An incident in Central California last week was so bizarre that the headlines it generated wouldn't be out of place in a supermarket tabloid next to tales of alien babies and Elvis sightings: "Man Killed by Rooster." More specifically, one of the feathered contestants in an illegal cockfight in Tulare County, armed with a blade attached to its leg, apparently stabbed 35-year-old Jose Luis Ochoa in the calf, and Ochoa was declared dead of "sharp force injury" two hours later.
This isn't the first time someone has died in what is supposed to be blood sport for birds; last summer in Merced, two men got into an argument over a $10 bet, one pulled out a gun and killed the other, and the victim's brother and another man allegedly beat the shooter to death. But aside from the question of whether cockfights are humane for humans, they raise serious concerns about whether the state of California is doing enough to discourage them.
Californians earned a reputation for their conscientiousness about animal welfare after passing the nation's first ban on the use of battery cages for egg-laying hens in 2008. Yet while we don't want to crowd chickens, we don't seem to have much of a problem with letting people attach razor-sharp knives to their fighting spurs and place bets on which one will survive. Cockfighting is a felony in nearby states such as Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico, but it's only a misdemeanor on a first offense in California, rising to a felony on a second strike.
That isn't likely to change anytime soon. Although the Humane Society of the United States has long pushed for stiffer penalties for cockfighting and dogfighting in the Golden State, Democratic leaders in the Legislature have placed a moratorium on bills that add new felonies to the penal code because they don't want to worsen prison overcrowding. But there are ways to crack down. State Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) is expected to sponsor a bill or bills this session that would permit police to seize property acquired using money raised from cockfighting, and establish minimum fines for the offense. We can't think of a legitimate reason to oppose such moves.
Cockfighting is appallingly inhumane and, as Ochoa's case points out, sometimes dangerous for human participants. Ochoa had already been convicted of a misdemeanor for cockfighting, and it's possible he died of his injuries because he delayed seeking treatment out of fear that he'd face felony charges for a second offense. Yet if he'd been charged with a felony the first time, it might have convinced him to find a different pastime.