Animal cruelty criminal case shines spotlight on cockfighting as ‘a serious issue’ in Santa Cruz County

Ariana Huemer of nonprofit rescue operation Hen Harbor holds a rooster.
(Alison Gamel / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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

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

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

Brett Kenneth Miller, 58, and Angie Gonzalez, 21, face charges of animal cruelty, along with several firearms offenses. In February, animal control officers removed about 200 chickens, several emaciated dogs and a number of firearms from a Ranport Road property.

The two will return to court June 23 to confirm the date of their preliminary hearing, which is tentatively scheduled for June 26.

While the prevalence of cockfighting in the county is hard to track because “it is always clandestine,” Stosuy said he has investigated and prosecuted dozens of cockfighting cases in his nearly 20 years with the shelter.

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

Brett Kenneth Miller, accused of operating a cockfighting ring in Watsonville, has a long criminal record that spans...

“There’s no tax consequence,” Sakach said. “Your chances of being turned over to tax revenue services are minuscule, which also makes it an easy way to launder money.”

Many of the people involved in animal fighting sink a huge amount of money into the activity and are also partaking in other serious illicit activities such as drugs, weapons and human trafficking. However, it’s largely the money that keeps animal fighting going, 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.

The challenges in investigating and prosecuting cockfighting rings stem from the fact that the activity is considered a misdemeanor in California, which means it’s often not seen as a high priority for criminal investigators.

Sakach said he has worked on a number of measures over the decades looking to increase penalties for cockfighting, with mixed results. “I think there was some reluctance on the part of legislators to sign felony penalties for cruelty to birds or chickens, predominantly because we eat chickens, and typically do not eat dogs,” he said. “Dogs enjoyed a higher level of protection for that reason only.”

Ariana Huemer from the nonprofit rescue operation Hen Harbor in Felton.
(Alison Gamel / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Ariana Huemer is the director of Hen Harbor, a nonprofit Felton sanctuary that houses chickens with the goal of reintroducing them to the community as companion animals.

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

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

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

When a cockfighting operation is busted, Stosuy said the birds involved are seized and handled as evidence. That means their chain of custody needs to be documented and tracked.

Stosuy added that prosecutors may request the birds be culled if they are found to be too aggressive or sick with communicable diseases.

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

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

Santa Cruz County requires people to have a license for locations with male game birds or male gamecocks in order to cut down on breeding for cockfighting operations while still allowing people to keep legal roosters. One can obtain a license only if they reside in a “residential agricultural” zone district.

Huemer says she disapproves of culling the rescued gamecocks, and the ordinance as a whole, arguing that the restrictions prevent rehousing of the birds. She argues that society needs a cultural shift in how it perceives birds used in cockfighting in order to truly curb the illegal activity.

“People love to talk about their rescue pets like dogs and cats, and I think there needs to be a shift to where people see chickens and roosters as the individuals that they are,” she said. “I don’t think I’m going to see that in my lifetime.”

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