Cockfighters may own the sheriff, but not the law
STILWELL, Oklahoma––Showing Animals Respect & Kindness [SHARK] founder Steve Hindi had a frustrating day on February 3, 2024.
With simultaneous cockfighting derbies underway in both Tippah County, Mississippi, and Adair County, Oklahoma, Hindi could only personally monitor one of them.
Hindi chose Adair County, Oklahoma, hopeful that sheriff Jason Ritchie might actually be interested in doing some law enforcement.
“If sheriff refuses to act, we make a record for future action”
Fellow Showing Animals Respect & Kindness team members monitored the cockfighting derby in Tippah County, Mississippi.
Tippah County sheriff Karl Gaillard has repeatedly ignored cockfighting complaints, even when reinforced by video of cockfighting derbies in progress.
February 3, 2024 in Tippah County was no exception.
“If Sheriff Gaillard refuses to act, we will be making a record for future action,” Hindi pledged, and so it was done.
Meanwhile in Stilwell, Oklahoma, the Adair County seat, sheriff Jason Ritchie on January 2, 2024 accepted an award from district attorney Jack Thorp for “making strides against drug trafficking, with over 2,000 fentanyl pills and more than 10 pounds of methamphetamine seized,” the Tahlequah Daily Press recited, without mentioning that comparable hauls from busting cockfighting derbies are not uncommon.
“To help his agency perform at a high level,” the Tahlequah Daily Press continued, “Ritchie has helped to ensure his deputies have the equipment they need,” including a drone similar to those that Showing Animals Respect & Kindness uses.
But the Adair County Sheriff’s Office, including sheriff Jason Ritchie himself, turned out to lack the equipment, at least metaphorically speaking, to bust one of the biggest cockfighting derbies that Hindi and the Tahlequah Daily Press have ever monitored, documented, and repeatedly reported to a local sheriff.
200 felons ignored
“We started sending the Adair County Sheriff’s Office documentation when there were about 60 cars at the site,” Hindi told ANIMALS 24-7.
Hours passed. More cars came. More calls continued to bring no response.
Attending a cockfight has been a felony in Oklahoma since 2002.
“More than 100 felons were ignored by the corrupt Adair County, Oklahoma sheriff,” Hindi charged, but the usual formula for estimating the crowd at an entertainment event is to multiply the cars by two. That suggests at least 200 felons were ignored.
Adair County sheriffs have history of not doing their jobs
Jason Ritchie, however, is only the latest in a long line of Adair County sheriffs to not do their jobs when it comes to enforcing the law making cockfighting a felony in Oklahoma, passed by statewide ballot initiative.
Adair County was among the counties that voted overwhelmingly against the ballot proposition, contrary to 56% of Oklahoma voters.
In Adair County the proposition failed, 63% to 37%.
Adair County was then one of 13 counties that obtained a temporary restraining order against having to follow the newly enacted law.
“I don’t think the sheriffs are overzealous”
“I don’t think the sheriffs in our counties are overzealous in enforcing the chicken-fighting law,” attorney Charles Milor told the Daily Oklahoman, as legal representative for the pro-cockfighting counties.
The pro-cockfighting counties eventually lost their case, but more than 20 years later, on April 3, 2023, the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission, a private cockfighting advocacy group, counted the signature of retired Adair County sheriff Jeff Coleman among “38 Oklahomans currently or formerly in law enforcement” on a petition to the Oklahoma state legislature seeking to dismantle the anti-cockfighting law.
Former sheriff attended more cockfights than he could count, even on his fingers & toes
Later in 2023, on November 12, 2023 to be precise, Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt all but dropped his rooster into a cockpit and placed a bet at the Oklahoma Game Fowl Commission annual legislative meeting.
After Stitt praised the Oklahoma Game Fowl Commission for helping to “make sure our gamefowl traditions are instilled in our culture for decades to come,” Adair County state representative David Hardin reportedly testified he had been to so many cockfights he didn’t know how many.
Hardin, before becoming the Adair County state representative, was––like Coleman––also a former sheriff of Adair County, who as sheriff swore an oath to uphold state laws including the law that made cockfighting a felony.
Wayne Pacelle is optimistic about federal FIGHT Act
While Steve Hindi returned home to Illinois tired, angry, and frustrated, Animal Wellness Action president Wayne Pacelle remained upbeat about their combined efforts to “Crush Cockfighting,” as Showing Animals Respect & Kindness calls their campaign, begun in 2019.
“We’ve cleared 450 endorsements on the federal ‘Fighting Inhumane Gambling and High-Risk Trafficking Act,’ or FIGHT Act,” Pacelle told ANIMALS 24-7, “and this bill has more Republican cosponsors than any of the 50 or so federal bills for animals” before the current Congress.
“As I told Steve yesterday,” Pacelle added, “the political organization of the cockfighters in Oklahoma is now injured and badly wounded. The word is, they’ll not get to first base this session, which officially starts on Monday, February 5, 2024.”
Offers $2,500 reward for info leading to arrest & conviction
Elaborated Pacelle in a January 31, 2024 media release, “Efforts by cockfighting supporters to persuade the Oklahoma Legislature to soften the state’s cockfighting law seem to have increased awareness of the cockfighting problem and triggered more enforcement actions than at any time since 2002.”
The Animal Wellness Action media release offered “up to $2,500 for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of persons involved in a crime related to cockfighting and dogfighting. Animal Wellness Action will be advertising the reward program throughout Oklahoma,” Pacelle pledged.
In Adair County, and most of the other Oklahoma counties hosting cockfights, with poverty rates typically running at twice the U.S. national poverty rate, $2,500 is close to a month’s income for about one resident in five.
“Breaking the law every day”
“Recent activity by the Norman Police Department is just the latest law enforcement action in Oklahoma,” Pacelle continued. “Norman Animal Welfare reported 77 roosters were discovered on January 23, 2024, while assisting the Norman Fire Department in a failed attempt to rescue nine puppies from a barn fire.
“Since the Oklahoma Legislature ended its work in 2023, there have been busts in Carter, Marshall, and Oklahoma counties,” Pacelle said.
Among those arrested was Chance Campo of Lone Grove, Oklahoma, “who is still listed on the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission’s web site as a district director,” Pacelle mentioned.
“The only reason the cockfighting community wants to gut penalties to the state’s strong law against cockfighting,” Pacelle emphasized, “is because they are breaking the law every day and they want to reduce their risk of arrest and prosecution.”
Bulldogs & gamefowl
“With their organized political efforts, the cockfighters are signaling to Animal Wellness Action, law enforcement, and the public,” Pacelle assessed, “that they are committing widespread, organized criminal activities.
“We want to remind law enforcement that if sheriffs and police want to halt crime in their communities, they should bust up a cockfighting pit or a breeding operation for fighting animals,” Pacelle finished.
Norman Animal Welfare confirmed on January 29, 2024 that it “is investigating a large-scale rooster fighting operation following a mutual aid response to a fire at a residence in the 12200 block of E. Cedar Lane Road on January 23, 2024, to assist the Norman Fire Department with rescuing nine puppies who were trapped in a barn fire. Tragically, the puppies were unable to be rescued and succumbed to the fire.
“During the rescue attempt,” Norman Animal Welfare said, “Norman Animal Welfare officers encountered a large-scale rooster fighting operation located in close proximity to the fire.
“The property was immediately secured by the Norman Police Department and a search warrant for the property was obtained.
“The joint operation led to the seizure of 77 roosters and the shutdown of the illegal and inhumane activity occurring on this property. The seized roosters were found in deplorable conditions alongside evidence of brutal training and exploitation of the animals for fighting purposes,” Norman Animal Welfare charged.
The listed owners of what appears to be the nearest occupied property, at 12210 East Cedar Lane Road in Norman, are Larry Gean Kitchell and Lynne Kitchell, also known as Merry Lynne Staggs Kitchell.
Larry Gean Kitchell, also the listed owner of Osage County Bulldogs and Tumbleweed Dumpsters, is in addition listed as “Life Center Pastor of Switch Youth & Life Groups.”
“The roosters from the Norman bust,” Pacelle said, “are headed to the Rooster Sanctuary at Danzig’s Roost in Bennett, Colorado, where owner Jewel Johnson will rehome them.”
Cockfighting threatens the price of eggs
Transporting gamefowl to cockfighting derbies across interstate lines is a major vector for the spread of the H5N1 high pathogenic avian influenza, often called HPAI for short.
Reported Successful Farming editor Chuck Abbott on January 5, 2024, “One-fourth of U.S. losses to bird flu in outbreaks that began in early 2022 were recorded in the past three months, according to USDA data. Some 20.9 million birds were culled in infected domestic flocks from October through December 2023.
“A total of 79.7 million domestic birds, mostly egg-laying hens and turkeys being raised for human consumption, have died from HPAI or in eradication efforts,” Abbott reported, on 1,059 flocks in 47 states.
“Bird flu hit egg farms so severely in 2022,” Abbott mentioned, “that egg prices soared 32% above the 2021 average, the largest increase for any of the food categories tracked by the USDA during a year of high food inflation. With flocks rebuilt, egg prices rose only marginally in 2023, and are forecast to fall 12% this year,” but a resurgence of H5N1 translocated by cockfighters could easily reverse the forecast.