Mass. woman seeks to expand rooster rescue mission
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) — They’re kept in crowded cages from birth. By the time they’re 2 years old, prospective cockfighters are either dead or fighting for their lives with sharp blades strapped to their legs.
They don’t live through many fights. If they survive but are injured, they are killed and taken out with the trash.
Rachael Gordon is working to change all that, by rehabilitating the victims of criminal cockfighting rings one rooster at a time.
Gordon, 22, founded Morning’s Song Rooster Rescue in 2011 on a farm in the Berkshire hills, where she is currently rehabilitating about 120 roosters, hens and chicks. But she needs more room, so she can save more lives.
Cockfighting rings throughout the world kill millions of roosters annually. Cockfighting is illegal in all 50 states, and U.S. cockfighting organizers are arrested periodically, resulting in the seizure of thousands of birds.
There are very few places that can take the victims of cockfighting for rehabilitation, and those that do can only take a few.
“Less than 2 percent of the cockfighters that are removed are adopted,” Gordon said. “The rest are euthanized and disposed of.”
When Gordon gets a line on a major bust of a cockfighting ring, and she has room, she contacts the arresting authorities and makes arrangements to bring some of the injured to Morning’s Song.
“They come here for life,” she said.
According to John Goodwin, director of animal cruelty policy for the Humane Society of the United States, nearly 7,000 chickens were seized in raids on cockfighting operations in 2013. He said that while it is illegal in all 50 states, it is a felony in only 41 states. In the other nine, such as Ohio, Alabama and Kentucky, which he described as the national capital of cockfighting rings, cockfighting violations are misdemeanor crimes, punishable by fines only.
“The weak laws in those states serve as magnets that draw these criminals to their communities,” Goodwin said.
Although cockfighting proponents maintain that cockfighting is a cultural heritage for some and harmless fun, Goodwin notes that any time an animal is put in pain, the reasons for it need to be examined.
“Roosters are made to suffer horrible injuries and slow death just so people can gamble on them,” he said. “The injuries afflicted on these birds is excessive — they feel the pain. There is no debating the fact that this is animal cruelty. There is no socially redeemable value to cockfighting whatsoever.”
Goodwin noted that when he is on the scene of a raid on a cockfighting pit, there is frequently a “dead pile,” which is a pile of roosters that lost their fights and their owners either broke their necks or just left the injured birds on the pile to die of their injuries. Some survive for days before succumbing.
He was pleased to hear that someone was working to rehabilitate injured and victimized birds rescued from cockfighting rings.
“I’m excited to see someone stepping up to help these roosters,” Goodwin said. “It’s sorely needed. I hope her operation is successful.”
Gordon said she finances her operation by working odd jobs around the community.
“I save every penny for the roosters,” she said.
As a part of a senior thesis at Hampshire College in 2012-13, Gordon designed a therapy program for the former combatants that allows them to return to their natural behaviors.
“There’s nobody else out there doing this,” she said. “And it’s a group targeted for violence and death that is in extreme need — chickens are highly intelligent and underappreciated.”
With the need for more space, Morning’s Song is starting up a fundraising campaign to finance the construction of another aviary for rehabilitating fighters. The problem is, the sanctuary’s location is not publicized, because cockfighting rings are criminal organizations and frequently traffic in illegal guns and drugs.
“Donations are rare — mostly because we are so private,” Gordon said.
Gordon has just begun a crowdfunding campaign at Indiegogo.com, so kindred spirits can aid in her mission. The campaign to raise $60,000 to double the capacity at Morning’s Song is live and will end at midnight on June 22.
The planned aviary, at 1,200 square feet, will be able to house 120 chickens and aid in the process of recuperating the former fighters.
Rehabilitating roosters is difficult, Gordon said, but no matter what, chickens want to be chickens.
“Cockfighters are aggressive because they’re abused, they’re not violent by nature,” Gordon said.
From birth, cockfighting trainers teach young roosters to be aggressive by putting them into a cage with a cockfighter, and they either learn to fight to survive or die in training.
At 2 years old, if showing enough prowess, the rooster’s comb and wattles are removed, and he is sold into the cockfighting ring.
His lifespan is short after that. Maybe two or three fights for most cockfighters.
“They don’t make it through many fights, and if injured, the owner kills them because they’re useless,” Gordon said.
Seized birds are frequently kept by officials as evidence. Once released, if there is a rescue operation willing to take them, they can be saved. If not, they are euthanized.
“The chickens are kept in horrific conditions (by cockfighting rings), and injuries and diseases make many of them unadoptable,” Gordon said. “Ninety-eight percent of them are euthanized because nobody will take them.”
Most people think cockfighting roosters are aggressive and violent, Gordon noted, “but that’s absolutely not the case. Cockfighters are actually easier and faster to rehabilitate than domesticated roosters.”
In the aviary in which the newly arrived chickens are kept, a number of roosters in single cages observe the rehabilitated roosters and chickens roaming around and socializing on the floor.
When a rooster first arrives, Gordon explained, “that animal is expecting to be abused. But when they realize you’re not going to abuse them, the fear starts to dissipate.”
In the rehabilitation process, cockfighters are given rehabilitated roosters to observe for new behavior training.
Slowly they are reintroduced to a flock, first to observe flock behavior, then under a supervised, protected setting they are allowed to interact with the flock.
“In all my time rehabilitating roosters, I have not found one that can’t be rehabilitated,” she said.
The third stage in rehabilitation is full flock integration.
“Phase three is where you live out your life as a happy, healthy chicken,” Gordon said.
In February, the largest cockfighting raid in New York state’s history netted roughly 3,000 chickens. Many of them were already dead.
During a Texas raid in March, 97 birds were seized and 17 people were arrested.
An April raid in Florida resulted in 200 arrests and 50 birds confiscated. Some were dead.
An April bust in the state of Washington came up with 200 birds. Just a few days ago in Ohio, 72 birds were found during a raid, and in South Carolina another 80 were recovered.