Showing Animals Respect & Kindness caught the “great escape” on video
PINE KNOT, Kentucky––Duane Pohlman, chief investigative reporter for the Cincinnati television station WKRC, aired quite a scoop about cockfighting continuing in Kentucky on Monday, July 6, 2020, using undercover video collected by Showing Animals Respect & Kindness (SHARK) with Humane Farming Association Funding.
At that, though, Pohlman overlooked perhaps the two most remarkable accomplishments of the months-long investigation.
Not aired by WKRC was a recorded telephone call made by SHARK investigator Stuart Chaifetz to Kentucky State Police on June 6, 2020, informing them of a cockfight in progress in a barn behind Honest Abe’s bar, at 303 Low Gap Road in Pine Knot.
The Kentucky State Police dispatcher promised Chaifetz that state troopers would respond. Chaifetz promised to call back in two hours for an update.
But SHARK was already prepared to document what happened next. A SHARK hidden camera captured two Kentucky State Police cars arriving at the scene of the cockfight––and then backing aside to allow 33 vehicles, mostly new-looking pickup trucks, to make their escape.
Someone, evidently, had tipped the cockfighting crowd off.
The SHARK video was sharp enough to permit identification of many of the license plates, but because the state troopers did not witness illegal activity, no one was arrested.
This was a familiar outcome for SHARK. A year ago, assisted by In Defense of Animals, SHARK investigators exposed the alleged cockfighting activities of Harlan County, Kentucky Detention Center employees Ronnie Bennet and Kyle Simpson, who are also father and son.
“We were shocked to see how open and brazen these Harlan County Detention Center employees are with their illegal cockfighting farm and operation,” Chaifetz alleged, adding “That may very well be because they think they are untouchable.”
The SHARK and In Defense of Animals exposé was extensively amplified by animal advocacy media, including ANIMALS 24-7, but there was no coverage from mainstream media, and no response was forthcoming from law enforcement.
No cockfighting on Fourth of July
The Pohlman report, meanwhile, was in production for approximately 19 days. Rumors that it was to be broadcast on July 6, 2020, or possibly a day earlier, may have reached the alleged cockfighters.
That much is not certain. What is certain is that even though the Fourth of July is traditionally a big day for cockfighting nationwide, there was no cockfighting behind Honest Abe’s bar over the Fourth of July weekend.
Explained Pohlman, “SHARK, an animal rights group founded and run by Steve Hindi from Chicago, has stood up for a variety of animals for decades, but funding from Humane Farming Association is allowing the group to focus its efforts on cockfighting.”
Hindi and Chaifetz demonstrated to Pohlman how they discovered the alleged cockfighting operation in Pine Knot, Kentucky, and keep it under surveillance, using drone video.
Hindi estimated that they were “Probably looking at 150-plus vehicles” on the Saturday that Pohlman accompanied SHARK.
The SHARK team identified license plates from Illinois, Indiana, Alabama, and “lots, lots from Tennessee,” Hindi told Pohlman
Pine Knot, a hamlet of about 1,300 people, ten miles north of the Tennessee border, only looks as if it is lost in the hills. In actuality, Pine Knot is only a few hours’ drive from 14 of the biggest cities in what might be called the “cockfighting belt,” including Asheville, Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Cincinnati, Columbus, Evansville, Greensboro, Huntsville, Indianapolis, Lexington, Louisville, and Nashville.
“Betting was fast and furious”
Continued Pohlman, “A high-definition camera hidden in a cap on Hindi’s head began rolling, capturing video of a man in the driveway, charging each car that was entering.”
The parking fee was $30.
“Inside,” Pohlman narrated, “Hindi’s hidden camera captured a lot of cash exchanging through lots of hands. The betting was fast and furious as bid-shouting competed with the constant crowing from fighting roosters.
“While some say the fighting is natural,” Pohlman observed “the video clearly shows the roosters walking away after injuring the other bird. The video also shows their handlers, who are often the owners, coaxing the birds back into battle, even though the roosters have already often suffered fatal injuries.
“Roosters have just two legs”
“The U.S. Animal Welfare Act is supposed to make cockfighting a felony,” Pohlman explained, and energetic law enforcement could certainly be expected to confirm the interstate transportation of gamecocks and cockfighting paraphernalia that would invoke federal penalties, “but in Kentucky, it’s still listed as a misdemeanor. And the language within Kentucky’s animal cruelty law is confusing and difficult to enforce, stating it’s a crime to be ‘…a spectator or vendor at an event where a four (4) legged animal is caused to fight for pleasure or profit.’
“Of course, roosters have just two legs.”
But Pohlman focused on the possible public health risk posed by cockfighting, also a frequent vector for disease outbreaks among factory-farmed poultry.
More than 1.2 million poultry were killed in California alone during 2019 to control an outbreak of Newcastle disease linked to birds raised and transported by cockfighters.
Upward of 200 million poultry have been killed worldwide since 2003 to control the H5N1 avian influenza, which has been spread chiefly by cockfighters and has killed about 375 humans, mostly women who kept small backyard flocks in the developing world.
Said Pohlman, “As disturbing as the cruelty [of cockfighting] is, another threat becomes apparent in this large crowd packed inside the arena: a crowd that gathers while a pandemic continues to rage. In the video, you can clearly see hundreds of people standing shoulder to shoulder inside an arena with no masks to protect against the spread of COVID-19.”
Bacteria, avian coronaviruses, bird flu
University of North Carolina at Greensboro professor of chemistry and biochemistry enumerated for Pohlman some of the other zoonotic diseases that may be spread by cockfighters: “Salmonella, listeria, hypobacteria, campylobacter.”
There are also avian coronaviruses.
“And major diseases like avian influenza can threaten chickens, other poultry and, even though the risk is slight, can be a threat to humans too,” Pohlman summarized. “According to a report from Congressional Research Service, which researches topics for U.S. lawmakers, more than 48 million chickens, turkeys and other poultry were euthanized to stem the spread of avian influenza in 2014-2015.
Keeping the birds “alive and kicking”
“Despite these viral and bacterial hazards,” Pohlman explained on, “blood and other fluids from the roosters mix directly with humans in cockfights. In disturbing sections of the [SHARK] undercover video, Local 12 watched as the handlers blew on the backsides of birds, sucked on their necks, and in one case, a handler stuck the entire head of the rooster in his mouth.
“When we asked what was happening, Local 12 was told all of these are common techniques in cockfighting to keep the birds alive and kicking.”
Who else had a leak?
As well as the apparent leaks of SHARK and WKRC investigative findings to the alleged cockfighting participants, there might also have been a leak somehow to Animal Wellness Action, a Los Angeles-based organization headed by former Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle.
Headlined the Chatanooga Times Free Press on July 2, 2020, just four days ahead of the Pohlman broadcast, “Persistent’ cockfighting in eastern Tennessee worrisome during the COVID-19 pandemic, animal welfare officials say.”
Recited Pacelle to reporters Elizabeth Fite and Allison Shirk Collins, paralleling on-camera statements Chaifetz made to Pohlman, “If a bird is stabbed in the lungs or some other part of the respiratory system, some of the cockfighters will literally put their mouth over the bird’s mouth and suck the fluids that are filling the passageway of the birds in order to give them a little bit of new life, because they are gambling on the outcome.”
Like the Pohlman exposé, the Chatanooga Times Free Press article spotlighted the risk of COVID-19 spreading through cockfighting arenas.
“While cockfighting is a felony in 42 states, it is not in Tennessee,” Fite and Collins mentioned.
Fite and Collins also spotlighted a recent report from Animal Wellness Action and the affiliated Animal Wellness Foundation that Tennessee breeders sold 148 gamecocks to Guam between November 2016 and September 2019.