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At the Scene of a History-Making Cockfighting Bust

Tuesday, February 11, 2014 - 10:15am
Matt Bershadker with Field Investigations and Response team members

By ASPCA President & CEO Matt Bershadker

This past weekend, I had the privilege to be among the ASPCA team assisting New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and New York State's Organized Crime Task Force (OCTF)  in the execution of the largest cockfighting takedown in New York State history, and among the largest in United States history.

The ASPCA's Field Investigations and Response team is leading the removal of the animals, as well as identifying and documenting forensic evidence. We also established a temporary shelter at an undisclosed location to house and care for the animals.

On Saturday night, I was at the gruesome scene of the raided cockfights in Queens, New York, where we removed 65 birds. The basement was small and dirty, and seemed permanently haunted by the atrocities it had housed for many years. This cockfighting ring had been holding bimonthly events there since May. That same night, another 50 birds were removed from a Brooklyn pet shop.

The massive show of force on display was awe-inspiring. That the state committed such intense resources sends a strong message to the entire bloodsport industry about the appropriate seriousness with which it considers these crimes.

As horrific as these scenes get, it's important for those of us in animal advocacy to see with our own eyes the depth of man's cruelty towards defenseless animals. No one falls into cockfighting or just shows up at a cockfight by chance. Whether you're participating, refereeing, or just watching, it's a malicious, unconscionable, criminal act.

I knew there were only two reasons for cockfighting: sadism and greed. But as I stood in that dank Queens subterranean room, surrounded by a palpable atmosphere of death and suffering, I realized the two are linked at their core. The greed is inherently sadistic; the sadism is fed and magnified by greed.

Owners and spectators placed bets on the outcomes of the fights, with individual wagers reaching $10,000. These fights, which began in the evening and lasted into early morning hours, pitted dozens of roosters against one another in battles to the death. Often in such cases, the roosters are injected or fed drugs to enhance their performance, mutilated without anesthesia, and forced to wear sharp weapons intended to inflict maximum injury in the pit. Injuries we see include punctured lungs, broken bones, and pierced eyes. Win or lose, the inevitable result is agonizing death.

On Sunday morning, OCTF investigators, with the help of the Ulster County Sheriff's Office, State Police and other local law enforcement, raided a 90-acre farm in Plattekill. There, the ASPCA recovered approximately 4,000 more birds, belonging to rooster owners from all over the Northeast, including New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

These arrests and the enormous number of animal seized should open some eyes to the modern face of this abhorrent crime; it's both more prevalent and more savage than most dare to think.

While there are obvious differences between roosters and more typical companion animals, let there be no mistake in our position, or weakening of our resolve: Cockfighting is a very serious crime, and an example of animal cruelty at its most heinous and deplorable. No animal should be forced to fight for human amusement and profit.

It's encouraging to know that most people agree on this issue, and stand united to ending the brutality, whether it takes place on a rural farm, a city pet shop, a residential basement, or anywhere else.

Cockfighting is illegal in all 50 states, and punishable as a felony in 40 states. The possession of birds for fighting is prohibited in 38 states, and being a spectator is illegal in 43 states.

We were happy to see that the Farm Bill signed by President Obama last week includes a measure to strengthen federal animal fighting laws by making attending an animal fight a federal offense. It also imposes additional penalties for bringing a child to an animal fight.

Still, while this weekend's efforts removed thousands of roosters and hens from cruel abuse, there are many thousands of animals out there suffering the same sad fate.

The ASPCA will continue to partner with law enforcement, champion anti-cruelty legislation, and be present on the front lines to ensure that we're doing all we can to end the brutality, including prosecuting participants to the fullest extent of the law.

Doing less would not only leave animals unprotected, but would signal to society that certain forms of abject cruelty are conscionable, that we don't care about desensitizing our society—and our children— to despicable animal abuse.

We can't let that happen, and this strong collaborative act of investigation, intervention and enforcement is a loud step toward our shared goal of wiping out cockfighting in this country. You can help us take the next step by sharing this story with friends, neighbors, colleagues, and state or federal representatives.