CHATSWORTH, Calif. — Tucked away off a dirt road in the middle of a remote canyon in unincorporated Chatsworth, a large cockfighting breeding ranch has been uncovered and brought down by the LA County Sheriff’s Department.
The lead deputy on the case, Joel Bronson, worked the investigation for more than a year before it was finally time to remove about 400 roosters and hens from the property.
“They’re beautiful animals, I just wish [the owner] wouldn’t make them fight each other to the death for money,” Bronson said, standing in caging area of the ranch surrounded by dozens of roosters.
The cages were hidden behind a circle of plywood, across a rickety makeshift bridge. Bronson said the ranch was one of thousands of cockfighting enterprises in the area of LA County he tracks.
“I feel good about being here. This is the payoff of a lot of work to finally take this guy’s animals away from him,” Bronson said.
Bronson has been with the sheriff’s department 15 years and has become an expert in dismantling this type of crime.
Spectrum News 1 was given exclusive access to ride along with Bronson earlier this year as he investigated other illegal game bird operations.
Many of his investigations start as tips from neighbors who hear the birds' loud crowing. The fights are kept under wraps and tracking down the people organizing them isn’t easy.
“A lot of times, it’s drug dealers and it’s a hobby for them. It’s a flashy, high-profile hobby that they can make a lot of money on and throw parties, and have a cockfight and do a bunch of gambling,” Bronson said.
Back in his office, Bronson showed us videos of an actual cockfight. The blood sport of pitting two roosters against each other to fight to the death has a history going back thousands of years.
“Each handler will bait the bird, hold it by its wings and basically headbutt them to get them fired up.”
The fights don’t last long, sometimes only seconds, because the roosters’ legs are fastened with sharp blades.
“You’re forcing them to stab each other to death. It’s disgusting to me,” Bronson said.
Bronson said many of the handlers or fighters he catches grew up with cockfighting as a tradition, and it can be very lucrative as a sport.
Just one bird can go for about $1,000.
To prepare them for a fight, the handlers will cut off the bird’s combs and waddles — that’s the flesh on top of their head and below their chins — as well as their ear lobes. Then they secure the blade to their legs.
After many months of detective work and court filings, Bronson was finally able to seize the birds at the ranch in unincorporated Chatsworth.
Unfortunately, the birds can’t be kept alive. They’re too dangerous to be adopted as pets because they’re pumped with steroids for aggression — and even though many of them look beautiful and healthy, they tested positive for diseases.
This is where LA County Department of Animal Control comes in.
Sergeant Rachel Montez-Kemp is suiting up with her team before they open the cages to capture the birds for euthanasia.
She said some of the diseases the birds carry are zoonotic, meaning they can spread to people.
Before COVID-19, Newcastle Disease spread throughout Southern California, resulting in the state killing more than a million birds to halt the spread.
“I know Newcastle was directly related to game fowl,” Montez-Kemp said. “I don’t know if something like that could happen again but it’s definitely concerning.”
Montez-Kemp said the hardest part of her job is putting the birds down, but she feels it’s more cruel to leave them in the hands of the fighters than to put them to sleep humanely.
“It’s heartbreaking, because they’re living beings. It’s a cruel sport, it is illegal, and these animals suffer,” Montez-Kemp said.
As for Bronson, he hopes with each bust he’s one step closer to putting an end to this type of animal crime in LA County.
“I hope it’s such a loss for the owner that he decides to switch up his hobbies to something that doesn’t require him to treat animals this way,” Bronson said.