The small, unassuming barn sits just below the horizon from Interstate 5, about 10 miles north of Eugene. Since the beginning of the year, the Inner Agency Narcotic Enforcement Team has been snooping around. The barn's owner, Hector Santiago, allegedly purchased the barn for tens of thousands of dollars, cash on the barrel. It was suspicious. Santiago was known to have connections with meth producers and drug runners. His lover's brother is reputed to be one of the top meth lords in the Willamette Valley.
At about seven in the morning in late January, as darkness faded into a winter gray, a dozen officers stormed the barn. They expected to find a web of tubing, beakers, and other meth-producing paraphernalia--what they discovered was far more alarming. Except for a large square mound of dirt ringed by ropes, the barn was nearly empty. Even so, the cavernous interior of the barn was alive with squawking. Along the barn walls were nearly 30 metal cages, each snugly filled with robust game hens.
"We're a bunch of drug cops," Detective Keith Seanor said about his surprising discovery. "I didn't know exactly what was going on, but it looked suspicious."
About once a year, police in Oregon stumble on the sprawling cockfighting circuits that reach from New Mexico to Washington. Like the drug trade, such networks are well organized and secretive. The popularity of cockfighting in Oregon is unknown, but law enforcement agents estimate the fight circuit will draw somewhere around 6000 spectators during the upcoming spring and summer seasons--about the same attendance as the recent high school basketball state championships.
Fights are held in arenas complete with concession stands, armed guards, and bleachers seating upwards of 300. Many are housed in barns like the one in Junction City. Just a few years ago, a major bust on Deer Island, a few miles north of Portland, uncovered almost 400 spectators. Currently, law enforcement agents claim they are casing a major breeder who sponsors fights on his several acres of land near Gresham.
Without any vehicles to properly confiscate and transport the roosters found by Lane County enforcement agents Santiago's barn--and really, with no idea about what to do with the birds--the officers left. They had found plenty of evidence to support a search warrant for the subsequent morning though: fighting tools such as razors and testosterone, as well as videotapes showing roosters being slashed to death. But, when they returned 24 hours later to collect the fighting roosters, the birds had mysteriously vanished back into Oregon's secretive and closely guarded world of game fighting.
"It would be a needle in a haystack to find those birds now," Detective Seanor recently lamented.
ROOSTERS WITH KNIVES
Two birds stand in the middle of a patch of dirt, separated only by a thin piece of plywood. These roosters are elegant animals--golden brown plumage trimmed with rich black feathers. They both stare at the board, calm, almost indifferent to the encouraging shouts around them. Attached to their twig-like legs are razor-sharp blades hooked like paring knives.
There is a moment of stillness when the board is pulled away and the birds face each other. Then, puffing his chest, one stretches his legs while spreading his wings. In a snap, it looks like the bird has doubled to an intimidating size. The other bird squats low and pulls its body in tight. In a second, the bird lunges, beak first, for the exposed chest of his opponent. The fight continues for several minutes until one of the fowls is too weak to stand. Pecked, poked, and slashed, blood mats the bird's royal feathers; it looks as lifeless as a punctured beer can.
Just as in 47 other states, it is a felony to fight roosters in the state of Oregon. But, oddly, it is not illegal to raise game fowl to fight. That is, Oregon remains as one of the few states in the U.S. where farmers can raise and sell game hen and roosters for fighting.
Advocates for animal rights claim that the inconsistency in the criminalization of fighting, but not breeding, is ill-conceived. Like outlawing the use of marijuana but not its production, they say, such uneven enforcement fails to yank the roots from the problem.
In January, at the start of the latest legislative session in Salem, freshman State Senator Ryan Deckert (D-Beaverton) introduced SB 222, a bill to close the loophole on cockfighting. The law would ratchet up penalties for cockfighting to five years in prison and ultimately, would outlaw breeding.
Although it is Deckert's first term in the Senate, he has served two prior terms as a state representative. He is young and well liked around the capitol. The bill, Deckert believed, would sail through committees and into a clear majority vote on the Senate floor. It was more of a formality--closing a wayward loophole in the law--rather than groundbreaking activism. "In a civilized society," said Deckert, "having two roosters with knifes trying to kill each other is not something we should have."
Regardless, within days, the bill was dead. Assigned to the Business Committee--of which Deckert is a member--the chairman Sen. Roger Beyer (R-Molalla) refused to give the bill a hearing. The refusal to consider a bill is regarded as a professional slap in the face. Of the 20 bills Deckert introduced this session, the bill to ban cock breeding was low on his priorities. But, as he stated in a recent interview, this has changed: "Now, it's personal." Even so, the bill has not been resurrected in the Senate.
"Don't underestimate these guys," explains Kelly Peterson, Program Coordinator for the Oregon Chapter of the Humane Society, referring to the tightly knit group of game cock breeders in the state. "You don't hear a lot from them on an average day and then all of a sudden, they are everywhere."
Although cock fighters and game breeders are notoriously clandestine, they also have an impressive track record for quashing any legislation restricting their trade. Peterson points out that when a citizens' group tried to place the matter on the voter's ballot in Oklahoma last fall, signature gatherers were harassed and physically threatened. Eventually the group rounded up enough signatures, but then the game breeders filed a lawsuit that sidetracked the initiative into a contentious court battle. Hog-tied with lawsuits, the initiative did not make the ballot. In Oregon, game breeders have hired a high- priced mouthpiece, local attorney Ross Day, to lobby the state legislators to vote against any bill that would ban breeding.
At stake is a piece of the estimated billion- dollar-a-year global industry of breeding and cockfighting. One breeder in eastern Oregon claimed that a week prior to speaking with the Mercury, he had sold several breeding hens to the father of lightweight boxer Oscar de la Hoya for about $500 a pop. He also said that just a day earlier, he had been contacted by Continental Airlines who inquired about the logistics of retrofitting a cargo plane to crate game hens. Continental Airlines, he claimed, was planning to begin weekly trips shipping game hens to the Philippines, where the sport is widely popular (and legal).
Also at stake is a sport that historians can trace back 6000 years to Rome, where the blood-letting spectacle of two birds slashing at each other was used to warm crowds up for the main events. Currently in the U.S., there are three monthly magazines all dedicated exclusively to cockfighting and breeding. The oldest, Grit & Steel, has a circulation greater than 50,000 and has been in publication longer than Time magazine.
But, over the past 20 years, public sentiment has chilled towards animal husbandry and the use of animals for entertainment. By proposing--and in the majority of states, passing--bans on fighting and breeding, animal rights activists have attacked cockfighting. With Deckert's bill languishing in the Senate, the Humane Society turned around in early February and lobbied members of Oregon's House of Representatives to propose another bill to ban breeding. Peterson, the representative from the Humane Society, found an unlikely audience with Rep. Jeff Kropf (R-Halsey), a farmer and a Republican. In turn, Rep. Kropf has co-sponsored HB 2930, a carbon copy of Deckert's bill.
Even with bipartisan support, Peterson is cautious about the chances for either bill in the Senate or the House. The bill has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee and a hearing is scheduled for March 29. Like well-trained guerilla soldiers, breeders have been known to sabotage committee hearings by stuffing 60 breeders into a hearing room that only holds 80, leaving just enough room for committee members and the media. The breeders' presence can be overwhelming and, with the state as one of the few where breeding remains legal, Oregon has emerged as the game breeders' Alamo.
THE NEW FACE OF ANIMAL RIGHTS
The banning of cockfighting and game hen breeding has become the unlikely and unwelcome leading edge of animal rights. What makes the proposed ban in Oregon against breeding such a salient issue is that, unlike animal rights activists' effort to protect wildlife like dolphins or wolves, game cocks are domesticated animals. For the first time on such a large, coordinated scale, this proposed ban--and similar legislation on the national level--has brought the battle over animal rights smack dab into the barnyard.
The concentrated effort to absolutely eradicate cockfighting began about 20 years ago. In an attempt to crack down on animal abuse in 1976, Congress amended the Animal Welfare Act to prohibit the interstate trafficking of dogs and other animals for the purposes of fighting. But, before the new law was finalized, a Southern state senator stepped forward and made an exception for fighting birds.
Since then, the Humane Society has led the charge to ban cockfighting and breeding, trying to pass laws state by state. By sheer numbers of laws passed in the states where the sport is now outlawed, the movement scored a quick success. But, despite these victories, they have by no means won the war.
"There are lines you draw in society and this is one of those lines," says Peterson, referring to her reasoning for pushing the ban on game fowl breeding. Peterson is at the forefront of the crusade in Oregon. She is responsible for Deckert's and Kropf's decision to present bills that ban breeding. Growing up in rural Lebanon, OR, much of Peterson's family still works in lumber mills and hunts on the weekends. After graduating from the agriculture-heavy Oregon State University, she went into sales for Cellular One--not the typical seeds from which animal rights activists spring. But then again, the animal rights movement isn't what it once was.
"I'm living by what my conscience tell me," claims Peterson. A few years back, while still working as a sales rep for the cell phone company, she began volunteering as a fundraiser for environmental causes. However, about a year ago, she jumped full time into the animal rights movement, working with the campaign to pass Measure 97, an Oregon ballot initiative that would have placed broad restrictions on animal trapping.
In her early 30s, Peterson is part of the generation indoctrinated by magazines like Ranger Rick and "Save the Whales" publicity campaigns--a generation born alongside the modern day animal rights movement. In 1973, Congress passed seminal legislation for the protection of animals: the Endangered Species Act. Until that point in history, animals were largely protected as part of land use laws. National forests and parks were set aside to preserve migratory routes and breeding grounds. But, the Endangered Species Act marked a significant philosophical change: Instead of holding animals up as a subset of land use protection laws, individual species became top priority.
It has taken almost a generation for this new order to establish itself. In the late '80s, the debate over the spotted owl marked the mid-way point between the old mentality and the new philosophy. But now, ironically, the Endangered Species Act--and the animal rights mentality that it has spawned--has proven to be detrimental in some areas of animal rights. Because a lawmaker must petition for a species to be included for protection, animal rights, in a very real sense, have become a popularity contest. Dolphins, for example, have received sweeping legal protections, while ferocious--but severely endangered--Great White sharks have been left woefully unprotected. This leaves many to ask if Flipper really deserves more attention than a man-eating shark?
On the back side of this uneven hand of protection is a valid defense for game hen breeders: They can claim they have been singled out and prejudiced against. One breeder from Salem pointed out that Sen. Gordon Smith, who has co-sponsored a federal bill to make the interstate transportation of fighting birds illegal, owns a mink farm. Moreover, pointed out the breeder, Smith's daughter serves on the board of directors for the Pendleton Round-Up. (Smith's office failed to return several phone calls inquiring about these accusations; the breeder refused to provide his name, claiming that he was fearful about animal right activists burning down his barn.)
"And what about falconers?" posited the breeder, giving the plaintive complaint that there are about 80 falcon trainers in the state--a number just half that of game fowl breeders--who train birds to kill rabbits and doves. "It just isn't fair."
BREEDING: A MATTER OF ECONOMICS?
In the '80s, when faced with regulations that would cripple their industry, loggers fronted the argument that protecting animals like the pint-sized spotted owl would cost hundreds of jobs. A common bumper sticker read: "A logger only needs the backseat of his truck to make love, why does it take the whole woods for an owl?" It was a plea to lawmakers: Certainly the value of a man's lifestyle and livelihood trumps the rights for a single species. That argument still purchases some sympathy, but by and large, it has been a losing argument in the most recent legislative and legal battles. A fluid job market and the ability to re-train workers for different industries undermines the validity for the "jobs vs. animals" debate.
Former logging and fishing towns like Newport, OR have re-invented themselves as eco-friendly tourist stops. Noticeably, the economic argument that game hen breeding should not be regulated was only a secondary complaint raised by breeders. Most of those who spoke with the Mercury hurried by these arguments, with only cursory mentions about the size and scope of the industry that would be shut down.
Instead, breeders offer the rhetoric that echoes civil rights and pro-choice campaigns in their defense: a keep-your-laws-off-our-industry mentality. These are strenuous debates precisely because breeders have adopted the very language and philosophy of liberal movements--the same seat of ideals with which many supporters of animal rights identify.
"Their agenda is to take away liberties of everyone in the United States," explains Dale Potter, an intrepid breeder in eastern Oregon. After retiring from a career in the Air Force, a neighbor brought over a few chickens and explained theories about genetics and breeding. The science captivated him. "It's like my brains against other breeder's brains," he says, referring to the riddle of producing strong game hens.
Like many breeders, Potter thinks the animal rights movement singles out breeders and, moreover, goes too far with regulations. His speech sounds distinctly familiar to the arguments pro-choice advocates use to describe the far right's efforts to outlaw abortion. "Why can't they just leave us alone? Why are they imposing their morals on us?"
Breeders characterize animal rights activists as zealots. "Their agenda is to eliminate all animal usage," says Potter. "First it's circuses and from there they constantly try to upgrade," he explains. "What are they going to do next, regulate dogs and cats?"
Not surprisingly, the argument that breeders are discriminated against have halted many liberal politicians from outright bans. Unlike the economic argument, which usually only bought votes from conservative representatives, it is as if the liberal rhetoric has come home to roost.
Ten years ago, Eric Sakach infiltrated the fraternity of the Oregon cockfighting circuit. He spent two years hanging out at livestock auctions, showing interest in roosters and birds and, ultimately, being invited to fights.
The crowning achievement for his undercover work was a bust on Deer Island when Sakach led a small army of sheriffs, local police, and DEA agents into a sprawling ranch where three rings were set up and patrolled by armed guards. The agents found nearly $100,000 in cash on the scene and arrested 384 people. Even more disturbing to Sakach is that while rifling through drawers at the site's office, Sakach came across several photographs of himself. After that haunting discovery, Sakach opted for a desk job. Currently, Sakach is the Director of the West Coast Regional Office for the Humane Society in Sacramento.
Sakach is one of only a handful of experts and law enforcement officers with a keen knowledge about cockfighting and breeding. In Oregon, one agent with an extensive background in dog and cock fights in Nevada recently moved to Lane County to work with law enforcement agents. Another officer with a track record for monitoring cock fighters and breeders works with the Game Division of the Oregon State Police, but was recently promoted, taking him one step further away from on-the-ground patrolling. Unlike the drug trade, enforcement agents are few and far between. Moreover, there is scant funding to patrol the state for cock fights.
"The statistical chance to be busted is not higher than being caught for dealing drugs," says Sakach. He points out that even as laws restricting fighting and breeding are amassing, popularity in the sport is swelling--and, subsequently, so are the cash bounties to be won. One bird can easily win $5000 at a single fight. "They are playing the odds that they are not going to get caught," Sakach points out.
Sakach is wary about the chances that Sen. Deckert or Rep. Kropf's bills will survive the gauntlet of committee meetings and lobbyist attacks. A much more likely scenario, he says, is that Oregon will stand alone as the western state where breeding remains legal and penalties for cockfighting lax. Washington, Idaho, and California all have outright bans.
"If that happens," says Sakach, "you can expect that Oregon will become a magnet for cockfighting."