New Mexico ACT Against Cockfighting
by Heather Ferguson
Early in 2007, when the law to ban cockfighting was being debated by the New Mexico State Legislature, many cockfighting supporters claimed a ban would be “impossible to enforce” due to the number of cockfighters in the state. They even boldly proclaimed that the passage of the law wouldn’t stop them from conducting their bloody business “underground.” The reality is, even if individuals take their illegal activities underground, they aren’t beyond the watchful eye of law enforcement, nor are they safe from arrest and prosecution.
Investigating, filing charges for and prosecuting animal fighting can be complicated. Cases often require lengthy investigations and undercover work, as well as large numbers of law enforcement and animal control officers to raid and process these remarkably complex crime scenes. Each case might yield a large variety of charges covering many areas of criminal activity such as felony extreme animal cruelty, misdemeanor animal cruelty, felony criminal conspiracy, narcotics trafficking and illegal gambling. This can make prosecution tedious and time consuming.
After Governor Richardson approved the ban on cockfighting, Attorney General Gary King, Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White and Animal Protection of New Mexico (APNM) coordinated resources to give law enforcement the support they need to fully enforce animal fighting laws. From this effort, New Mexico’s Animal Cruelty Taskforce (ACT) was established.
ACT is chaired by New Mexico’s “Top Cop,” Attorney General King, and is a coalition of every law enforcement agency in the state. ACT members include: the state police, sheriffs and municipal police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General, New Mexico’s Animal Control Association and all of its member agencies, the New Mexico District Attorneys Association, members of the state veterinary board, state legislators, City of Albuquerque Animal Services, Animal Protection of New Mexico, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Animal Humane Association and Four Corners Animal League. Through its comprehensive membership, ACT can provide law enforcement with the training and resources required to safely conduct raids of animal fighting operations, and can provide expert witnesses and guidance for successful prosecution of these unique cases.
Late in August 2007, ACT opened a statewide, toll-free hotline, operated by APNM. The hotline receives information concerning animal fighting operations. Any information called in to the hotline on dog or cock fighting is kept confidential. Callers are eligible for a reward of up to $5,000 from HSUS for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of those involved in animal fighting operations.
In December 2007, information collected on the ACT hotline assisted law enforcement in the first coordinated task force raid on one of New Mexico’s long-established cockfighting clubs, the Otero Game Club, located in Chaparral, N.M.
The Otero Game Club was the third-largest cockfighting pit in the state. It offered arena-style seating around three Plexiglas-enclosed cockfighting pits, a full kitchen and concession stand, and more than 25 “cock houses”—rental rooms with cages where roosters were kept until it was time for them to fight. According to informants, hundreds of spectators would park their vehicles in a large dirt parking area across the street from the club, and cockfighters stationed refurbished trailers there with built-in cages for rooster transport.
Cockfighters didn’t know how seriously their continued illegal activity would be viewed, or how quickly the new law would be used to take down a major ring.
On the morning of December 22, 2007, more than 75 sheriffs’ deputies, 25 animal control officers, a forensics veterinarian specialist and representatives from APNM and HSUS launched the state’s first large-scale effort to dismantle animal fighting operations in New Mexico. The thoroughly choreographed effort included deputies from the counties of Otero, Doña Ana, Bernalillo, Luna and others, as well as animal control officers provided by the City of Albuquerque and the counties of Otero and Doña Ana.
Despite being tipped off just prior to the arrival of law enforcement teams, six individuals were captured and charged under the new cockfighting law. According to witnesses, other individuals fled the scene abandoning cars, family members and roosters. Over $25,000 in cash was seized, as were gambling ledgers, large quantities of cockfighting paraphernalia—including the knives that are strapped to roosters’ heels for fighting—and performance-enhancing drugs.
Owners released custody of 144 roosters to local animal control. A forensics veterinarian on scene conducted a medical evaluation of six roosters, and determined that their health was compromised from exposure to steroids and other drugs used to enhance performance and aggression. These six roosters were humanely euthanized. Unfortunately, it has been established in this and many HSUS-led raids across the country that humane euthanasia is the only possible solution for roosters born into fighting operations. There are no sanctuaries for fighting roosters and it is unlikely any could be established due to the roosters’ in-bred aggression. If cockfighters continue to break the law by breeding and fighting these beautiful birds, they will continue to create a tragic situation for the roosters.
The arrests and confiscation of money and birds in December’s Otero raid sent a clear message to cockfighters: the cockfighting ban will be strictly enforced and those who force roosters to mutilate each other for entertainment and profit will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Following this effective enforcement activity, $77,900 was appropriated by the state legislature to the attorney general’s office for its task force work. New Mexico’s Fifth Judicial Court dealt the cockfighting industry another blow by striking down a legal challenge to the ban based on whether the law's passage in the 2007 legislature met the state's constitutional standards. APNM and HSUS have jointly filed "Friends of the Court" briefs to help defend the state’s case against the challenge. Cockfighters have filed an appeal with the New Mexico Court of Appeals. As of publication date, no hearing date for the cockfighters’ appeal has been set.
ACT is developing its capacity to further support law enforcement efforts. New Mexicans can expect raids to continue as long as illegal animal fighting rings exist in the state.
Those with information about animal fighting in New Mexico are encouraged to report it anonymously to the hotline at 888-260-2178.
Heather Ferguson is a founding member of the Animal Cruelty Task Force and a task force media spokesperson. She is the Legislative Director of Animal Protection of New Mexico and lobbied for the passage of the cockfighting ban in New Mexico.