Cockfighting, COVID-19, and Newcastle Disease – A Deadly International Trio

ANIMAL WATCH-On Monday, August 3, Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies raided a Chatsworth property in the San Fernando Valley to investigate alleged animal cruelty and possession of gamefowl for fighting purposes and found 2,000 to 3,000 roosters that were being bred for cockfighting.

There were also dogs and several hundred livestock animals in "various states of health," according to ABC 7 news.  

The search warrant was served on the multi-acre property at approximately 7 a.m. Several people on the property were detained, according to the report.

The photos provided by the LASDO showed numerous young roosters crowded into the same cages, dogs, and other animals. 

According to Deputy Juanita Navarro-Suarez of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, investigators will be at the scene, in the unspecified, unincorporated area north of the Ronald Reagan (118) Freeway, for a few days, Personnel from the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control are examining and documenting the animals found at the operation. 

Although the Chatsworth investigation does not equal the magnitude with the massive cockfighting raid in May of 2017, when 7,000 birds were removed from a cockfighting operation in Val Verde, just north of Los Angeles, the August 3 bust is part of on-going brutal and illegal activity in California that involves one of the most severe forms of intentional animal cruelty. 

The video of the raid in 2017 shows countless roosters, tied individually to blue barrels waiting for their turn to be fought, as their crows ring out across the canyon, NPR reports.  

"This latest bust - with the seizure of thousands of fighting animals -- reveals that cockfighting remains a robust illegal criminal enterprise in California," states Wayne Pacelle, President of Animal Wellness Action (AWA).  "Even though the Southland has had two major outbreaks of Newcastle Disease due to illegal movement of fighting birds, the illicit industry persists, and we need enforcement actions like this one to suppress this practice." 


Second Cockfighting Ring Broken Up in a Week in Riverside County 

On June 8, 2020, authorities with Riverside County Department of Animal Control reported 10 dead roosters were found at the scene of an illegal cockfight set up in a palm date orchard in Thermal, south of Coachella Valley High School, according to agency spokesman John Welsh. 

Riverside County sheriff's deputies reportedly arrived at the scene amid an active cockfight and participants fled, many leaving their vehicles parked near the makeshift ring built of plywood. 

In addition to the dead roosters, animal control officers discovered two birds suffering from severe injuries -- both had to be euthanized -- as well as 33 live roosters, he said. 

It was the second illegal cockfighting ring bust in Riverside County within a weekAnother operation was discovered May 31 in the western portion of the county, with about 130 birds seized. The two people who remained at the scene were arrested, Welsh said. 


On April 29, 2020, Fox News reported, “Cockfighting ring busted ‘with coliseum-style gladiator fights.’ Hundreds of birds were reportedly confiscated in Northern California at a reported party violating the State's coronavirus stay-at-home order.” 

The Alameda County Sheriff's Office said in a news release that deputies following up a complaint discovered 50 to 60 people at the event on a sprawling property in Pleasanton, east of Oakland and recovered hundreds of birds and a cockfighting ring.  An Oakland Police Department helicopter had flown over the location and noticed a large group of parked vehicles and people on the property. As officers arrived, 20 people fled and ran into a wooded area surrounding the property. 


Cockfighting is illegal in every state in the U.S. It is a felony in 39 states and can be a felony or a misdemeanor in California. It is also a federal crime, prosecuted under the United States Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. § 2156(a). California has t significantly increased the penalties for engaging in, sponsoring, and selling equipment for or attending a cockfight.  (CA cockfighting laws are found under Penal Code Section 597.) 

Cockfighting is a cruel and painful blood sport for "entertainment and gambling" in which male gamecocks (roosters), which are bred specifically for fighting, have spurs or short knives attached to their legs. The two birds are then placed in an enclosed area (called a cockpit) to fight each other until one of the roosters is killed or refuses to fight. The winner is usually given a few weeks to recuperate and then is fought again (his reward for winning).  The loser, if not yet dead from drowning in his own blood, may be thrown into a trash can or garbage bag until his suffering mercifully ends in death. 


On August 6, 2020, an in-depth investigative report by WKRC (Cincinnati) Local 12 investigation triggers call for crackdown on cockfighting industry in Kentucky received worldwide attention. 

WKRC's Duane Pohlman reported that a farmer near Indianapolis "gave us a tour of his farm where he’s raising dozens of majestic roosters who are tethered to triangular sheds," but denies they are being raised to fight, although he was charged in 2019 with purchasing an animal for that purpose. 

As in many busts of cockfighting operations, the enforcement officers seized the roosters but didn't take the chicks, which the report points out, "are now those roosters who are nearly full grown." 

And while insisting that he's not raising the birds for fighting, he told WKRC that "raising roosters is profitable." 

Across Kentucky, massive farms are documented in the Animal Wellness Action report, Wayne Parcelle, President of AWA states. “This report documents an incredible cluster of cockfighting complexes in Kentucky." Seven Kentucky farms allegedly ship fighting roosters around the world to fight everywhere from California and Colorado to Mexico and the Philippines, he said. 


The Local 12 investigation, “Cockfighting: Cruelty and Contamination,” which exposed big cockfighting arenas in Morgantown and other parts of Kentucky," was acknowledged and WKRC was thanked by Pacelle at a recent news conference for helping his group focus on Kentucky. 

Kentucky is one of the states with weak misdemeanor cockfighting laws and no penalty for attendees. 

Former Kentucky Attorney General Chris Gorman nearly told the station, "“I’m shocked, disappointed, outraged, and embarrassed. We need to strengthen our laws.” 

State Senator Morgan McGarvey of Louisville is now promising "a bill will be introduced to change that," according to the WKRC report. 


In Guam, there is relatively no commercial poultry industry and no competitions for show birds of any consequence on the island. Guam has, on the other hand, cultivated a robust cockfighting industry.

Yet, in a study completed in 2019 by Animal Wellness Action (AWA) and  Animal Wellness Foundation (AWF) based in Washington, D.C., 71 fighting-cock breeders were identified and ascertained to be exporting roosters to Guam at a rate of approximately 100 every other day. This was done through the U.S. Postal Service in more than 500 illegal shipments. The top five major exporters--accounting for 52 percent of the nearly 9,000 gamefowl -- were in California, Oklahoma and Hawaii, North Carolina and Alabama, the study found. 

The top 10 importers received about 60 percent of the birds and it is probable that these “importers” are cockfighters or “cockfighting brokers” who sold birds to others involved in this blood sport, according to AWA, and this is possible due to loopholes in the Animal Welfare Act. 

On December 202019, a federal law signed by President Donald Trump took effect and closed some loopholes in the Animal Welfare Act, forbidding animal fighting in every part of the United States, including the territories. Since 2002, it’s been a crime – and a felony offense since 2007 – to transport fighting animals between the states or to the territories. 

"Our investigation unearthed a criminal transport network blatantly subverting federal law, and we are bringing it to the attention of the authorities in Guam and the U.S.," Pacelle announced.

The group also ran a 30-second TV ad during the Super Bowl broadcast on Guam, featuring two Guamanians who describe cockfighting as “about gambling, not about our culture” and ending “the medieval practice of having animals fight and die for our amusement.” 

(See also:  Cockfighting: 9,000 Birds Illegally Shipped to Guam, Animal ...) 


On Feb. 15, 2020, JAVMA News announcedNEWCASTLE REEMERGES, SPREADS IN CALIFORNIA, as "State officials blame broken quarantines, call for added biosecurity." 

"The outbreak of Virulent Newcastle disease resurged in Southern California as people broke quarantines by moving birds and farming equipment," state authorities said. 

After two months without any known infections, “State Veterinarian Annette Jones wrote in a Dec. 23, 2019, alert, "We now have 20 new cases under investigation, all linked to the recent Bloomington area outbreak,” and by Dec. 31, the U.S. Department of Agriculture data showed that two of the new infections were in Riverside County and one in Los Angeles County. 

Virulent Newcastle disease is a contagious, untreatable, and deadly viral respiratory infection of birds. “Last year the disease was spread from San Bernardino to LA and Riverside counties and beyond, leading to widespread highly infected areas, infected poultry farms, the death of over 1.2 million birds, and significant financial and emotional strain on poultry owners and disease control agencies,”

Dr. Jones said. About 430,000 of the dead birds were in three commercial chicken flocks in Riverside County east of Los Angeles, according to information from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The rest were backyard birds in Riverside, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Ventura counties. 

Dr. Annette Jones added that infections occurred among chickens raised at homes on the outskirts of Los Angeles where former farms and stables have become extensions of the city and that "the outbreak spread across areas that vary by wealth and culture." 

Although the disease spreads from homes with backyard chicken flocks, the deaths are highest in commercial poultry facilities, and State officials warn that "birds spread the disease before becoming ill, so halting poultry movement is the only way to stop the outbreak." 

Officials warned poultry producers at that time that they need to maintain heightened bio-security standards at least through March 1, 2020. 

Newcastle virus survives long-distance trips, as shown by single infection sites in Utah, Arizona, and Northern California. 

"Our greatest obstacle to eliminating the disease is people who are spreading the virus by moving sick birds from infected areas to non-infected areas trying to save them," Dr. Jones advised. 


An April 6, 2020, report from Davao City, Philippines, by Rappler.Com confirms that "Eleven of the 12 deaths due to COVID-19 in Region 11 were linked to a cockfight derby held at Matina Gallera, Davao City, from March 6 to 13, [2020] according to the Department of Health. 

Dr. Cleofe Tabada, medical officer of Regional Epidemiology and Surveillance, also confirmed that the sharp increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the region was due to the cockfight. (READ: Cockfight aficionados in Davao City told to self-quarantine.)  

One of the fight aficionados already had the virus prior to the derby and spread the infection when he attended the event. Also, a total of 427 derby attendees had so far been identified, 139 of them were from Davao City and all are being monitored.  Among the city residents, 82 had COVID-19 symptoms while 65 were confirmed positive with COVID-19. 

“As to the secondary contact tracing, we have also identified more than a thousand already,” Tabada added. 

Despite the stern warning of Mayor Sara Z. Duterte to cancel or postpone activities that would gather a large number of attendees, the event pushed through on March 7, 10, and 12, 2020, a later report stated. The Division Chief of the Business Permit and Licensing Division (BPLD) should have stopped issuing permits for events such as the derby, Rappler.com reports. 


U.S. Attorney Gretchen Shappert advised residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands in an August 4 news release that animal fighting, including cockfighting, is prohibited by federal law, under the Agricultural Improvement Act, according to the St. Thomas Source. 

 “Law enforcement officers in our communities have received recent reports that cockfighting matches are continuing, even though the federal law prohibiting these activities went into effect on Dec. 20, 2019,” Shappert said. 

“Cockfighting promoters need to understand that participation in an animal-fighting venture is a felony that carries a penalty up to five years in prison,” she affirmed.  (This would warn also against dog fighting and other staged combat of any animals.) 


On July 26, the Mayor of Tianguistengo, Mexico,  declared cockfighting “a cultural asset” and stated that this gruesome blood sport “gives identity to the municipality of Tianguistengo." This declaration was made at the unveiling of a plaque and statue honoring fighting cocks in the town square, met with approval from the municipality’s Association of Combat Bird Breeders, but was virulently opposed by animal rights activists in the municipality, according to Mexico News Daily

"An estimated 3,000 people breed fighting cocks in Hidalgo, and the industry provides employment for 100,000 people, state legislator Rafael Garnica had announced last October." 

However, Erika Ortigoza Vázquez, director of the animal rights organization Fundación Invictus, denounced the declaration, which "exalts torture and the sadistic death of these birds, in addition to promoting illegal activities such as illegal gambling, carrying arms, and irresponsible consumption of alcohol. . .,” she stated in a letter, Mexico News Daily reports.  

“Unfortunately, instead of Mayor Febronio Rodríguez promoting to the public the importance of staying home,  avoiding large gatherings and taking extreme sanitary measures, he is more concerned with justifying cockfights,” she said. 


Laws and action opposing cockfighting may seem to be directly for the welfare of animals, but it is increasingly a necessary protection for residents worldwide who, due to the expanding transmission of deadly diseases, are also victimized by actions of those with no concern for our health, safety or peace.


(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former City of LA employee and a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.