Criminal animal cruelty case highlights cockfighting as ‘a serious problem’ in Santa Cruz County

Quick take:

With two cockfighting cases pending in Santa Cruz Superior Court, it’s “a serious problem in the community,” said Todd Stosuy of the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter. Beyond animal cruelty, illicit activities are often linked to organized crime and money laundering.

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Two Santa Cruz County residents were back in court last week on charges orchestrated a cockfighting ring in Watsonville.

The criminal proceeding is one of two cockfighting cases currently before the county courts as prosecutors seek to crack down on an illegal activity that Todd Stosuy, field services manager for the Santa County Animal Shelter, said Cruz, has become “a serious problem in our community.”

Brett Kenneth Miller, 58, and Angie Gonzalez, 21, face animal cruelty charges, as well as several firearms-related offenses. In February, animal control officers removed approximately 200 chickens, several emaciated dogs and a number of firearms from a property on Ranport Road.

Both men will return to court on June 23 to confirm the date of their preliminary hearing, tentatively scheduled for June 26.

Although the prevalence of cockfighting in the county is difficult to track because “they’re still underground,” Stosuy said he has investigated and prosecuted dozens of cockfighting cases during his nearly 20 years in office. within the shelter.

Cockfighting rings are fueled by organized crime, said Eric Sakach, a Sacramento-based law enforcement consultant for Animal Wellness Action who has worked with the Humane Society for 44 years. This activity is used as a form of illegal gambling and often as a way to launder money without attracting much attention from law enforcement.

“There are no tax consequences,” Sakach said. “Your chances of being handed over to the Internal Revenue Service are minimal, which also makes it an easy way to launder money. »

Many people involved in animal fighting invest huge sums of money in this activity and also participate in other serious illicit activities such as drug, arms and human trafficking. However, it is largely money that allows animal fighting to continue, he said.

“When we talk about cockfighting and dogfighting, we’re talking about activities that are highly organized and are actually forms of organized crime,” Sakach said.

Difficulties in investigating and prosecuting cockfighting stem from the fact that the activity is considered a misdemeanor in California, meaning it is often not considered a high priority by criminal investigators.

Sakach said he has worked on a number of measures over the decades aimed at increasing penalties for cockfighting, with mixed results. “I think there was some reluctance on the part of legislators to sign criminal penalties for cruelty to birds or chickens, mainly because we eat chickens and we generally don’t eat dogs,” a- he declared. “It is for this reason alone that dogs receive a higher level of protection. »

Ariana Huemer of the nonprofit Hen Harbor Rescue Operation in Felton.
Ariana Huemer of the nonprofit Hen Harbor Rescue Operation in Felton. Credit: Alison Gamel / Belvedere of Santa Cruz

Ariana Huemer is the director of Hen Harbor, a nonprofit sanctuary in Felton that houses chickens with the goal of reintroducing them into the community as pets.

Huemer, who worked for the Humane Society for 17 years, said she believed investigators did not have a sufficient understanding of chickens and game birds. “I believe animal control is often run by people who just don’t have the right knowledge about birds and their behavior,” she said.

Sakach highlighted the lack of training among law enforcement on animal cruelty in general. Some counties leave it to animal control agencies to handle animal cruelty cases without help from law enforcement, he said: “Animal control officers are generally not equipped to deal with misdemeanors and crimes, even if they receive training.

Stosuy said Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter officers and caregivers are trained to handle a number of different species, including farm animals, turtles, ducks, rabbits, fish and cock-fighting birds.

When a cockfighting operation is disrupted, Stosuy said the birds involved are seized and processed as evidence. This means that their chain of custody must be documented and followed.

Stosuy added that prosecutors can request that the birds be put down if they are found to be too aggressive or suffering from communicable diseases.

“Owning or possessing birds used for cockfighting is illegal in California, and it would not be appropriate for us to adopt illegal animals,” he said.

Roosters used in cockfighting are often fed steroids, performance-enhancing vitamins and other supplements that make them unsuitable for adoption, Stosuy said — a major reason why roosters are euthanized at high rates. higher than other animals taken into shelters.

Santa Cruz County requires people to hold a permit for locations housing male game birds or male game animals to reduce breeding for cockfighting operations while still allowing people to keep legal roosters. You can only obtain a permit if you live in “agricultural residential”. zone district.

Huemer says she disapproves of the killing of rescued game animals, as well as the ordinance as a whole, arguing that the restrictions prevent rehousing of birds. She argues that society needs a cultural shift in the way it views birds used in cockfighting in order to truly curb this illegal activity.

“People love to talk about their pets, like dogs and cats, and I think we need to change the way we see chickens and roosters as the individuals they are,” she said. . “I don’t think I’ll see that in my lifetime.”


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