to exotic white peacocks and
golden pheasants -- have been destroyed in a thus far
successful effort to keep the virus from spreading
Most of the birds destroyed in California, about 3.7
million of them, were layer hens from 27 Southern
California commercial egg operations, which shared
$10.8 million in compensation -- an average of $2.89
per bird. The names and locations of commercial
operations, loosely defined by the task force as
"premises with at least 500 birds for the purpose of
food production," are included in the USDA report.
All other bird operations, regardless of the number of
birds or what they're used for, are considered
non-commercial. Citing privacy reasons, officials
refused to release the names of non-commercial bird
owners despite the eye-popping amounts some have
A bird owner in Lancaster, for example, was paid
$328,155 for 2,025 birds, all but three of which were
game fowl. In Kern County, a Mojave resident got
$22,380 for 172 game birds, including roosters, hens
Terry Francke, general counsel for the California
First Amendment Coalition, said the public has a
strong interest in how its tax dollars are spent and
the fact that some of the bird owners operate under a
residential address does not necessarily mean that the
address has a privacy interest.
"By what criteria do they determine these are
non-commercial owners? Just the fact they don't hang
out a shingle?" Francke said. "The very fact they are
being paid extraordinary sums for their birds means
that the birds do have some commercial value, so I
think we have some circular reasoning here."
Not all bird owners are shy when it comes to talking
about their lost birds -- or the money they received
for giving them up.
Lydia Paul kept eight chickens, three ducks and one
goose in the yard of her Mojave home until April, when
she noticed some of the chickens showing signs of
exotic Newcastle disease. The symptoms quickly grew
worse until the chickens were gasping for air,
drowning in their own phlegm. After a call to the task
force hot line, ag officials came out to test the
birds. The chickens tested positive for the virus,
which meant all the birds had to go. Paul received
$125 in compensation.
"I had raised all of them and it was hard to let them
go, but it was harder to watch them suffocate," she
said. "It was horrible. I would have let them take the
birds even without the compensation."
Task force officials destroyed a total of 298 birds in
the remote rural area of Mojave where Paul lives and,
in May, quarantined an area of about 1,387 square
miles. It was the first discovery of the virus outside
a large quarantined zone in Southern California that
included Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara,
Riverside, Orange, San Diego and Imperial counties.
Paul had only kind words for the task force team,
which came to her farm clothed in protective white
coveralls, bonnets, gloves and boots. The team took
the birds away for euthanization, which is generally
done by gas, then spray sterilized every inch of
Paul's property up to within a few feet of her front
"They even sprayed up in the trees because feathers
can fly up there," Paul said.
Task force members commiserated with Paul over the
loss of her birds, she said, and answered all of her
questions. They also left Paul with 10 young sentinel
birds to serve as the proverbial canary in the coal
mine. The chickens' continued survival, Paul was told,
would indicate a disease-free yard.
"They said they would take the chickens away after
that or I could keep them," said Paul, who has
resigned herself to eating store-bought eggs until the
birds start laying. "I'm going to keep them."
Task force officials conducted a final test on Paul's
chickens on July 2. If the tests come back negative,
the quarantine on her property will be lifted and she
can remove the warning sign from her front fence.
There was no warning sign to be seen at the small farm
just up the road from Paul's place, where nearly all
of the 40 or 50 rickety pens built by Pedro Venegas
stand empty. Only a few sentinel birds remain in the
pens -- slapped-together shelters made from chicken
wire, cardboard and scrap lumber.
Venegas, who speaks little English, said through a
translator that task force officials destroyed about
100 of his game birds, 30 of them roosters.
Venegas couldn't remember exactly how much he was
compensated for his birds, but estimated he received
about $180 per rooster -- a pittance of what they're
worth, he said.
"It's better than nothing," Venegas said, shrugging.
"Some roosters come as high as $1,000. That's the
price in the trade magazines."
Venegas, a Mojave resident for 10 years, said he had
to keep his birds in separate pens because of their
aggressive nature. He said he enjoyed breeding his
birds for their "purebred" qualities and never fought
them. He felt bad when the birds began showing signs
of exotic Newcastle disease and called the task force
number, which he got off a flier at a feed store.
The soft-spoken Venegas gazed sadly at the empty cages
as he spoke about his lost birds. It will take him
four years, he said, to rebuild his flock.
Fighting the cockfighters
Cockfighting generally doesn't get a lot of attention
from law enforcement agencies because fighting birds
and possession of cockfighting paraphernalia, like the
blades that are strapped to the fighting cock's legs,
are misdemeanors. Sgt. Ric Yorke, with the Kern County
Sheriff's Department Rural Crime Investigation Unit,
said clandestine cockfighting operations are
notoriously difficult to track and few law enforcement
agencies have the manpower to devote to large-scale
investigations of misdemeanors.
"When I was a senior deputy in Lamont we occasionally
would discover cockfights when we were there
investigating something like a noise violation or
peace disturbance," he said. "We look for all the
crimes being committed, but when it comes to
cockfighting, there is usually no one left by the time
we get there."
Even if deputies had the resources, Yorke said,
locating and raiding cockfighting activities would be
a monumental task.
"There's a statewide network of people who buy and
sell these birds, so it's going to be a difficult
thing to control," he said. "It's good thing that
they're looking at passing laws that will limit and
make it a felony to transport cockfighting implements.
That may help."
Legislation that would authorize felony-level jail
time for cockfighting and prohibit the interstate
commerce of cockfighting implements is currently
before state and federal lawmakers. The
anti-cockfighting bill SB 732, which has already been
passed by the Senate, would increase the penalty for a
second cockfighting offense to a minimum of six months
in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.
Wayne Pacelle, a senior vice president of the Humane
Society of the United States, said the society fully
supports the bills as well as an amendment to the 2004
Agriculture Appropriations Act that will secure
$800,000 for enforcement of the existing federal
animal fighting law. The amendment passed in a House
vote July 14, during a debate of the act, which funds
the Department of Agriculture.
It's time, Pacelle said, to enforce the laws already
"The law we have now bans any interstate movement of
dogs or birds for fighting purposes or any exports or
imports of fighting birds or dogs," he said. "It's
partly because of the failure to enforce this law that
has contributed to the outbreak (of exotic Newcastle
disease) and caused an expenditure in excess of
Pacelle said there is broad support for the bills
among animal welfare advocates who are outraged over
the large compensations paid to owners of game fowl.
"I'm sure anyone who cares about animals is outraged,"
he said. "It's enriching individuals who are breaking
the law and allowing these people to continue to
operate. These people need to be put out of business,
not subsidized for their illegal conduct."
Dean Florez, D-Shafter, said he is "very happy" to
support the pending legislation and any efforts to
reduce cockfighting, but urged his fellow lawmakers to
recognize that not all game birds are cockfighters.
"This is a tough nut to crack," said Florez of
cockfighting. "It is important that our federal
legislators recognize that the Department of Food and
Agriculture needs more tools to differentiate between
game birds and poultry that will prevent the use of
tax dollars to subsidize this illegal activity."
Pacelle did not argue that ownership of fighting birds
should remain legal, but said the masquerade that the
majority of the birds are used for legitimate purposes
"These are not show birds," he said. "The
preponderance of these birds are used for fights."
There are, by some estimates, as many as 50,000
illegal cockfighting locations in California alone.
Pacelle said he's not surprised.
"Cockfighters are organized criminals and the only
thing that will stop them is a properly enforced law
with teeth," he said. "It's rampant and the presence
of prohibition is not going to be enough. We have to
have meaningful penalties to make these laws work."
Here to stay
Even if the bills pass, some owners of fighting birds
say there will be no end to cockfighting, especially
among ethnic groups that embrace the sport as a
One local cockfighter, who asked that his name not be
used in order to protect his professional standing,
said contrary to the misconceptions people have about
the sport, cockfighting is not inhumane, but allows
the birds to do something their aggressive natures
already compel them to do. Enforcement would only
result in a tremendous waste of tax dollars, he said.
"No matter how many laws there are against
cockfighting, with the number of Hispanics and
Filipinos in the state of California, it's here to
stay," he said. "So there's now a law that prohibits
gamebirds from interstate transports. Do you really
think the manpower is going to be wasted at the border
to check every vehicle for chickens?"
Joe Rodriguez, a Bakersfield game-bird breeder who
sometimes advertises his birds in trade magazines like
"Feathered Warrior," said he never fights his birds
but understands the thrill of the sport.
"Fighting is in your blood, it's the way you were
raised," Rodriguez said. "With all the Hispanics in
this county I don't think it will ever stop."
Rodriguez said raising game fowl is a hobby he shares
with his sons, who have won awards for their brightly
plumed gamebirds at the Kern County Fair. Now, in
deference to the Newcastle outbreak, Rodriguez has
stopped selling birds and will not until it's safe for
him to do so, he said.
Despite the Newcastle outbreak and pending
legislation, Rodriguez said he is confident that
cockfighting will continue.
"They might be backyard hacks that hold orange grove
derbies, but nobody will ever know about those," he
said. "It's a close-knit thing, where family members
stick together. I think it will be going on for the
next 100 years."
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