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String of cockfighting busts in Texas have animal advocates urging changes to current laws

Roosters that were recently rescued from a cockfighting ring await adoption on Dec. 9, 2022, at Austin Animal Center.
Michael Minasi / KUT News
Roosters that were recently rescued from a cockfighting ring await adoption on Dec. 9, 2022, at Austin Animal Center.

The recent raids of cockfighting rings in Texas, including two busts last weekend that led to dozens of arrests, have animal welfare groups pressing for new laws that would ban the shipping of birds used in the blood sport over regular mail.

Pending legislation at the federal level would also ban simulcasts and gambling of animal fights in the country. It’s a move that could possibly save tens of thousands of animals from a violent death in a sport that, although outlawed across the country, still flourishes.

“We estimate as many as 20 million fighting birds in the United States, and thousands are shipped through” the United States Postal Service, said Wayne Pacelle, the president of Animal Wellness Action, a national advocacy organization. “U.S. cockfighters are shipping birds to 30 other countries as well.”

The legislation, called the Fight Inhumane Gambling and High-Risk Animal Trafficking Act, or FIGHT Act, also seeks to create a private right of action against animal fighters.

Pacelle spoke to The Texas Newsroom after law enforcement busted a cockfighting match in Bexar County last Saturday and arrested nearly four dozen people who attended the event. They were cited and later released, KSAT reported. Sheriff’s office deputies recovered about 200 birds, weapons and guns.

A separate bust in Goliad County that same day resulted in more than 60 arrests, and several weapons were also recovered at the scene, local media reported.

'A cluster crime'

Cock fighting is already illegal in Texas and a person attending a match can be charged with a class C misdemeanor. The penalty increases to a state jail felony if a person causes an animal to fight or reaps the earnings from a cock fight.

“I think what people don't understand is that cockfighting is not just about the brutality of the birds. It is called a cluster crime,” said Janette Reever, program manager of animal crimes and investigations for the United States Humane Society.

“There is typically going to be other illegal activities that they partake in. And that could be illegal guns, drugs,” and even sexual abuse, Reever told The Texas Newsroom.

Reever and Pacelle both praised law enforcement’s efforts to combat illegal gaming. But both said its prevalence is due, in part, to the buffet of other crimes it offers participants.

Roosters rescued from a cockfighting ring in Austin in 2022.
Michael Minasi
Roosters rescued from a cockfighting ring in Austin in 2022.

“Some people ... may go to a cockfight because they're going to be either dealing drugs, guns or whatever, and they'll start seeing the cockfight and they're drawn to that brutality. And then they see how much money exchanges hands,” Reever said.

In a statement, Pacelle’s organization highlighted just a handful of recent busts in Texas that he said articulates how widespread the problem continues to be. They include a February event in Potter County where law enforcement seized about 160 birds and arrested the organizer. Several dozen participants were also turned over to federal immigration agents after sheriff’s deputies suspected them of being in the country illegally.

In October of last year, an anonymous tip led members of the San Jacinto Sheriff’s to raid a clandestine cock fighting ring attended by hundreds. More than a dozen people were arrested after hundreds fled into the nearby woods. Semi-automatic weapons were also found, according to local media reports. And in 2022, a South Carolina man was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute methamphetamine in an alleged trafficking route that went from Texas to Georgia. The drugs were referred to by co-conspirators as “roosters” because of the man’s involvement in cock fighting.

“At the time of his arrest, law enforcement discovered hundreds of brutalized animals and evidence of cock-fighting at his property,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement.

Cross-border shipments

Pacelle said the federal legislation’s aim to halt the transport of the animals via mail would make big strides in combatting cock fighting. Part of the reason is that Mexican crime organizations prefer birds from the United States.

“In Mexico, the cartels don't really want to raise fighting birds. So, they recognize that many of the U.S. cock fighters are many of the best breeders/fighters,” he said.

Birds are also imported, he added, and stay here or are moved through Texas to neighboring states with sophisticated cock fighting operations.

“Texas was just surrounded by the biggest cockfighting states in the U.S.,” he said. “It was a big cockfighting state on its own. But then you just have a tremendous amount of cross-state movement of fighting birds and cross-border movement.”

A timeline on when the U.S. Congress could consider the FIGHT Act is unclear. The offices of U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation or whether they support it.

Texas’ proximity to Mexico exacerbates the problem. But Reever said cock fighting isn’t confined to one region. Part of the way she assists law enforcement is by studying shipping labels to see where some of the birds are being transported.

“We see it all over; it can be intrastate. We have some [cases] where they're being shipped across, maybe to California and to South Carolina. And so, there's no oversight for it,” she said. “It leaves that activity there where anybody can participate.”

It’s also not confined to one culture.

“When you look at some of the biggest producers of cock fighters and who ship their birds, these tremendous venues ... it's a mixture,” she said. “Just like dog fighting, there's no particular person that's going to be involved.”

Copyright 2024 KERA

Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom