What began as a review of Tulare County’s rooster policy Tuesday turned into a board of supervisors meeting packed with animal rights activists and more than 100 residents speaking out in defense of their game birds.
The issue began at the county’s May Ag Advisory Committee Meeting. Tulare County Supervisor Chair Dennis Townsend told members he regularly receives complaints from residents concerned that some of their neighbors are raising roosters for cockfighting.
Cockfighting is banned federally and in all 50 states. California is one of eight states where it is only a misdemeanor. Twenty other California counties restrict the number of roosters in rural areas. Tulare County does not.
At the same time, animal activists say Tulare County has had an outsized share of cockfighting arrests.
“Some of the people complaining have said, ‘Is there anything we can do in the ordinance?’ ” Townsend told committee members at the meeting. Committee members recommended supervisors review its rules that date back to 1967.
Tulare County’s ordinance limits the number of chickens allowed on a property before needing a permit. However, the ordinance does not differentiate between roosters and hens.
So when supervisors took up the issue, it brought out people on both sides of the debate. Those making public comments argued with one another in the chambers.
“We’re small government, we don’t need to tell people how many roosters they can have on their property.”
— Amy Shuklian, Tulare County Supervisor
Many at the meeting said they are hobbyists raising game birds and that it’s their constitutional right to have as many roosters as they want.
In the end, supervisors said they don’t have the resources to enforce rooster bans. They also said they shouldn’t limit what a person does.
“We’re small government,” said supervisor Amy Shuklian. “We don’t need to tell people how many roosters they can have on their property.”
Others, including animal activists, say there’s no reason to have such a high ratio of roosters unless they’re being raised to fight.
There’s no monetary value outside fighting them and then selling the birds or their chicks, said Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action.
Dwight Zimmerman, owner of The Dairymen of California, said in a public statement that roosters have nothing to do with agriculture.
“No legitimate agricultural operation is just going to have like a thousand or 2,000 roosters, or even 150 roosters with no hens,” said Pacelle.
Tulare County Has a History of Cockfighting
In May, Tulare County sheriffs rescued a dozen roosters from a cockfighting ring near Pixley, according to the Visalia Times-Delta. A year before that, sheriff’s deputies broke up a cockfighting ring, finding large amounts of money and gaffs — knives attached to rooster’s talons — at a site near Porterville.
“Dogfighting and cockfighting are the most severely and widely criminalized forms of animal cruelty,” Pacelle said.
Not only is fighting animals or attending a fight illegal, but possessing animals for fighting is also illegal. But inspectors have to prove that an animal is being used for fighting, which is difficult, Pacelle said.
The birds are often raised inhumanely. During a fight, knives or gaffes are attached to their legs so they can inflict more damage. Possessing “cutters” is also illegal.
“We’ve got a great legal framework,” Pacelle said. “In spite of that, we still have rampant cockfighting. We estimate as many as 20 million fighting birds in the United States.”
California, Kentucky, and Oklahoma are “hotspots” for cockfighting, Pacelle said. Pacelle estimates that 1 million fighting birds are shipped to Mexico every year, with tens of thousands sent to the Philippines.
Game cocks also pose health threats to other birds. Because of the poor conditions they are kept under, they are highly prone to diseases, Pacelle said.
A study commissioned by Animal Wellness Action stated that illegally smuggled fighting birds accounted for 10 of the 15 outbreaks of Newcastle disease, a deadly avian virus.
No Reason to Have So Many Roosters, Experts Say
To limit cockfighting, 20 California counties have put limits on the ratio of roosters to hens.
In his presentation to supervisors, Mike Washam, associate director of the Tulare County Resource Management Agency, reached out to experts at UC Davis. For egg-laying operations, no roosters are needed, Washam said. For those hatching chicks, an ideal ratio is seven to ten hens for every rooster.
L.A. County limits roosters to two for every half-acre, Washam said. Contra Costa County limits it to two altogether. Supervisors considered models from Ventura and Solano counties. Fresno County does not allow any roosters without a permit.
“I don’t really care what anyone else is doing; they’re not Tulare County and they’re not the San Joaquin Valley.”
— Pete Vander Poel, Tulare County Supervisor
In his presentation, Rob Stewart, director of fiscal operations for Tulare County Health and Human Services, estimated it could cost $2.3 million in initial costs and $500,000 annually to confiscate and house the birds. Being impacted by calls for dogs and cats, they would have to build a new facility.
Eric Sakach, senior animal law enforcement consultant with Animal Wellness Action, said at the meeting that no other county has built a separate facility to house roosters.
Supervisor Pete Vander Poel, however, said it doesn’t matter what other counties are doing.
“To me, I don’t really care what Ventura says, I don’t really care what Los Angeles is doing, I don’t really care what anyone else is doing,” Vander Poel said. “They’re not Tulare County and they’re not the San Joaquin Valley.”
Breeders: Rooster Limits Infringe on Constitutional Rights
Craig Ainley raises cattle in Tulare County as well as game birds, he said at the supervisor meeting. He is the president of the United Gamefowl Breeders Association.
He said there are already laws in place banning cock fighting. To him, this was a question of noise and odor.
“This has nothing to do with that illegal deal that goes on,” Ainley said.
He also read statements from Hmong residents who say roosters are important to their culture. A new mother is supposed to eat freshly killed chickens after giving birth. Some New Year’s celebrations also incorporate slaughtering roosters.
When the item appeared on the agenda, Vander Poel said he got calls from constituents who weren’t typically political. Vander Poel put forward the motion to not make any changes to the rules outside of clarifying “convoluted” language from the 1967 law. The motion passed unanimously.
Pacelle said this was the first time a California county has reviewed its rooster policy and not updated it.
But, said Vander Poel, it was “very clear about how the community felt about it.”