By Sally Voth -- Daily Staff Writer
Northern Virginia Daily
A recent federal indictment involving an alleged cockfighting ring in Page County has shed some light on the shadowy operations of the ancient sport, now mainly conducted underground.
Several animal experts recently offered their opinions on the personalities of the men and women behind the fights.
Dale Edward Moreland, 52, of Winchester; Albert C. Taylor, 65, of Luray; Charles Leo Kingrea, 60, of Gordonsville; and Luis Aguirre Martinez, 49, of Manassas, were indicted Sept. 18 on conspiracy, illegal gambling and money laundering charges.
The indictment says that Martinez owned Little Boxwood Cockpit on Kite Hollow Road in Stanley. Taylor is accused of bribing a Page County official to keep law enforcement away from the fights.
On Sept. 21, Page County Sheriff Daniel W. Presgraves acknowledged receiving $500 from Taylor, but said it was a campaign contribution that he properly logged and recorded.
Harold "Hal" Herzog, a Western Carolina University professor, studied the world of cockfighting in the 1970s as part of his doctoral dissertation. These days, he focuses on human-animal interactions, including animal-rights activities, veterinary students, high school dissections and animal trainers.
"It's mostly people who have morally complicated relations with animals," he said.
From Herzog's perspective, cockfighters are pretty typical of other people in their socioeconomic group, which tends to be white, Southern, blue-collar, rural or semi-rural. There is also cockfighting among Hispanic and Filipino cultures, he said.
While men handled the chicken fighting, women, sometimes with babies and children, played supporting roles, and at one time, all the cockfighting magazines were edited by women, he said.
"My sense is that the most interesting thing about these cockfighters is how uninteresting they are from that perspective," Herzog said. "But, in terms of their personalities, it was the same range that you would find in any other group. To me, that's the interesting thing — why do people get sort of involved in an activity which most people find disgusting, and they don't find it disgusting?"
There is no evidence of psycho-sexual sadism or an enjoyment of animal suffering among cockfighters, he said. In that sense, they're like hunters, in which the pastime is all about killing animals, but they don't think of it that way, said Herzog, who tries to remain detached from the people he's studying.
"There's a certain honesty to cockfighters that most people avoid," he said. "There's a lot more suffering involved in the consumption of chicken than there is in cockfighting. Gamecocks live an exemplary life compared to a McDonald's chicken."
While factory-farmed chicken are injected with hormones making their breasts so large they're rendered lame, and kept in cramped conditions, fighting chickens eat well, get to walk outside and see the sky, Herzog said. Herzog, who eats meat, said humans have distanced themselves from realizing that the packages they buy at the grocery store are really animal carcasses.
And, he said, cockfighters have a "sort of twisted moral construction," claiming chickens don't feel pain, and that fighting comes naturally.
"[Cockfighters claim the chickens] achieve their sort of moment of glory," Herzog said. "Psychologists call it self-actualization. That's their reason [to] exist, to sort of fight and die in the game pit."
But, from a psychological standpoint, the average cockfighter isn't deviant, he said.
"The guys that I hung out with, they were deviant in that this is considered by the dominant culture [to be] deviant and most people don't do it," Herzog said. "But, in terms of psychologically abnormal, no."
They don't think of the sport as cruel, he said, "just like hunters don't think of hunting as being cruel."
"They have enormous respect for these animals," Herzog said. "[That's what] makes these issues so deliciously interesting for a psychologist because they're morally complicated. You get good people doing what to other people [would be] considered morally bad things."
He never saw a cockfighter grieve when his animal died in the pit.
"Sometimes they will kill an animal that doesn't perform well, an animal that turns on its handlers, and they will always kill an animal that runs in the pit," Herzog said.
If a cock gets scared, squawks and turns and runs, "that's when you get derision in the pit."
Perhaps surprisingly, those who fight cocks were disdainful of another type of animal fighting.
"Most of the cockfighters I talked to didn't like dogfighting," Herzog said. "They didn't approve of dogfighting. They drew a moral distinction between chickens and dogs."
The cruelty of cockfighting is undeniable, said Joseph Pentangelo, the assistant director for humane law enforcement at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He's seen the fights' aftermath.
"They have to know that it's a cruel activity," said Pentangelo, an ASPCA spokesman, and actor, who has most recently appeared on Animal Planet's "Animal Precinct." "There's no way to go to a rooster fight and see the blood and gore involved in it, and not see that it's a cruel activity.
"They fight very often until they die. It's agonizing."
In New York, where Pentangelo works, many of the cockfights are staged by people who have emigrated from countries where chicken fighting is legal.
"Usually, it's a clandestine activity," he said. "Sometimes there's residual criminal activity — drug use, prostitution sometimes."
At one cockpit in the Bronx, craps tables were set up.
"There were cocktail waitresses, there were refreshments being served," Pentangelo said. "I've never known of a professional person that was arrested at one of these events."
It's a felony to promote a cockfight in New York, and a misdemeanor to attend, incentive for a "reasonable" person to find another form of gambling, he said.
Roosters confiscated from the pits generally must be put down because their fighting instinct has been so "perverted," they can't socialize with other animals, he said.
Often the combs and wattles of the birds will be removed so their opponents can't grab them. That, combined with shaved chests and sharpened spurs, and syringes of antibiotics and steroids, is evidence of a fighting rooster, Pentangelo said. Possession of a fighting rooster is a crime in New York.
Pentangelo doesn't see affection for the birds among cockfighters.
"I think very often they may live vicariously through the animal," Pentangelo said. "I think there are some people there simply to gamble."
Animal cruelty should always be reported to police, even if the witness doesn't consider himself or herself an animal person, Pentangelo said, pointing out that studies cite people who abuse animals progressing to abusing people.
Promoting the "compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl" is the mission of United Poultry Concerns Inc., said its president and founder, Karen Davis. She said fighting is not among roosters' natural behaviors. They'd rather spend their time sunbathing, dustbathing, interacting with hens and finding food, she said.
Gamecocks have been bred to be more aggressive, Davis said.
Roosters have ways of communicating displeasure, and if it reaches a certain point, one will run off, she said.
"A bird who's trying to escape [in a cockpit], they call him a coward," Davis said. "They will breathe into his mouth to force him to continue to fight."
A cockfighter uses the animal as a "surrogate for that person's violent and sadistic impulses," she said.
"We want people to know that these birds, they were not born fighters," Davis said. "What a rooster really wants more than anything in the world is a hen. Roosters are family men ... very active in social and family life."