The shocking underbelly of cockfighting in Washington state

Earlier this month, deputies in Yakima County made the decision to shoot and kill more than 60 roosters. That decision was made despite the deputies noting they were aware of efforts already launched by the ATF that would send the roosters to an animal sanctuary in Pierce County.

While the case is garnering attention to cockfighting, a reality has emerged: cockfighting is far more common than people in Washington may suspect.

Despite being outlawed in all 50 states, underground cockfighting has continued throughout the U.S. for years. Tips are regularly filtering into agencies from small towns and major cities, to state and federal agencies.

As a Washington State Gambling Commission agent explained to FOX 13 Seattle, animal fighting investigations are open at all times, and it’s not uncommon for hundreds of birds to be actively training across the state for upcoming illegal fights.

How common is cockfighting?

Cockfighting doesn’t grab headlines on a regular basis, but it's far more common than outsiders may realize.

In a recent editorial titled, "Unfortunately, it is animal fighting season in our state," the deputy commissioner made it clear that we’re in the midst of an influx of cockfighting.

"Cockfighting involves money, drugs and gangs," wrote Deputy Director Gary Drumheller. "Cockfighting derbies equal thousands of dollars exchanged during fighting events."

The events aren’t advertised, as unwanted attention can lead to arrests. However, recent changes in Washington law make it a crime to alter a rooster for cockfighting. 

Typically, fighting birds are "dubbed," meaning their combs, waddle and ear lobes are chopped off to get rid of skin that can torn open during fights. Since cockfighting involves knives being attached to a rooster's feet, minimizing places that a bird can bleed is the goal. It’s common for birds to fight to their death.

An undercover agent explained to FOX 13 Seattle how birds are treated throughout the process:

"It’s a little disturbing, because the bird doesn’t know anything but to kill that other bird. To train the bird to get ready for that you’re mutilating the bird … you’re injecting them with different chemicals and steroids to make them aggressive. I’ve also seen them injected with methamphetamine to get them more aggressive."

"It happens all over the country," Drumheller told FOX 13 Seattle during a recent visit to discuss a number of issues his agency is facing.

"The gatherings happen in rural areas, but you could have people in your own neighborhood that are raising birds."

In Washington, the most recent bust included more than 34 arrests. The investigation was focused on the La Nuestra Familia prison gang, and while arrests were recently made, the work to gather details began back in 2018.

In addition to cockfighting, seizures uncovered guns, thousands of fentanyl pills, meth and cocaine. Search warrants spanned multiple Washington counties, and reached states including Louisiana, Colorado and Arkansas.

"We need the community's help," said Drumheller. "They’re so underground, or so removed from the everyday business, that you’re not going to see it unless it’s happening next to you."

Common signs of cockfighting

The most common sign of cockfighting, or breeding birds for cockfighting, is the sheer number of roosters in a given place. 

It’s common for birds to be tethered to an A-frame shelter, or plastic bin that keeps roosters within visible sight of one-another, but just out of reach to keep them frustrated.

If a rooster is fighting, it will likely be "dubbed," the process in which its comb, waddle and ear lobes are removed. A portion of its leg bone known as the spur, is also removed. The remnant of the spur that remains is where breeders attach knives for the rooster to fight; during training, a tiny boxing glove-like attachment is put over the spur to keep training sessions from becoming lethal.

"Everybody is capable of animal fighting," said Sam Moore, the founder of the Washington State Animal Fighting Task Force.

Moore said if you can imagine a profession, that person could be attending – or, even involved – with cockfighting. 

She explained to FOX 13 Seattle, that based on investigations and tips that have come through her group, she could count roughly 1,000 fighting roosters in the states. However, investigations can often take months or years to complete. During that time, birds are dying.

"We’re constantly trying to keep up and stay informed with our investigation techniques and how we handle these cases.

A lot of these cases are extremely long processes. That’s the frustrating part. We have to make sure we do everything correctly, and it can take a long time," she said.

What happened in Yakima County?

The recent La Nuestra Familia bust involving the Department of Justice involved hundreds of cockfighting birds. In the past, all birds were quickly euthanized, which made "rescue" a poor descriptor often used following cockfighting ring busts.

FOX 13 Seattle's investigative team learned that despite planning to send dozens of roosters and their hen pairs to an animal sanctuary in Pierce County, deputies with the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office ultimately euthanized the birds.

Euthanasia would typically be carried out via injection. Instead, three Yakima County deputies carried the deed out via shotgun. Documentation of the incident, obtained by FOX 13 Seattle, indicated that the deputies called it "humane."

They also cited the reasoning behind the move as "time constraints." Though the owner of the animal sanctuary, Heartwood Haven, that was in talks to receive the roosters, told FOX 13 that no one ever called to see if they were even willing to make the trek to Zillah to seize the birds.

"I literally would have thrown as many crates and carriers in the trailer as possible, and would have been leaving here in 10 minutes," said Kate Tsyrklevich.

A spokesperson from the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment before this story was published. He told FOX 13 that his "command staff" was out of town.

Pressed for a response, and noting the story wouldn’t be published for several days, he responded: "Once I get your questions answered, I will respond."

It is unclear whether the agency plans to address the situation any further.

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