Cock Tails

Participants in the illegal pastime of cockfighting are willing to risk property and freedom in pursuit of their passion. At 11:30am on Feb. 26, state humane investigators and city police officers swooped in on a small house at the end of Second Street in Watsonville, CA, driven by a tip that a Sunday morning cockfight was in progress. It was a high-profile bust, with color photos splashed across the front page of local dailies. Seized were 75 roosters, illegal fighting implements -- in this case, the "short knives" popular with Mexican cockfighters -- and hypodermics, which are used for the birds' health care or to inject birds with stimulants before a fight. Also seized was the owner of the house, a man named Olegario Perez Hurtado.In many ways Hurtado, 45, was a typical low-level cockfighter. Other than his passion for roosters, he stayed out of trouble. He has a wife, five kids and a decent job as a laborer at Wrigley's gum factory in Santa Cruz, CA. But his illegal hobby ultimately turned his life upside-down and resulted in a felony conviction for animal cruelty. Slapped with 30 days in jail, three years probation and $1447.50 in fines and restitution, Hurtado now keeps away from roosters, unlike the estimated thousands of other Californians living in semi-rural and rural areas who raise anywhere from a handful to hundreds of gamecocks. Those who raise and fight the birds illegally in California, or even take them to states where cockfighting is legal, are willing to risk fines, incarceration and -- perhaps worse in their view -- the loss of their prized birds. Authorities say they've seen grown men weep when their roosters were confiscated. "The average cockfighter is probably not a bad person," says Mike Frazer, an ex-cop and investigator with Humane Society. "They don't do it to cause pain and suffering. It's amusement. The birds are competing for them. People who breed birds are very proud -- it's like mechanics at a drag race. They don't want to see their birds hurt, they want to see them win. But, in fact, it's illegal, and we have to enforce the law." In a well-known essay entitled "Notes on a Balinese Cockfight," anthropologist Clifford Geertz made observations that decades later shed some light on the present day situation here. "The elite sees cockfighting as 'primitive,' 'backward,' 'unprogressive,' and generally unbecoming an ambitious nation. And as with those other embarrassments -- opium smoking, begging, or uncovered breasts -- it seeks, rather unsystematically, to put a stop to it," Geertz wrote. "Of course, like drinking during prohibition or, today, smoking marijuana, cockfights, being a part of 'The Balinese Way of Life,' nonetheless goes on happening, and with extraordinary frequency." And happen frequently it does -- practically every weekend between November and August (when the birds begin molting). A drive along Watsonville's back roads reveals scores of "teepees," upside-down wooden V-shaped shelters, each housing a single gamecock. Each rooster is tethered near its teepee because the birds would battle if left to their own affairs. "It's so prevalent in Watsonville, I couldn't put a number on it," says Skip Prigge, until recently a state humane investigator with the Santa Cruz County SPCA. Frazer says the situation is similar in neighboring counties. "I could take you right now and, within 30 minutes from my office, I could show you 3,000 chickens that are being raised for fighting -- and that's probably a conservative estimate," he says. "The newest thing in this county is that people will sublet property to smaller breeders. That way they can be from suburban San Jose and still have chickens -- as many as 10 families raising birds on a single plot of land. When they go fight, they take them to a more secluded area and fight 'em at night and nobody will know what's going on." An Illegal Way of Life Cockfighting is a bloody pastime. The handlers attach razor-sharp knives to the rooster's ankles or spurs. The rules of engagement often depend on the weapon, and the weapon used depends on who's fighting. Mexicans favor "short knives," an inch or two long. Filipinos prefer three-to-five-inch "long knives," while Anglo cockfighters mainly use "gaffs" or "bayonets," sharp curved spikes one-to-three inches in length. Handlers crouch in a small ring, or "pit," holding their birds a short distance apart on either side of the "scratch line." The referee calls, "Pit 'em!" and the birds fly at each other, striking out violently with their legs -- knives gouging and slashing. If the birds hang up on each others' knives, the referee yells, "Handle!" and the handlers separate the combatants. The fight continues until one bird is dead or quits, while greenbacks clenched in the hands of onlookers multiply or diminish according to the outcome. Cockfighters impose human ideals on the birds -- one being that a good fighter doesn't give up. Handlers have been known to suck the blood out of a bird's pierced lung so that it can keep going. A gravely wounded bird can beat an uninjured one if the wounded continues to fight and the other loses interest. "That's the whole cockfighter theory -- that it sort of epitomizes the human race," says Prigge. "It's the superior bird, the one that won't quit. It's what America is built on." To many sensibilities, the bloody use of these birds for amusement and betting is abhorrent. "It's a very violent manipulation and exploitation of the animals," says Kat Brown, director of operations at the Santa Cruz County SPCA, reflecting a view held by many animal lovers. Cockers, who also consider themselves animal lovers, see their pastime in quite a different light. Breeders point to how well they care for their chickens outside the pit. Indeed, compared with the commercial poultry industry, which mass produces plump chickens for the table, gamefowl are treated like royal soldiers. The birds get fancy feed, far more space than commercially grown chickens and superior health care. Hens don't fight and males that survive several pits are often retired as brood cocks -- breeders, that is. In other words, cockers say, eatin' chickens don't have a prayer, whereas gamecocks live better, fight according to their instincts and get a shot at survival. "These guys, every one of them would fight to the death," says Manuel Costa, indicating his birds. Costa is both an avid breeder and president of the APG (Association for the Preservation of Gamefowl), a California organization of breeders that lobbies for changes in the laws, stages fowl shows and claims, at least officially, not to condone cockfighting. "That bird does not know any better," Costa says. "He's been bred [to fight]. Now isn't it better to give him the chance to win five or six fights and then be a brood cock or is it better if Animal Control takes that bird and he ain't got a chance? They call it euthanasia, it sounds so nice. But death is death. I don't care how you accomplish it." Entering Cocker Territory In pursuit of this story, I've been stood up, eluded, refused entrance to a national gamefowl show and one local cocker insisted I had the wrong guy -- I didn't -- before abruptly hanging up the phone. Few cockfighters will talk to the press. They are vulnerable to arrest and feel they've been misunderstood in the past. Then there is Manuel Costa, 66, who lives and raises 300 roosters in a rural area of Sutter County just north of Yuba City, CA. Crowing and strutting about his yards, coops, fly-pens and teepees are Brown-Reds, Greys, Kelsos, Hatches, Clarets, Old English and other breeds feather -- clad in black, white, brilliant reds, golds, browns and blues. Raising so many birds is a full-time job -- or several of them to be exact. To get 300 good gamefowl, Costa raises 600 to 700 birds, culling out the chicks that are too short, possess a crooked beak or hunchback, are sickly or unaggressive. Breeders rise at the crack of dawn to feed and water the fowl, turn the eggs, move the roosters so they don't get coop-stale, de-worm and de-lice hens, vaccinate young birds against poultry diseases, band promising birds and keep health, diet and breeding records. Costa has the leisure for such an enterprise. A veteran of World War II and Korea, he settled in California and bought four commercial acres of land and a grocery business in 1967 for $147,000. He retired 20 years later, unloading the property for $2.2 million, which puts him well beyond the means of the average cockfighter. On a recent afternoon, Costa -- sporting jeans, a red Hawaiian shirt adorned with small sailboats and an English-style driving cap -- was sitting on the shady concrete patio of his home with a friend and fellow cocker. Surrounding his pale yellow ranch house are 30 acres of French prune trees that he subleases to growers. He moved here to raise his birds and doesn't care to haggle over fruit prices. "My birds mean everything to me," he says. "You have to understand. There's a lot of pride in that, to create something. With gamefowl, we create. We make a bird that has all the qualities we think can make a winner." Costa is a lively character, a Hawaiian-born Portuguese gentleman with a quick temper who occasionally jumps out of his chair and gesticulates wildly to illustrate a point. His kitchen is decorated with drawings and statuettes of roosters, wall reliefs of birds in battle and a "Best of Breed" plaque one of his roosters won at an APG-sponsored show. Of course, you understand that his birds are just for show, he says -- then tells the truth. "It's just part of the propaganda you have to use," says Costa, who admits he has twice received misdemeanor citations for attending cockfights. "It would be a damn lie if you didn't say [fighting] was the whole thing -- what's the point, you know? Mostly what I do is I send [the cocks] to people and they do all the work and I go watch 'em fight and bet on 'em. They're not my birds anymore." The Sutter County Sheriff's office is familiar with Costa and his birds. "We've had conversations with Manny about cockfighting," says Undersheriff Jim Denney. "He's made it clear to us that he believes it's an age-old custom and that he plans to continue doing what he's doing. If it comes across our desk, we'll do what we have to do and he understands that." Costa was introduced to cockfighting by Filipino workers living in agricultural labor camps in Waimanalo, where his parents ran a dairy. "Filipinos are religious cockfighters," says Costa. "Good thing they loved gamecocks. Could you imagine thousands of men with nothing to do?" His uncle, a wealthy dairyman, also fought birds and bought Manuel and his playmates some chickens so they could learn to affix knives to the uncle's roosters. Costa says he never considered it cruel. "I felt every animal has its use," he says. "We always ate our chickens. We didn't waste nothing. You'd only fight three or four in a day or something like that, and maybe you win two, bring home the dead birds that night. Hot water, clean 'em up, put 'em in a pressure cooker, feed your family." By most accounts, however, gamecocks wouldn't cut it in a restaurant. Undersheriff Denney remembers a 1984 bust that bagged 75 birds. "We brought 'em to the jail and tried to cook 'em for the inmates and the cooks complained they cooked 'em for hours and they were just as tough as when they plucked 'em." The birds are rarely eaten these days. Many breeders now use steroids and hormones, and handlers inject birds with liquid adrenaline, caffeine or other drugs to get them amped before a fight. Gamefowl suppliers advertise in cockfighting magazines like The Gamecock and The Feathered Warrior products with names like "Rooster Charge," "Liquid Lightning" and "Cock Fighter Syrup." "Today, they throw 'em [dead cocks] all away, because they give too much crap to the goddamn chickens," laments Costa, a purist. "In America, they've devised all these things that boost the fighting ability of a rooster. I think that's dumb." Still, Costa says he enjoys going to the fights, apart from the high-stakes gamblers he sometimes encounters. "I do see big gambling, which I dislike, because I think the sport should be a sport, not a goddamned business," he says. "In Hawaii, it was $10, $20, $15, and you'd have to save for a long time to make that kind of bet. My wife's cousin, he could bet $200 or $300. Today, some of these drug-dealing people bet thousands. They bet $10,000 on one fight. I could never do that. If I ever lost a fight like that, I'd be sick for a whole year." An American Tradition Ask any cocker and he'll explain that his "sport" has been part and parcel to the American way of life perhaps as long as this country can be said to have a way of life. "Honest" Abe Lincoln got his nickname from his activities as a cockfight referee, they point out, and the White House itself is believed to have had fighting pits on the grounds. "Go back in history. George Washington -- the founder of our country fought chickens," says Costa's friend, rooster enthusiast Don Mahoney. But times change. Once legal across America, cockfighting has been assailed from many angles. Animal rights groups and the U.S. Humane Society consider the pastime a vulgar and cruel throwback. Urbanization also puts limitations on the raising of roosters. San Jose, for instance, forbids possession of roosters older than four months within city limits -- although this is mostly for a noise consideration. Many city dwellers view cockers as being of the John Deere-cap-wearing variety, backwooders guarding jugs of hooch with a sawed-off shotgun. Others consider the gambling element and envision a dark, dangerous underworld of drugs and guns, where people bet $10,000 on a single fight and innocent persons might disappear without a trace. That element exists, all right, but the big gamblers, drug dealers and gun-toters are in the minority. The typical low-level cockfighter is a man of modest means (relatively few women are involved). Many are farm workers or laborers, generally not well educated but definitely hardworking -- a necessity in the business of raising fowl. Although humane officers say most of the "high-level" breeders here are white men, cockfighting in California is found largely in ethnic communities -- particularly Mexican, Filipino, Thai and Vietnamese enclaves. The fights are usually small, held among tight groups of friends and acquaintances in secluded areas, and participants are more likely to wager $30 on a fight than $300. Even big "derby" fights with pots of $10,000 or $20,000 typically include groups of men that pool resources to pay the entry fee, says Costa. "I mean, 95 percent of it is poor stiffs having a good time, saving their money, working extra hours, selling a few birds and using the money to bet on the birds they keep," he says. "That's mostly what there is, but there's always that garbage that have drug money or money they don't have respect for. But you can't help that. That's everywhere." "Your typical cockfighter in Watsonville has 15 birds. He's going to the fights, maybe making $100 on the wins," agrees Prigge, whose enthusiasm for busting bigger breeders made him a first-class headache in cocker circles. "The money is really in the breeding. You fight a couple fights, get a good name for yourself, and then stop fighting and start breeding. Now they're selling these birds for $200, $500, $1,000 apiece." The "blood sport" of cockfighting is a misdemeanor in just over half the states, a felony in 15 or so, and is legal in a handful. California cockers regularly bring birds to Arizona to fight in the legal derbies at the Copper State pits. New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana also permit cockfighting. Fighting roosters or even attending a fight is a misdemeanor in California Raising the birds is legal but -- as the law has been interpreted -- training, raising or selling roosters with the intent to fight them anywhere is a misdemeanor, as is possession of fighting knives or strap-on training pads known as "muffs" or "botanos." A 1987 bill aimed at making cockfighting a felony in California was defeated soundly by the State Senate Ways and Means committee, says Costa. "Can you see cockfighting becoming a felony, and having three strikes and going to jail for 25 years or life because you're a cockfighter!?" he exclaims. "I mean, Jesus Christ!" Thomas Thompson, a Hollywood-based lawyer who has defended a number of accused breeders, believes the "intent" laws are too ambiguous. "If cockfighting is illegal, it's illegal. I accept that," he says. "But prosecutors have interpreted these statutes to mean that even if the intent were to take the roosters to [a legal state] it would be illegal. I think that's a fundamental violation of our system of federalism and I don't think the government has the right to say what we can do elsewhere." The Penal Code doesn't specify whether "intent" applies to legal out-of-state fights. Southern California Assemblymember Curtis Tucker plans to introduce a bill (AB 1047) during the next legislative session that would remove the "intent" language from the statutes and allow breeders to fight their birds legally in other states. The Saga of Skip the Enforcer Until recently, Skip Prigge was as obsessed with cockfighting as Costa, except he was on the other side -- out to enforce the existing laws and make his name as an investigator. Indeed, his unusual enthusiasm for investigating cockers led to his parting of ways with the SPCA. Cockfighting wasn't quite as high on the organization's priority list as it was on Prigge's. Between 1992 and 1994, the young investigator read every book he could find on the topic, watched videos, talked to scores of people and conducted countless hours of surveillance on his own time. "It was my life for awhile," says Prigge, 29, interviewed in a sparsely furnished flat where he lived until recently with "Coolie," his cat. "That was my pastime, my hobby, my work. That's all I did -- just cockfighting." And more than anyone in the Santa Cruz County before him, Prigge was making busts and becoming a problem for the bigger breeders. "I didn't want somebody that had 20 birds. They go to the cockfight and bet a little money. That's not really a big deal to me. That's like the guy who buys a little dime bag of pot," he says. "The guys I was after are the kind that are evading taxes, that have over 100 birds. They usually have piggyback crimes. Almost always, if they're fighting, selling and raising that many gamecocks, they're either growing pot or selling drugs -- they're involved in some other illegal activity." Prigge grew up in Modesto, CA but didn't actually see a fight until he shipped off to the Philippines at 22 as a Marine MP. "I just thought it was pretty sick," he recalls. "Filipino slashers have about a four-to-six-inch blade, so the fights are very fast. It cuts 'em up so fast, the fights last like 30 seconds." Prigge admits he has no moral qualms about cockfighting. To him it was a law enforcement game -- one he was good at. He would rise at the crack of dawn, put on jeans and a T-shirt, a cap and work boots, and drive slowly along back roads in an unmarked vehicle listening for the crowing of roosters. Sometimes, he'd walk along the roads or hide in the bushes, climb trees with binoculars or pay visits to people he knew were raising gamefowl to inspect their birds and chat them up for information. Prigge needed more than the birds. He needed something that could show intent -- implements, evidence of training, something that would convince the District Attorney a case was winnable. "I've had DAs tell me, 'It's just a chicken,'" says Prigge. "In fact, dog fighting is a felony, where cockfighting is only a misdemeanor -- just because more people relate to a dog." Prigge rarely tracked down the fights. "Everyone thinks of the cockfight as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but it's not," he says. "It's too much hassle. You have to hand out a zillion citations. You get 10 birds. Everyone's hid most of their stuff and everybody runs. It's a lot better to investigate and find out who the big guys are, do some surveillance on them, write a search warrant and go in and get everything -- get 200 birds, get all their stuff, every book, calendar and name in their address book. And it's a lot more effective when the circle of cockfighters start hearing about big guys getting busted, guys who've been around 50 years." Costa and Prigge view each other with little regard. They met when Prigge showed up in plain clothes at an association show and was quickly recognized by a breeder. Soon after, Costa, standing at a podium, blew Prigge's cover by introducing him to the crowd as a humane officer. "[Costa] came up to me and told me all about how cockfighting kept the family structure tight, kept the men from getting in trouble," Prigge recalls. "And I will admit that I have seen that sometimes. Kids live in a gang area and their dads and grandfathers were into cockfighting and these kids are into cockfighting. It's a lot of work to take care of 100 or 200 birds. I can understand their point, but at a cockfight you're going to have coke, dope, weapons, felons. A small-time fight here really might not be a big deal, but if you go to a fight where there's 100 people, there's going to be some stuff there. So how they can say this causes the family to be tighter by taking their kids to a place where they're subjected to that -- that's just wrong." "That is such bullshit," says Costa in one of his more polite responses to Prigge's assessment of the cockfight scene. "I'm totally against that, and if I thought the places I went to would have that, I'd never go back because I treasure my life and my principles are much higher than that. ...A cockfight is a place you could take your wife and children to."

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