Roosters set for Pierce County sanctuary shot, killed by Yakima County agents

Editor's note: The following article delves into the sensitive and distressing topic of cockfighting and animal cruelty. 

The stillness and silence weigh heavily as Kate Tsyrklevich traverses her farm in Roy. Dozens of empty cages, enclosures, and pens punctuate the silence — absent are the once-frequent rooster crows that filled the air.

"It was the most sinking feeling you could imagine," Tsyrklevich recounted to FOX 13 Seattle, reflecting on the moment she received a phone call from a federal agent. The voice on the other end conveyed the unsettling news: the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office not only made the call to euthanize 64 roosters, but shot each rooster one after the other.

While euthanizing roosters involved in cockfighting rings is not uncommon, the method of dispatching the animals — by gunfire — is highly unusual. And while such actions might occur in isolated instances, in large-scale animal cruelty cases, it’s unheard of. Tsyrklevich’s group, Heartwood Haven, however, is trying to change that. 

"It’s just devastating," said Tsyrklevich. "They all had homes, they had placement, they would have had wonderful lives if it wasn’t for this unnecessary event."

Details remain hazy as Tsyrklevich’s information came through a federal agency working on an ongoing cockfighting ring investigation on the east side of the state. It was made clear to Tsyrklevich that a seizure warrant was in the works, and she’d had contact with members of the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office. It appears, however, that a separate animal cruelty call was received, and the agency made the decision to put down the animals in a peculiar way.

A rooster from a previous cockfighting ring bust that was rehomed by Heartwood Haven out of Pierce County.

A public information officer was contacted on Friday about the incident, though they said answers likely wouldn’t be available for several days — emphasizing that "command staff" were out of town. 

Pressed for answers, on a reasonable timeline the response given was short: "Once I get your questions answered, I will respond."

Tsyrklevich wondered why the response was more calculated than the decision to kill dozens of roosters. The animal control officer was on the site on a Friday, and made the decision to kill the birds.

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

Cockfighting: A hidden reality in Washington state

While cockfighting may not grab headlines on a regular basis, it’s a far more common practice than outsiders may realize.

In a recent editorial released by the Washington State Gambling Commission 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.

That includes a case from early April involving La Nuestra Familia, a Mexican-American prison gang, that was linked to cockfights, drugs and more. Hundreds of roosters from Zillah and Outlook were seized, with at least 40 of the roosters directed to Heartwood Haven, and then successfully rehomed.

"We have complaints on both sides of the mountain," said a Washington State Gambling Commission undercover agent. "There’s more than goes on than people actually know about."

Sam Moore, the founder of the Washington State Animal Fighting Task Force, went a step further, pointing out that at this moment in time, she could ballpark the number of known fighting birds in the state at, or above, 1,000.

"Some of the cases that have come through the task force … I’m at almost one thousand easily," she told FOX 13 Seattle during a sit-down interview.

"A lot of these cases are an extremely long process," Moore noted. "They can take anywhere from a year to two years in cases."

Cockfighting is inherently risky for the birds subjected to it. The birds are often strapped with knives and forced to fight until at least one of the birds can no longer fight. This often results in death. However, some birds are tossed to the side, still breathing, but ultimately die inhumanely as the next fight continues.

As Moore explained, it’s about greed. He says those who partake in cockfighting take pride in their birds, though the pride is truly engulfed in the gambling aspect and the money each bird can earn. And while fights are more commonly taking place in rural areas, fighting birds can be found in all sorts of settings.

"Everybody is capable of participating in animal fighting," she said. "It’s not exclusive to one area."

What's involved in cockfighting?

When you know what to look for, it’s pretty easy to spot a fighting rooster, including the process of removing body parts known as "dubbed." 

Cockfighting roosters have their combs, waddle and earlobes chopped off in the early stages of their development, often without veterinary support, since it’s a telltale sign of cockfighting. The body parts are removed to decrease the number of locations an opposing rooster can peck, or pull on to draw blood during a fight.

Roosters also have a part of their leg bone, the spur, removed so that knives can be attached to the foot and used to stab other birds during a fight.

Fighting roosters are typically housed in A-frame pens where they’re tethered, so that they can see one another, but are just out of reach of one another to keep them agitated.

Despite being illegal in all 50 states and U.S. territories, cockfighting has a long tradition and involves specific training regimens. Roosters are also pricey, and often are tied to various bloodlines of past "winners."

It’s relatively easy to track down training guides, and formulas can even be purchased online for various purposes. Investigators say it’s not unusual for birds to be drugged for fights to squeeze every last second of life a bird can offer, in an effort to win a fight.

Animal cruelty, however, is only part of the story. The seedy underbelly of cockfighting can extend far beyond animal cruelty.

"You have drug dealing, illegal guns, money laundering, and you have gambling … sometimes there is prostitution," an undercover agent told Fox 13 Seattle. "It isn’t just cockfighting, you have all these other crimes associated with it, as well."

In the case of the recent bust involving La Nuestra Familia in Eastern Washington, multiple state and federal agents worked together. Thirty-four people were arrested, and in addition to cockfighting charges, 37 guns were seized, with thousands of fentanyl pills, meth and cocaine.

Heartwood Haven, a place of refuge

Heartwood Haven was created to save animals not deemed worthy of saving. Throughout the farm, you’ll find everything from pigs that were part of lab experiments and turkeys that weren’t being fed, to roosters that were forced to fight in a previous life.

The goal wasn’t to start an animal sanctuary. But if it weren’t for a rescue rooster that Tsyrklevich took on, none of this may have happened.

Porter, Tsyrklevich's first ever rescue, was a former cockfighting rooster. She was warned that fighting birds were aggressive, and didn’t know anything else. Porter was quite the opposite of what you’d expect. He was calm, more likely to go for a walk with Tsyrklevich around the neighborhood, than attack anyone.

"I guess that one little rooster, his personality and charisma, changed our view and inspired this whole thing," recounts Tsyrklevich.

Fast-forward seven years and Heartwood Haven is a working non-profit with a regular menagerie of animals. Volunteers and visitors have grown the facility to 40+ acres, more than 10 times its original size.

"These roosters are not human aggressive," said Tsyrklevich while holding one of her farm's roosters, a few weeks prior to the dozens of roosters being killed in Yakima County. 

"They are trained to fight other roosters, so that’s what they do," she said. In the past, a majority of roosters were destroyed. Part of it was because they didn’t know better, but even if they know better it’s hard to find resources."

That’s why Heartwood Haven has grown in recent years. Only a few places can handle the hundreds of birds that are often linked to large-scale operations, which are more common than you’d think. Heartwood Haven has figured out a way to fundraise, find volunteers and groups willing to partner and take on rescues, and find individual homes that are willing to take roosters. As Tsyrklevich explained, it’s common to hear back from families about how excited they are about the roosters they have re-homed on their property.

"It feels good," she said with a laugh. "Yeah, it definitely feels like we’re creating a precedent. Proof that we can do this."

Sadly, it would only be a matter of days until dozens of roosters were euthanized. 

It’s unclear whether law enforcement is willing to move toward a new precedent, creating a new path for animal cruelty victims to receive a second chance at life. But there is hope within the walls of Heartwood Haven that one day a legislator could draft a plan that would require groups to first seek a willing sanctuary to take on animals before putting them down.

Tsyrklevich and her volunteers have already proved there are ways to get it done. In the weeks leading up to the euthanasia of dozens of roosters, they scrambled to find homes for each rooster from the previous La Nuestra Familia rescue. A total of 41 roosters, many with a hen pair, were moved to shelter via vans and an airplane.

"Honestly, it’s pretty exhausting," she said. "Even with this last group, it was so much work, and we definitely worked hard because we basically found placement for all of them within two weeks."

If you’d like to learn more or donate to Heartwood Haven, you can do so via the program's website.

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