By Connor Lynch
A raid by Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry OPP in April of a cockfight came as a surprise to local residents. But although the blood sport is tucked away in the shadows, cockfighting is active in rural Ontario, says Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) inspector Brad Dewar.
Eleven men were arrested inside a shed tucked away in a wooded lot on Tolmies Corners Rd. just south of Moose Creek, as police hit right in the middle of an ongoing fight. Police seized game birds and metal hooks, called gaffs, which are attached to the birds’ legs to make their spurs more lethal. Handlers usually cut off the birds’ natural spurs.
The arrested men, mostly from Eastern Ontario, were scheduled to appear in a Cornwall court on July 28.
“It’s happening far more often than people realize,” Dewar says. Cockfights are generally reported to police as they happen by a neighbour or passerby. Occasionally, the loser of a fight has slunk off and called it in, he says.
There have been three raids on cockfighting operations in Ontario over the last 10 years. But Dewar is sure it’s happening because whenever the OSPCA do catch people, they catch a lot. “The network can’t exist unless there are people doing it consistently.”
A raid in York region, north of Toronto, back in 2009 saw 70 people arrested and charged. Thousands of dollars were seized and the OSPCA found six dead fighting roosters and seized 74 more, which were euthanized as required by the Canadian Criminal Code. Police at the time found a catered buffet table set up near the fighting pit.
There was a larger raid in Northumberland County back in 2007. Police seized almost 200 roosters.
“We are seeing a more organized approach than two guys getting together and saying ‘Let’s get our birds to fight,’ and wagering on it.” In fact, in more professional operations, Dewar says there can be as much as $10,000 up for grabs, and that’s just between the handlers, not counting the spectators that come to watch and bet on the birds. One death generally isn’t enough for the spectators or contestants. Most cockfights that are set up will have multiple birds from both handlers fighting. An individual handler may have as many as 20 roosters, says Dewar.
Most cockfights are to the death. Those metal spurs, knives, and gaffs (curved or hooked blade) are a staple of cockfighting everywhere and are part of the reason most fights are lethal. “You put a nice sharp metal blade on them and those fights don’t last very long.”
The birds are also trapped in with each other. Contestants either bring or make a fighting pit to keep the birds in, usually a two-foot high wall making an area 16 by 16 ft. When nothing else is available, sometimes contestants will make a pit out of hay bales.
Although the arena might be crude or improvised, Ontario’s cockfighting can be taken very seriously by handlers. Contracts can be written out and signed, sometimes months in advance. Those sorts of fights will also often have a referee, who can call the fight or declare a winner when the outcome is uncertain.
The roosters are trained by fighting other roosters. The fight often ends with one rooster pecking or kicking the head of a downer bird until it stops moving. Even for a gamecock, the unofficial and pugnacious breed typically used for cockfights, the instinct after getting bloodied may be to flee. But a rooster trapped in a fighting pit has nowhere to go, and a fleeing rooster is an easy target.
Many handlers will pump steroids into birds to bulk them up, or trim the wattle and comb of the birds, removing a sensitive target their opponents could peck at, Dewar says.
Dewar believes there’s a cockfighting network in Ontario, possibly extending to other parts of Canada and into the U.S.
Cockfighting is more commonplace in the U.S., although it’s illegal in every state. It is legal in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, as well as in Mexico and the Philippines. Puerto Rico, in fact, has cock fighting stadiums, and televises fights.
In 2011, a raid in California saw police arrest 16 men and seize about 1,000 roosters, a testament to the survival of the sport.