Cockfighting may be accelerant behind COVID-19 explosion
MONTEREY, California––The 50,000-acre River wildfire, destroying at least 13 homes, and the 7,000-acre Carmel wildfire, razing 50 homes, reportedly forced the evacuation of more than 500 animals to the SPCA for Monterey County shelter during the fourth week of August 2020––and then forced the animals’ re-evacuation to the Monterey County Fairgrounds.
That burning issue easily upstaged the ongoing failure of Monterey County code enforcement and law enforcement to effectively address another long-smoldering issue, the open proliferation of cockfighting and unlicensed game fowl breeding––and that failure in turn may explain another heated topic in the county, the continuing explosion of COVID-19 cases at a rate significantly higher than the norms for the state of California.
The crude COVID-19 case rate for Monterey County, 17.5 cases per 1,000 people, with 55 deaths so far, is identical to the state rate, but the state rate is skewed by extremely high rates in a relatively few counties.
COVID-19 rates & cockfighting converge
Over the fourteen days from August 14, 2020 to August 28, 2020, according to public health data evaluated by the Los Angeles Times, the six California counties with the highest new COVID-19 case rates are Fresno, Kings, Madera, Stanislaus, Merced, and Monterey, all rural or semi-rural counties, albeit that some have significant population centers.
All six counties have markedly larger Hispanic or Latino populations than the California norm of 39.4%, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, at 53.8%, 55.3%, 58.8%, 47.6%, 61.0%, and 59.4%, respectively.
“After adjusting for population, Latinos are now 3.3 times more likely to test positive than white people,” the Los Angeles Times noted, without suggesting a reason why.
What the Los Angeles Times analysis did not mention, probably because the analysts had no reason to be aware of it, is that Fresno, Kings, Madera, Stanislaus, Merced, and Monterey counties have all been reputed cockfighting hotbeds for decades, largely due to notoriously lax law enforcement.
Cockfighting is practiced by criminal elements among many ethnicities. In the Appalachians, most cockfighters are Anglos. In some big cities, many cockfighters are of Southeast Asian ancestry.
In California, however, as throughout the Southwest and Midwest, 94.4% of the cockfighters arrested since 2015 have had Hispanic/Latino surnames.
HFA & SHARK sue Monterey County
On August 27, 2020 the Humane Farming Association, headquartered 133 miles north of Monterey in San Rafael, California, and the Chicago-based animal rights organization Showing Animals Respect & Kindness (SHARK), jointly filed suit in the California state court for Monterey County, charging the county with “refusing to enforce its anti-cockfighting ordinance, allowing over a thousand illegal rooster-keeping facilities across the county to operate, perpetuating animal cruelty as well as depriving taxpayers of hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from fees assessed on violators.”
Non-enforcement of the ordinance may explain at least some of the high rate of COVID-19 infection in Monterey County.
Weak enforcement of anti-cockfighting laws might also explain the high rates of COVID-19 infection in Fresno, Kings, Madera, Stanislaus, and Merced counties.
No masks at cockfights
“Even amid the global coronavirus pandemic,” says the Humane Farming Association and SHARK lawsuit, “large crowds congregate to bet on illegal cockfights; a recent investigation uncovered hundreds of spectators gathering, without wearing masks or social distancing, while human handlers sucked blood from the necks and heads of wounded roosters.”
Explained the plaintiffs via PR Newswire, “While the county requires individuals with five or more roosters to obtain a permit, there is not one valid permit on file.
“According to the lawsuit,” the PR Newswire continued, “Monterey County is required by its local anti-cockfighting ordinance to act on the public’s complaints of illegal rooster-keeping operations in order to shut them down. The county is also required to collect fees from rooster-keeping facilities operating in violation of the law.”
Advancing Law for Animals
Through aerial drone investigations,” the Humane Farming Association and SHARK said, they “have discovered numerous illegal rooster-keeping operations. These unlawful operations hold dozens or hundreds of roosters, without a permit, often in squalid conditions, and operators should be subject to prosecution.
Although the Humane Farming Association and SHARK have repeatedly reported a laundry-list of violators to Monterey County,” they charged, “the county refuses to undertake its mandatory duties under the law.”
Represented by Advancing Law for Animals, a nonprofit law firm which has previously represented the Cincinnati antivivisection society Stop Animal Exploitation Now and the Diane Warren Foundation in successful animal advocacy cases, the Humane Farming Association and SHARK seek “a court order requiring, among other things, Monterey County and related divisions/departments to perform inspections mandated by law, and collect revenue as required from violators,” summarized the PR Newswire.
Cockfighting suspect cited for “social distancing” violation
Testified Showing Animals Respect & Kindness founder Steve Hindi in October 2019 to the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, “In August 2018, SHARK’s drones began documenting the illegal rooster sites, and our results were made public on multiple occasions. In the fourteen months that have followed, just one illegal rooster operation has been shut down, and interestingly, two have popped up literally within a stone’s throw of the defunct site.”
In the ten months since then, Monterey County authorities appear to have been involved in only two more cases of cockfighting-related law enforcement.
“Sheriff’s deputies cited a man for violating the [state-wide] shelter-in-place order [imposed due to COVID-19] after receiving a call about cockfighting in North Monterey County,” reported Tom Wright for the Monterey Herald on April 6, 2020.
“They found what appeared to be a cockfight and 12 people ran off,” Wright continued. “Two people were detained as deputies found 112 roosters and seven dead roosters. The person who appeared to be in charge was cited for cruelty to animals and violating the order, while the other person detained was cited for drug possession.”
Cockfighting-related murder suspect sent back from Mexico
Six weeks later, recounted Joe Szydlowski for the Salinas Californian on May 20, 2020, Monterey County sheriff’s deputies finally apprehended Javier Morales Vaca, 41, of Watsonville, who had been wanted since March 6, 2004 for allegedly killing Ramon Villegas, 45, with a gunshot to the head at a cockfight in Salinas.
“Deputies believe after killing Villegas, Vaca went on the lam for 15 years,” Szydlowski wrote. “He eventually ended up in Tijuana, Mexico,” where he was caught at a traffic stop and turned over to the U.S. Marshals Service.
Vaca now “faces charges of murder, attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, and robbery,” Szydlowski said.
ANIMALS 24-7 on October 20, 2019 reported that the Monterey County ordinance requiring game fowl keepers to be licensed, adopted in December 2014, remained almost as unenforced as it might have been in the 1770-1850 time frame, when the city of Monterey, for which the county is named, was the capital of California under Spanish rule.
Blogged former Monterey Herald editor Royal Calkins on July 11, 2019 for his current venture, Voices of Monterey Bay, “Spotting the illegal rooster-raising operations in Monterey County isn’t all that hard. Cruise the backroads around Royal Oaks or Las Lomas, little communities between Watsonville and Prunedale, and you’ll find several in plain sight.
“Acting on a complaint,” Calkins wrote, “members of the Monterey County Civil Grand Jury went out and quickly found plenty of the fighting variety, more than enough to lead to the conclusion that county officials are simply ignoring the county ordinance intended to control the apparently growing industry of raising and selling roosters destined to win or die in the ring.”
(See grand jury report: https://www.co.monterey.ca.us/home/showdocument?id=78112)
Grand jury blames environmental health boss Ramirez
The Monterey County Civil Grand Jury placed most of the blame for non-enforcement of the ordinance on county director of environmental health John Ramirez.
Ramirez, who did not respond either to telephone messages from Calkins or an email from ANIMALS 24-7, reportedly told subordinates that “There are lots of political and cultural issues involved [with cockfighting] and that they shouldn’t do anything unless they absolutely have to,” according to Calkins’ summary of the situation.
“While the county was drafting the ordinance,” Calkins mentioned, “rooster breeders told county officials that cockfighting is part of the Latino heritage and, therefore, deserves some measure of protection.”
Yet cockfighting was not part of the original cultural heritage of the “Californios” in the Salinas Valley and Monterey coastal region, as the Catholicized Spanish-speaking descendants of indigenous Californians are called.
Indeed, the ancestors of the Californios had no domestic fowl before they were subjugated by Spanish invaders in the 18th century.
Cultural defense fails
Gamecock breeders James Leahy, Heriberto Perez, and Miguel Angel Reyes Robles tried to mount a cultural defense in a 2016 lawsuit contending that the Monterey County rooster-keeping ordinance infringed on their constitutional rights. Monterey County Superior Court Judge, Thomas Wills, however, held that their rights were not infringed by rules “designed to protect the environment and to provide safe and humane treatment for roosters.”
For several years no one seems to have noticed that John Ramirez not only was not enforcing the 2014 licensing ordinance, meant to inhibit raising gamecocks, but had also in effect dismantled it by introducing bureaucratic procedures that circumvented the intent of the ordinance, and by dismantling the Monterey County animal control department as well––on the pretext of reducing budget deficits.
“In 2010,” when Ramirez became director of the Monterey County Health Department, the Monterey County grand jury found, “there were six full-time animal control officers and a dedicated dispatcher on staff. By the fall of 2018 there were only two remaining animal control officers and no dispatcher.”
Animal control dismantled
Had all of the estimated 1,000 rooster-keeping facilities in Monterey County been licensed, as the 2015 ordinance directed, animal control could have taken in an additional $270,000 in operating revenue, enough to save all five of the eliminated positions.
“At the time of the writing of this ordinance,” the grand jury report continued, “Animal Control Services was under the management of the Environmental Health Bureau. Environmental Health was tasked with writing the ordinance without having the necessary qualifications and expertise in animal welfare, domestic or livestock. The author’s background is in hazardous waste management. The author used an individual from a known local illegal rooster keeping operation as the resource for writing the ordinance. Animal Control Services was never consulted or included during the ordinance writing process.
“Each agency [involved] knew little about which had jurisdiction or how to enforce the ordinance,” the grand jury continued. “The Monterey County Sheriff’s Office could not make an arrest unless a cockfight was in progress. Animal Control Services reported that they were prohibited from issuing citations by the Director of the Environmental Health Bureau. The Resource Management Agency could not issue citations for illegal rooster keeping, but could issue citations for code violations for inadequately constructed animal enclosures.
“The Monterey County SPCA could not issue citations for illegal rooster keeping, but could issue citations for cruelty and neglect of roosters, which could lead to possible prosecution by the District Attorney.
“The ordinance,” as passed, “gave a definitive timeline of 31 days from its adoption to become effective and 180 days to be fully implemented,” the grand jury reminded.
However, “The Environmental Health Department created a one-year ‘soft rollout’ before fully implementing or enforcing it. At the end of the soft rollout year it was still not fully implemented or enforced, and four years later, the ordinance is still not being implemented or enforced.”
Local animal advocates also did nothing
While the Monterey County Civil Grand Jury addressed only inaction by public agencies, considerable blame could also be placed with the local animal advocacy community, particularly in the affluent coastal city of Carmel, for failing to hold the public agencies accountable.
Singer and actress Doris Day, for instance, for whom the Doris Day Animal League (DDAL) was named in 1986, lived in Carmel from 1981 until her death on May 13, 2019.
Her home was just 22 miles from the most visible concentration of gamecock breeders in the county, in the unincorporated Boronda neighborhood.
Merged into the Humane Scoiety of the United States in August 2006, the Doris Day Animal League was absorbed by the Humane Society Legislative Fund in mid-2018, after former HSUS vice president Holly Hazard––the only executive director that DDAL ever had––retired.
Meanwhile, for more than a dozen years a multitude of HSUS executives, board members, fundraisers, and high donors popped up in Carmel and elsewhere in Monterey County without apparently ever seeing or saying a thing about the increasingly obvious presence of cockfighting ––or about the notoriously violent California Rodeo Salinas, for that matter.