SAN DIEGO — State and federal authorities described a weekend cockfighting raid as the biggest in U.S. history after agents found more than 4,400 birds being raised and trained to kill at the same compound where they carried out what was then the largest bust six years ago.
Hundreds more birds were found at a second training ground nearby in Nestor, near the Otay Mesa industrial area of San Diego, officials told NBC affiliate KNSD-TV. They said more than 5,000 birds were discovered at the two locations altogether .
The raid culminated a six-month investigation involving nine local, state and federal agencies in cooperation with the Humane Society of the United States and the San Diego Humane Society.
Fifty people were charged with misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine, and were ordered to answer to cockfighting charges in early December, said Paul Levikow, a spokesman for the San Diego County district attorney’s office.
Another 50 people were still being sought Tuesday, authorities said. San Diego is a major naval center, and the district attorney’s office said some of those charged were retired or active-duty military personnel.
“This is the largest cockfighting ring ever busted up in the United States because of the number of defendants and the number of birds seized,” Levikow said.
Many of the birds were underfed, injured or mutilated for competition, authorities said. About 80 percent were euthanized.
Philippine connection alleged
The operation was managed and patronized largely by Filipinos, and fights were staged in the San Diego area, officials told KNSD. But the operation also sent many of its birds to the Philippines, authorities said.
Cockfighting is legal in the Philippines, where it is called “sabong” and is considered to be a national pastime. Crowds gather in large arenas seven days a week to wager on their favorite birds.
Indeed, local officials promote cockfighting as a lure for tourists. “Blending science, art, superstition and gambling, cockfighting is gymnastics as much for cocks as for spectators,” the tourism department in the central province of Western Visayas touts on its Web site.
But in the United States, cockfighting is widely considered a barbarity, a bloody sport in which trained roosters, often pumped up with aggression-boosting drugs and sporting spurs or razors, fight to the death. When Louisiana’s new ban goes into effect next summer, it will be outlawed in all 50 states.
“Both birds will typically attack each other, collide somewhere in the pit, and it will be just a bloody blur of feathers,” said Eric Sakach, California director of the Humane Society of the United States. “Birds are literally being mutilated, sliced right there. Whole appendages can fall off.”
Largest previous raid at same site
The operation in San Diego was especially sophisticated, said Lt. Dan DeSousa of the San Diego County Animal Services Department.
“This is what we call a life-to-death operation for these birds,” he said. “They were raised on site. They would sell the eggs to people that wanted a championship bloodline for these birds.”
The site was the scene of what had previously been the largest cockfighting raid in the nation’s history. In May 2001, authorities discovered more than 2,500 fighting birds on the same ranch after a two-year undercover investigation.
It was also the second major cockfighting bust this year in San Diego County, which boasts an unwanted reputation as one of the centers of the underground cockfighting scene. In May, hundreds of fighting birds were seized in rural Pauma Valley.
More than 50 cases related to the sport have been filed in the past six years, the San Diego district attorney’s office said.
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com. NBC affiliate KNSD of San Diego contributed to this report.