A woman called the Louisiana SPCA this weekend, declined to give her name and reported some 50 cockfighting roosters in a neighbor’s back lawn. But when investigators arrived at the home Wednesday morning, they found much more than they bargained for.
For hours, all day, they rescued more than 700 birds in what the organization describes at the most sprawling and sophisticated illegal breeding operation they’ve encountered in more than a century. They discovered a warehouse full of pens used to cage the birds next to the home in the 14000 block of Chef Menteur Highway. In the home’s backyard, they found another 150 or so makeshift cages, fashioned from 55-gallon drums, filled with roosters. Hundreds more ran free, hiding from rescuers in the surrounding mud and banana trees.
But the biggest, most beautiful birds, worth thousands on the black market, were kept in spacious corrals in a climate-controlled shed, with heaters and egg incubators, mating charts and an automated watering system.
Each rooster was meticulously bred for the ancient blood sport, which pits roosters with knives strapped to their legs against each other in a fight to the death.
The homeowner, 47-year-old Trinh Tran, was booked Wednesday afternoon on cockfighting and animal cruelty charges.
He told investigators that he fought the birds at competitions in Alabama and Mississippi, SPCA Chief Executive Officer Ana Zorrilla said.
Cockfighting is illegal in all 50 states.
Investigators also found shipping receipts that indicated Tran mailed the live roosters across state lines, mostly to California and Florida.
Big roosters, from a bloodline of winning birds, can sell for some $10,000 on the black market, said Amanda Pumilia, the SPCA’s Animal Control Supervisor.
His was a refined operation, the SPCA acknowledged.
Tran purchased the property in 1996, according to assessment records. Investigators guessed by the breadth and sophistication of the business that it was years in the making.
The roosters were in good shape, all healthy and well cared for. He had air conditioning and at least four tons of feed.
Still, the SPCA described the enterprise as a massive facility for animal cruelty, with birds bred specifically to kill or be killed. If roosters don’t die during the matches, they often have their eyes pecked out, their bones broken or gashes so deep it slices their organs, the animal advocacy group noted. They are worth little at that point, and often left behind to die.
“Cockfighting is an inhumane practice where intentional pain is inflicted upon another living creature for the sake of barbaric entertainment,” Zorrilla said. “And any complaints of such activity are taken very seriously.”
At Tran’s home Wednesday, her organization, with help from the New Orleans Police Department, discovered 235 of the weapons commonly strapped to the roosters’ legs during fights — spikes and curved knives meant to maximize injury during the clandestine matches. Each of the tiny implements was kept in a hand-made leather sheath, and stored in intricately-detailed custom boxes, with roosters carved into the sides and slats to hold each of the hundreds of individual weapons.
There were shelves full of antibiotics, syringes, vitamins and steroids, injected into the birds to make them bigger and tougher. Investigators also discovered multiple large trophies from competitions with names like “Super Cock.”
In 2008, Louisiana became the last American state to outlaw cockfighting, and the high-stakes gambling that traditionally goes along with it.
It is a popular pastime across the county, passed down through generations in rural communities. In Louisiana, it was predominantly practiced in Cajun cultures.
Though the sport is now outlawed in every state, it remains legal in other countries, such as Mexico, France, Italy and Spain. Some have large arenas, where families watch the bloody show together.
Tran was charged Wednesday with felony animal cruelty, misdemeanor cockfighting and a municipal charge of being in possession of illegal exotic animals.
New Orleans outlawed roosters earlier this year.
Court records were not yet available Wednesday afternoon.
Had Tran been charged with cockfighting alone, he would have faced no more than a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. It is a misdemeanor offense, and Zorrilla said she hopes that Wednesday’s raid might provoke the state Legislature to consider upping it to a felony.
The SPCA, meanwhile, carried each bird, one by one, out of the facility. Each was examined by a veterinarian, put in an individual crate and stacked inside an air-conditioned 18-wheeler. There were so many birds, the truck had to make multiple trips from Tran’s home on the fringe of New Orleans East to the SPCA’s headquarters on the West Bank.
Dozens of employees began at 6:30 a.m., and anticipated that they would work late into the night, cataloging, examining and transporting each bird. They will be held for a time as evidence.
The SPCA anticipates that it will easily find homes for the hens. But roosters, naturally aggressive, are harder to dispose of.
The organization rescued 104 from a West Bank breeder last year, and each had to be euthanized, Pumilia said. Most of those rescued Wednesday will likely suffer the same fate.