Cockfight Crusades: Illinois Man Is On A Mission, Exposes Kentucky Ring

[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Illinois Times]

My first unforgettable cockfight was when I was 4-5 years old. My father has a black henny of Philippine Game strain which was decoupled early in the fight. Broke both two legs it seems. Down on the ground. But he is very feisty and game, pecking and trying to get up. Wings flopping to move and to stay engaged with the opponent, I think, a red cock of American Game strain. The red cock cannot finish him right there on the ground. Then with all his strength he managed to elevate himself in the air with his strong wings. He then landed a deadly blow for some reason with broke two legs and all. Well, it was a come from behind win for us.

B.L. “Billy” Cozad, a fourth-generation cockfighter who raises roosters in Oklahoma, wrote this on his web page devoted to blood sport that’s illegal in 50 states, plus the District of Columbia. Congress and former president Donald Trump added Puerto Rico to the list two years ago.

“I already told my wife, and I told my mother, that anyone who comes and tries to take one of my roosters will have to kill me first,” Jose Torres, who lives in Puerto Rico, told National Public Radio in 2019. “And I’m not the only one. There are thousands of us.” While cockfighting has been declining, Puerto Rican politicians have been loathe to oppose it, according to the NPR report – nearly 2,000 people, some bearing birds, marched to the Capitol building in San Juan after Trump signed a bill banning cockfighting in U.S. territories.

Feelings were no less strong last September at the Morgantown Community Center in Morgantown, Kentucky, where Cozad debated the merits of cockfighting with Steve Hindi, an Illinois animal rights activist who lives about 40 miles west of Chicago. A video doesn’t show the audience, but Hindi says about 30 people were there. Several, including Cozad, wore sidearms on their hips. Most were not on Hindi’s side.

The right to watch chickens battle to the death while bettors wager is enshrined in the Constitution, Cozad declares. He can rattle off all the amendments – and there are many, plus the Declaration of Independence – that allow cockfighting. He talks about the United Nations and the Bible. Animal rights activists, he says, are pagans, communists and Nazis. The FBI has called Hindi and his ilk the biggest domestic terrorist threat facing the United States, Cozad warns, and anyone who donates to an animal rights group risks getting ensnared in criminal investigations, same as people who give money to Al Qaeda. He does not mention a pending federal lawsuit filed by a Louisiana cockfighter who claims that raising birds and watching them kill each other is a religious practice, akin to Native Americans taking peyote.

Hindi’s point is simple.

“What part of illegal don’t you understand?” he asks Cozad. “If you’re going to claim to be a patriot, an American citizen, that means you live within the laws, does it not? Is there an argument about that? Of course there’s not.”

“Actually, the definition of a patriot is…” interjects someone who is off camera. Hindi cuts him off. “You’re the moderator,” he says to the interrupter who’s also been holding Hindi and Cozad to five minutes apiece in an argument that lasts nearly two hours.

“You know what I call terrorism?” Hindi continues. “Someone calling up a courthouse and saying ‘I’m going to start shooting up courthouses.’”

Hindi then reads from a 2019 affidavit in support of an arrest warrant filed in Oklahoma, where Cozad got angry when a court clerk told him that he’d have to talk to a judge about changing an appearance date in a traffic case. According to the affidavit, Cozad asked the clerk if he’d have to start shooting up courthouses, like they do in Hungary, and he said that he felt sorry for any cop who tried to arrest him. “I’m not going to jail, I won’t be arrested and yes, I carry a gun at all times,” Cozad stated when a detective called, according to the affidavit.

“This is his booking photo right here,” Hindi tells the audience as he holds it up. No big deal, Cozad maintains. “Even the district attorney knew the accusations made against me were bullshit and dismissed charges and I didn’t even go to court for it,” he says.

This sort of confrontation is classic Hindi, a man who blasts the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for what he deems flawed approaches as readily as he goes after cockfighters and others whom he believes abuse and torture innocent creatures.

Hindi owns a rivet-manufacturing plant and has money to fight cockfighters via a nonprofit called Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK) that he founded in 1994. Admirers have included the late Bob Barker, host of “The Price Is Right,” who donated $1 million to SHARK a decade ago after the group fought Pennsylvania pigeon shoots that continue, with SHARK still protesting the killing.

Hindi has been beaten up by folks who don’t appreciate him showing up with cameras, and he’s been arrested at least twice. He’s been whipped with a dog leash while trying to stop a pigeon shoot. He posts recordings of death threats on SHARK’s website. Eight or so drones used to document events where SHARK isn’t welcome have been shot down, Hindi says.

“I am frightened for him,” says Gail Eisnitz, chief investigator with the Humane Farming Association, a California-based animal rights group that has teamed with SHARK to battle cockfighting. “He definitely doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He pushes the envelope, sometimes. He stands up for the animals better than anyone else we’ve worked with before.”

Hindi shows no signs of letting up.

“This is who I am,” he says. “This is what I do.”

Cruelty and crime

SHARK’s interest in cockfighting dates to 2018, when Hindi used a drone to get pictures of a rooster-raising operation in Monterey County, California, where an anti-cockfighting ordinance enacted in 2014 is stricter than a state ban enacted in 1905. The county ordinance prohibits keeping more than five roosters without a permit, and the owner of the sheds filled with birds didn’t have one. Under pressure from SHARK and other animal protection groups, the sheds were dismantled in 2019. But the battle wasn’t over.

Last year, SHARK and the Humane Farming Association sued Monterey County, claiming that the health department wasn’t enforcing the county ordinance. The groups gave the county 31 addresses, plus parcel numbers, of suspected illegal rooster keepers, according to the lawsuit, but nothing was done. The lawsuit is on hold pursuant to an agreement reached last month with the county, which has promised to form an anti-cockfighting task force and determine whether people are breaking the law at the addresses provided by SHARK and the Humane Farming Association.

Hindi credits coronavirus for escalating SHARK’s war against cockfights.

Until last year, rodeos had been a bigger target for SHARK. Hindi suspects that SHARK footage of livestock being jabbed with sharp objects and jolted with electric prods convinced organizers of the National High School Rodeo Finals, last held at the state fairgrounds in 2007, to stop coming to Springfield. Pressured by SHARK, the Illinois Department of Agriculture determined that laws had been broken, but the late John Schmidt, then Sangamon County state’s attorney, said that investigators could not identify culprits, and no charges were filed.

“COVID-19 shut down most of the rodeos,” Hindi says. “We’re not the kind of group that’s going to just sit around.”

COVID hasn’t stopped cockfights, which can draw dozens of spectators who rarely wear masks, according to SHARK and its allies. In the Philippines, where cockfighting is both legal and popular, authorities shut down fighting pits after 11 deaths from COVID last spring were traced to a cockfighting derby. A Filipino police officer who was enforcing the ban died while breaking up a cockfight in October, when a rooster with razor-sharp metal fighting spurs strapped to its legs slashed a femoral artery. 

The Los Angeles County Public Health Department blamed a 2002 outbreak of virulent Newcastle disease, a virus that kills poultry, to cockfighting. It was the second of three major outbreaks in California since 1971. Nearly four million birds were destroyed at a cost of almost $170 million to control the 2002 outbreak. The disease can spread to humans, although symptoms are mild or nonexistent. Cockfighting foes note that handlers of fighting roosters sometimes suck blood from beaks of wounded birds. In 2005, a World Health Organization official told the Washington Post that cockfighting might have helped spread avian flu from birds to humans.

Beyond public health, there is crime, and cockfights, besides being illegal in their own right, have plenty, according to cockfighting foes who point to police raids. In May, Polk County sheriff’s deputies in Florida arrested 14 people after finding cocaine, firearms, hundreds of live birds, charred remains of roosters and suspected performance-enhancing drugs for fighting cocks along with a disassembled fighting ring caked with feathers. In 2016, 40 people were arrested by police in Midland, Texas, who found 46 ounces of cocaine, guns, more than $30,000 and 30 live roosters, plus several dead ones. Admission was as high as $100, with beer selling for $2. Two years ago, an Oregon man was sentenced to more than six years in prison for trafficking nearly three pounds of methamphetamine and selling fighting animals. Cops found more than 200 roosters on the defendant’s property – a single bird, he admitted, or boasted, could fetch $500.

Cruelty. Public health.  Crime. A Triple Crown for animal rights activists who might otherwise have trouble getting folks who eat chicken to pay attention. With rodeos scarce, Hindi got busy.

“It’s not illegal”

Kentucky proved easy pickings but a tough nut to crack.

Last June, SHARK used hidden cameras to record two sheriff’s deputies at a Kentucky cockfight – video shows them chatting with folks next to the fight pit. “They’re fighting roosters, that’s what’s happening,” a Clay County sheriff’s deputy told Hindi when he called. “It’s not illegal in the state of Kentucky.” Clay County Sheriff Patrick Robinson wasn’t perturbed.

“I’ve got more problems to deal with than two roosters fighting,” the sheriff told the Lexington Herald-Leader when SHARK went to the media.

Cockfighting in Kentucky is a misdemeanor and an open secret. Stu Chaifetz, a SHARK investigator, says that activists had no trouble documenting fights. “You just paid your money and walked right in,” he recalls. Cuttin Up Game Farm, which raises roosters in eastern Kentucky, is run by a captain at the Harlan County jail, according to SHARK, and his son, a former guard at the same lockup. In 2019, SHARK found pictures of both men on the farm’s Facebook page, posing with trophies and roosters. “We showed in seven derbies, got in the money four times and lost two money fights,” one of them posted along with a photo. The post has since been taken down. The farm’s Facebook page now features pictures of roosters, aka battle fowl – make an offer.

In a 2019 email, Kentucky State Police told SHARK that a prosecutor had informed police that the state’s animal cruelty laws apply only to four-legged creatures, which isn’t true, according to former Kentucky attorney general Chris Gorman, who’s said that courts have upheld the law. Hindi has alternately praised and condemned state police in Kentucky, saying in November that state cops shut down cockfights reported by SHARK last summer. A month later, Hindi said that state police did nothing to stop upcoming cockfights after SHARK sent police a copy of a flier advertising fights scheduled through the end of March. A Kentucky State Police spokesman declined an interview request from Illinois Times, telling a reporter to submit questions in writing.

The feds stepped in a few years ago, with prosecutors sending a half-dozen people to prison in 2017 for running an 8,000-square-foot cockfighting facility in Kentucky that featured arena seating, several fighting pits and a restaurant. The place had been in business for 30 years, prosecutors said.

Hindi and a SHARK investigator met violence in Ohio on Jan. 3 after sending a drone aloft at a suspected cockfight. A SHARK video shows a man slapping the drone controller from Hindi’s hands, then bashing it against a mailbox. “Oh, you got trouble, baby,” Hindi tells the man, who is wearing a hoodie emblazoned with a picture of a rooster. “You got the sheriff coming.”

“Drive!” someone orders Hindi’s companion, who obeys. As the SHARK investigator leaves, Hindi is knocked to the ground. Two men, he says, kicked him several times, breaking a rib and gashing his head – the wound required six staples. “Last chance: Leave or you die here!” someone yells. Meanwhile, Hindi says, someone in a pickup truck chased down the investigator who’d departed, ramming his car several times before running him off the road and into a ditch. All of this is on video.

No charges have been filed, but Hindi, who plans a lawsuit, says that SHARK expects justice from the courts. In a video posted three days after the confrontation, Hindi addresses cockfighters directly, asking whether the lost drone looked like the one he holds in his hand. The camera zooms out to show three more displayed in front of him.

“Did you stupid asses think that was the only one?” Hindi asks. “In that case, let me introduce you to some of my little friends. Yeah – these drones can see you when you can’t see them at all, and I’m going to prove that to you.”

“This sheriff is serious”

Three weeks after the beating, Hindi is in North Carolina, where he’s heard that a cockfight is in the offing near Wilkesboro. He won’t say how he knows this. SHARK, which has set up a cockfighting hotline, encourages tips from neighbors.

North Carolina last summer became the 32nd state to make cockfighting a felony, and Hindi is encouraged by conversations with local law enforcement. “This sheriff is serious,” Hindi says.

The goal is to stop the fights before they start. If cops raid a cockfight already underway, roosters are seized and euthanized, Hindi says, while their owners go home and raise more birds. Better, he says, to keep birds alive while shutting down fight venues.

Setting up a cockfight takes time, and so Hindi rises early in hopes of spotting cockfighters as they arrive with bird-weighing scales and other equipment – spectators are expected at 11 a.m. Greg Campbell and his son, Chad, who live about 300 miles away, are here to help. Greg Campbell, a real estate investor and former Illinois resident, has known Hindi since the 1990s, when SHARK videotaped deer being netted in DuPage County, then killed with bolt guns, the kind used to dispatch cattle. The DuPage County Forest Preserve District has since switched to sharpshooters.

“If we see anything, we call police and let them do their job,” Hindi tells the Campbells before heading out.

It’s illegal to conduct surveillance of private property with drones in North Carolina, so Hindi and the Campbells will watch the road leading to the suspected cockfighting site, which is amid woods a considerable distance from pavement. “We’re not going down that road,” Hindi says. “That would be insane.” Laws notwithstanding, is it ethical to use drones to catch cockfighters on private land?  “If someone’s beating their child on private property, do you do nothing about it?” Greg Campbell asks. 

This is a rural area, and a parade of vehicles on a Saturday morning can only mean that something’s up. Communication will be key as Hindi and Greg Campbell take turns driving past the turnoff road leading to the target – if one of them encounters trouble, the other needs to know. Cellphone coverage is sketchy, and walky-talky signals don’t travel far. “We’ll pull out the satellite phone if we need it,” Hindi says. “It’s a pain in the ass, though.”

The bust proves a bust. After a couple hours of seeing nothing, Hindi and the Campbells depart. Hindi isn’t overly discouraged. “We did get a local tip,” he says. “It was a good tip.” He thinks that SHARK is making a difference – the cockfighters might have canceled, he says, for fear of getting caught.

“You miss, a little bit, the adrenaline rush, but there was no fight,” Hindi says. “Which is good.”