The rise and fall of the American gamecock
Rancher runs afoul of modern society’s disdain for his beloved fowl
George Stayner cannot explain why he loves the American game chicken. Take one look at his ranch, some 17 miles east of Sacramento along Jackson Highway, and it’s clear some sort of major obsession is involved. On the hillside facing the roadway, you’ll see 77 tiny houses arranged in neat rows, each with a well-groomed rooster staked in front of it. Out back, you’ll find breeding pens and brooding yards swarming with hens, stag roosters, pullets and chicks. Hardly a second goes by without a “cock-a-doodle-do” piercing the air. It’s chicken heaven, or chicken hell, depending on your outlook on chickens.
It’s chicken heaven as far as Stayner is concerned. But, as I learned, just why he loves his birds is a bit more complex than that.
I’d driven by Stayner’s property for years wondering about those tiny little houses. Was it some sort of free-range chicken experiment? An eccentric political statement against the squalid conditions of modern factory farming? Some failed architect’s scale model of an imaginary subdivision? Earlier this month, unable to bear my curiosity any longer, I finally stopped and rang the buzzer at the ranch’s gate. Stayner ambled out, a stocky, slightly bowlegged man trailed by four dogs. He eyed me suspiciously across the gate as I explained I was a member of the dreaded media.
“You’re here about the cockfighting, aren’t you?” he said.
I wasn’t, and I told him so, but I don’t think he believed me. I was aware that a major cockfighting bust had taken place in Sacramento just two days earlier, on the Fourth of July, but I had no idea that the tiny little houses are one of the many peculiarities involved in raising American game chickens, sometimes called gamefowl or gamecocks, the kind of birds used in the much-maligned sport of cockfighting. I was completely clueless, but Stayner wasn’t buying it.
Despite his unshakable belief that my primary interest was to write a hit piece on cockfighting, he invited me to come back to his ranch several days later, in the morning, when the weather would be cooler and the chickens would be out. When I arrived, he was eager to talk, a natural storyteller. Listening was easy, once I became accustomed to the endless crowing of the roosters.
“I have no idea,” Stayner answered when I asked him what the deal was with all the chickens. “That’s one problem that I have. Anything that I have, anything that I raise, anything I collect, I always have too many. I’ve been telling my wife I’m gonna cut back for the last five years, but anytime I see a rooster or a hen that I like, I put ’em together.”
When you put roosters and hens together, you get more roosters and hens. Lots more.
Most of Stayner’s roosters are red-and-blacks, so named because of their color. Here and there’s a yellow and black, sometimes inexplicably called a gray. They all have either wrinkly red combs and wattles on their heads, or they’ve been dubbed the same way you’d bob the tail of a dog. There’s a reason each adult rooster is staked out in front of his own miniature domicile, confined to a circle 10 feet in diameter, circumscribed by the neoprene tether attached to its leg. Cockfighting originated in Europe, where for centuries gamefowl were bred for aggressiveness. The birds must be kept separated or they’ll literally tear each other to shreds.
All too human, I thought, as I noticed how the circles never intersected. It’s the bird-version of the Cold War, the Cluck War if you will. Don’t bother me and I won’t bother you. The leash is the law, and as long as it holds, everything’s cool. Disturb this uneasy detente, and all bets are off. Mutually assured destruction.
Stayner, 62, kneeled down and took hold of one rooster’s tether, running his hand along its underside checking for nicks. Before he retired, before he brought the dogs in to watch the birds, roosters occasionally would break their cords, and he’d come home to find two dead birds in the yard. He continued up the tether, wrapping one large weathered hand tightly around the rooster’s upper legs to immobilize its wickedly sharp spurs as he cradled the bird to his chest with the other hand.
“This is one of the fairly nice ones. … Yeah!” he cooed to the rooster.
“Cluck cluck cluck cluck … cluck cluck cluck … cluck cluck cluck … cluck cluck,” clucked the rooster.
“You gonna bite me?”
“Cluck cluck cluck.”
“I’ve had chickens, you hold ’em, they get a good piece of your skin and they’ll twist it and look right at you like, ‘That hurts, don’t it?’ Yeah, that hurts. I mean, they’re not as stupid as they look.”
He showed me the rooster’s 2-inch-long spurs, curved and sharp as wild rose thorns, jutting out the back of each leg. As lethal as the spurs are, cockfighters trim them back to nubs in order to attach gaffs—similar to a curved metal ice pick—or razor sharp knives up to 3 inches in length. But even without such armaments, a gamecock can inflict serious damage.
“I know how to pick ’em up and hold ’em,” Stayner said. “But I had one guy out here about a month ago, and I had a rooster over there in the first line that was pretty ornery. He wanted to pick that rooster up, and I said, ‘He’s ornery, you gotta watch ’em.’ He said, ‘Oh, I know how to treat chickens.’ He squatted right in front of him and stuck his hand out. I thought, ‘Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding me!’ That rooster put a spur on each side of his arm.”
At one time, cockfighting was a respectable sport and the game chicken a revered animal. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many other aristocrats from the Revolutionary War era participated in cockfighting; the game chicken was once in the running for the national bird. Abraham Lincoln’s sobriquet, “Honest Abe,” was purportedly earned for his perceived fairness in judging cockfights. Stayner claims this rich heritage as his own and cited it as another reason why he loves raising gamefowl.
However, the bird and cockfighting have fallen into disrepute in recent times. Once popular “blood sports” such as cockfighting and dog fighting didn’t mesh well with our perception of 20th century progress. Slowly but surely, states began banning the sport, spurred in recent decades by the Humane Society of the United States, which earlier this month succeeded in persuading Louisiana, the last state in which cockfighting is still legal, to pass legislation banning the sport in 2008.
However, raising the game chicken remains legal in many states, including California. Stayner worries that those days may be numbered. Because the sport is considered inhumane by many people, the bird is considered vicious, with no other use besides fighting. He knows better. He considers it an aggressive animal, but not vicious. Although it’s illegal to sell them for fighting purposes, he has plenty of customers who either eat the birds or raise them as show animals. If the game chicken is being victimized by the sport, why punish the victim?
“The American game chicken is profiled, persecuted and prosecuted,” he said. “The people who hate the game chicken want to see it extinct; they don’t want to see it survive.” He’s certain that the 600 birds confiscated in Sacramento’s recent cockfighting bust are doomed.
“I know 100 percent what’s going to happen to them,” he said. “They’re gonna die.”
Scene of the crime
A makeshift plywood shanty town covers an area the size of two football fields at the end of Tokay Lane, near the intersection of Elder Creek Road and south Watt Avenue, the site of Sacramento’s latest cockfighting bust. The incessant clucking and crowing of the 400 hens and roosters still at the location easily can be heard from down the street. How the operators of this slapped-together cockfighting factory kept its semi-rural existence a secret remains one of Sacramento’s greatest unsolved mysteries.
“You really don’t hear about the fighting until after it’s over with and it’s too late,” offered Dave Dickinson, a kennel supervisor with the Sacramento County Department of Animal Care and Regulations. “It is illegal and the people involved in this type of activity know to keep quiet. They only talk within their own group. Outsiders don’t know anything about it.”
Dickinson led me through a dark labyrinth of wood-and-wire cages as scores of younger chickens, dozens of mature hens and the occasional rooster, all running free, scattered upon our approach. Red-and-black roosters squawked from roomy, individual cages as we passed by. Larger breeding cages still housed roosters and hens. Walk-in sized brooding pens were all empty, the chicks scattered. Despite the haphazard nature of the construction, the conditions couldn’t be described as cruel or inhumane, particularly in the context of the contemporary poultry farm, where beaks are lopped off to prevent the birds from pecking each other to death in the limited available space.
The cockfighting ring, or cockpit, was located in a rickety shack in the back of the compound. Beneath the corrugated sheet metal roof, hay bales were arranged in a circle on the dirt floor. The birds were weighed at a counter next to the circle, and after their weights were recorded on a score sheet, razor-sharp knifes were strapped to their feet. As spectators quenched their thirsts with beverages acquired from a large ice chest nearby, two birds were pitted against one another in the circle, pecking, thrashing and slashing away until only one was left alive. The survivor was rewarded with a roomy cage and maybe a young fresh hen; the loser, perhaps after being mourned by its owner, was discarded on a pile in the room next to the ring.
Then the process was repeated. And again. And again.
Authorities on July 4 found a dozen dead and bloody gamecocks piled up in the room. As many as 600 live birds were found on the premises; some 75 roosters and a flock of chicks and hens were removed to Animal Care and Regulations headquarters, located just two miles away on Bradshaw Road. Dickinson discovered 29 dead birds at the site in the immediate aftermath of the arrests, before proper care could be arranged to feed and water the remaining chickens. Providing for such care, both at the shelter and at the site, has visibly taxed the department’s capabilities. Chicks, pullets and stags that at first shied had away from our approach crowded around an empty water bowl as Dickinson filled it up, in their thirst oblivious to our presence.
In a central clearing, 40 triangular hutches sprouted like plywood tepees beneath a sweltering sun. The roosters were on short leashes, confined to circles no more than 5 feet in diameter. I strayed too close to one rooster and it attacked me, only to be pulled up short by its tie-cord. Roosters will only attack humans like that when they’re starving, Stayner told me later. A rooster carcass, still tied to its cord, lay in front of one of the tepees, rotting in the heat. Feathers were scattered as if it had exploded.
“There must be another rooster running loose,” Dickinson speculated.
Dickinson and the department are aware that Stayner and other Sacramento County residents are raising gamecocks. For the time being, there’s not much they can do about it.
“You go out to some properties where they have those types of birds, but unless you catch them in the act of fighting them or with paraphernalia like knives or gaffs—which you need a search warrant for, if they’re not in plain view—there’s nothing we can do,” he said. “It’s not illegal to own the birds. Typically, most people who own them use them for fighting, but you go to their place and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ and they say, ‘Oh, I’m just raising chickens. It’s my hobby. They’re show birds.’”
That could change in the near future. Both Tokay Lane and Stayner’s property lie within the district of Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli, who has indicated that he intends to crack down on illegal cockfighting with stiffer regulations. Dickinson said the county might consider limiting the number of roosters a person is allowed to keep to one—or none.
“That could certainly put these guys out of business,” he said. “But it would be a county ordinance if it passes, so they could just pull up stakes and move to another county where they can hide out and continue what they’re doing.”
In the meantime, the department of Animal Care and Regulations will continue to feed and water 400 birds, including the 75 roosters at the kennel. Although the suspected ringleader of the cockfighting operation has not been apprehended, a handful of people have been charged under California’s cockfighting laws and await trial. The chickens are considered evidence, but once the cases are concluded, they will have outlived their usefulness. Each bird will be given an injection of sodium penabarbitol, which goes by the brand name Fatal-Plus. I asked Dickinson if it bothered him to kill the birds.
“It does to a certain extent, but I know what they’re used for, and there’s no other use for them right now,” he said. “You couldn’t even adopt them out, they would cause problems. Even if you gave a rooster and a hen out, their offspring, when the males mature, they’ll be fighting with the father, they don’t know the difference. They’re fighting birds. They only know one thing. You let ’em out, and they’re around another chicken, they’re gonna go after it and kill it.”
Birds of a feather
Tell George Stayner that the game chicken is good for only one thing, and he’ll immediately snap that it’s not true. He insisted that each bird has its own distinct personality; he gives names to his favorites, most of whom qualify for the larger coops in the back of his property, either for breeding purposes or because they’ve earned it through years of service. He calls his current favorite General, a large red-and-black with a wrinkled comb that flops over one eye.
“General, he’s a unique rooster,” Stayner said. “I call him General because he’s one of the cockiest roosters I’ve ever seen.” He calls out to the bird through the chicken wire screening.
“Hey General, c’mon over here, buddy. Someone wants to talk to you.”
General saunters out, jumps up on the perch and puffs himself up.
“He’s just ornery,” Stayner continued. “That’s what I like about the game chicken. Most animals are scared of humans. General isn’t scared of anybody.”
The General’s son sits in a nearby cage. He looks like the General, but doesn’t have the same personality. Next to him is Gentle Giant, a 12-year-old rooster that’s one of the most docile game birds he’s ever owned.
“He’s as good a chicken as General, but his personality is different,” Stayner said.
The hens can be just as aggressive as the roosters. Older hens have to be separated from the younger hens in the brood yard; the latter will attack the former to protect its territory. Stayner doesn’t let any of the hens run loose. The roosters will go crazy and jump over the tops of their houses, hanging themselves on their tethers. If a hen does get loose, she’ll choose the most dominant rooster in the yard to mate with, with at least one possible exception.
“About 15 years ago, I had a hen I used to let run loose called Tie-cord Sally,” Stayner chuckled. “When she ran loose and it got hot, she’d cross my rooster’s little eyes out here. She liked roosters. She just loved the rooster. She’d just mate with everybody. She’d walk up and down these rows all day long.”
When he goes to Oregon to visit his sister, he can’t sleep at night, he’s so used to hearing the chickens. He can tell what’s going on outside just by the way they crow, whether there’s something dangerous in the air, like a hawk or an owl, or something on the ground, like a coyote. He doesn’t claim to understand everything he hears.
“I know about as much chicken as I do Mexican,” he said. “I understand some chicken and I understand some Mexican.”
I asked him again why he loves the breed so much. He still can’t pin it down.
“My family has had game chickens ever since I was 2 years old,” he said. When he retired from the Navy in 1985, the regulations on selling gamecocks had tightened, so he tried his hand at guinea hens, ducks and meat chickens instead. “I tried every damned thing in the world to raise. Finally, one day, somebody brought a trio of game chickens to me and they wanted to know if I wanted them. I took ’em, and I just got into it all over again.”
From one rooster and two hens came … well, Stayner isn’t sure how many total chickens he has now, but they number in the hundreds.
His primary customers, the Hmong, covet the bird for its meat, as well as its use in traditional ceremonies varying from weddings to funerals. Filipinos, in addition to fighting chickens, consider them to be good pets, and even set a place for them at—not on—the table. Stayner used to show his gamecocks regularly at county and state fairs. While he admires the birds’ fighting prowess, comparing it to that of a boxer, he gets tremendous satisfaction from just raising and breeding the animals. It genuinely upset him that all of the chickens from the busted cockfight will be euthanized, as he predicted.
“They’ll kill every one of those chickens because some people were fighting a few of them,” he said. “That’s what I’m against. I don’t care if they bust these cockfights. But don’t kill the victims. There has to be a better way.”
By law, Stayner can’t sell a bird to anyone who says he’s going to fight it, but he freely admitted that he can’t guarantee some of the birds that go out his gate won’t wind up in cockfights. He’ll never sell General or Gentle Giant or any of his other favorite roosters for that reason. He suspects that some of his game chickens are shipped off to Mexico or the Philippines, where cockfighting, called Sabong, is a national sport akin to baseball and football in the United States. But even if one of his roosters does end up in a cockpit, he sees that fate preferable to, say, the life of the factory-farmed chicken served on your kitchen table.
“You can go to 10 people and ask them if they would rather take a knife or a sword and fight for their life, or get their throat cut,” he said. “I can guarantee you nine out of those 10 would rather fight for their life. It’s the same thing with the chicken. The chicken would rather fight for its life than get its throat cut. I mean, we kill 40 million turkeys a year to have at dinner every November.”
He still cannot put his finger on just why he loves the American game chicken. It’s like trying to explain why some people love NASCAR. Or why his oldest son covets Toyota Land Cruisers. Or why he loves collecting baseball cards and sports memorabilia, the other major obsession in his life. He certainly doesn’t love the birds for the money they bring in. He figures he loses about a $1,000 a year raising game chickens. He scoffed at local coverage of the cockfighting bust that hinted about behind-the-scenes riches.
“I don’t give a shit what you’ve read in the papers, you can’t get rich raising chickens,” he said. “I can tell you that right now. I’ve read in places where they think this is a lucrative business. Well, if they think this is a lucrative business, they oughta come in here and take over for a little while and see how lucrative is.”
The Humane Society of the United States, which has been instrumental in establishing anti-cockfighting ordinances across the country, holds a special place in Stayner’s pantheon of hypocrisy. He doesn’t see what’s so humane about legislating the gamecock out of existence just because some people choose to fight them.
“It used to be a nuisance law,” he said, referring to California’s penal code. “They weren’t happy with that, so they made it a misdemeanor, with a $100 fine. They weren’t happy with that, so they raised the fine to $500. They weren’t happy with that, and now it’s up to $2,000. They weren’t happy with that, so now they want to make it a felony. Eventually you’re going to be put in the gas chamber for fighting a chicken.”
However, he doesn’t expect the bird or the sport to go away anytime soon, not with 52 percent of the state projected to be Latino within 10 years and cockfighting being more or less the national pastime for many of them. He doesn’t think Filipinos and Southerners are ready to throw in the towel yet, either.
“If you grew up with this type of thing, you’re not going to stop just because somebody tells you they don’t want you to do it,” he said. “Stop playing football. Stop playing baseball. I watched bull riding the other day, and the guys got helmets on and flak jackets on now. It’s like our kids. Our kids can’t go outside without looking like a hockey goalie now. I mean, Christ. Kids are gonna get hurt. People are gonna get hurt. If you’re born, you’re gonna die. Period. For some reason, people think if you eat the right diet and do everything right, you can live to be a million years old. Well you can’t. That’s the way life is. You’re gonna die eventually. We’re all gonna die. Nobody can get around it.”
And while he’s come close to closing his ranch, if only because he no longer has the time to care for so many birds, every time there’s a major cockfighting bust, it gets his dander up, and he decides to stay in the game.
“It’s mostly out of spite,” he said. “I could probably live without the game chicken. There are other things I like doing. But every time I start to get rid of them, something like this happens and I get all fired up again. I just see the hypocrisy of everything.”
He was fired up. The juices were flowing. Now he could finally narrow down why he loves the American game chicken.
“It’s the personality of the chicken,” he said. “They don’t back down. They’re not scared of anything.”
Kind of like George Stayner.