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On a sunny spring day, Denver Animal Control Officer J. Lopez was driving through Swansea, the working-class neighborhood bisected by I-70, with the windows rolled down to let in some fresh air.
They also let in the sound of chickens "going crazy." Lopez followed the crowing and cackling to 4344 Milwaukee Street. No one answered the door of the small white house, so he walked around the side of the building and looked in the back yard.
A dozen roosters were tethered by their ankles to metal spikes in the ground. There was enough leeway in the leashes to let the birds taunt and peck at each other, but not make contact.
A woman came out of the house, and Lopez asked what the birds were for.
No hablo inglés, she replied.
Two young boys came out of the house. They translated for the woman as Lopez asked if the birds were for cockfighting.
She said no, the chickens were for eating.
But Lopez had already noticed that the roosters were taller and thinner than an average bird. Someone had cut the little flaps of skin off of the top of each cock's head and chin -- a standard look for fighting birds -- and also removed half of the spurs from their legs, leaving just short nubs. At cockfights, knives, razors or mini-icepicks are attached to these nubs -- and with artificial spurs, almost every battle is to the death.
Lopez had his young interpreters ask the woman who had doctored the chickens. A man transporting the birds from North Carolina to Mexico had just stopped off on his way, she said.
Lopez called the Denver Police Department, requesting a Spanish-speaking officer and backup to remove the birds.
Police got permission to search the property, which belonged to seventy-year-old Virginia Casillas-Deluicio. Inside a cabinet in the carport, they found a jar that contained a miniature set of boxing gloves -- the sort of training muffs used when the birds spar. Casillas-Deluicio said they belonged to the children. She put the gloves on her fingertips and started jabbing the air. Also inside the jar were Vaseline packets, alcohol swabs and some pink pills. Those were for the kids, too, she said.
The birds belonged to her nephew, Javier, she told the officers.
Casillas-Deluicio followed Lopez into the tool shed, where he spotted a brown suitcase hanging on the wall. Inside the suitcase was a wooden box with a picture of a fighting cock on the top. Inside the box were short knives known as "Mexican slashers," named for their popularity in Mexican cockfighting circles.
Animal control impounded a dozen fighting roosters, three brood hens and four more chickens. Eleven of the roosters' crowns were completely amputated and their spurs trimmed. Two were missing eyes, and another bird's right eye was closed but seemed to be intact. One was missing a bunch of feathers.
"Looking in that back yard," Lopez remembers, "that had been going on for a very long time."
No one knows which came first, the chicken or the egg. But the fight soon followed.
Roosters are alpha males. When another male tries to mess with a rooster's hen, the result is a frenzy of feathers as the birds pounce on each other, using beaks and spurs as weapons. Some scientists believe the spurs evolved for fighting; others suggest the spurs were designed to keep the hens in place during mating.
Like most domesticated chickens, gamecocks descended from the red jungle fowl of India. The birds spread west to Persia and Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean and Greece. Gambling over cockfights wasn't far behind. The Romans introduced cockfighting to Britain, where it was popular in the days of William Shakespeare. Cockfighting moved through Europe and eventually across the ocean to the Colonies. George Washington is said to have been a cockfighter.
Birds that fight today are descendants of champion fighting birds from hundreds of years ago. Because most chicken fights are to the death, only the most aggressive birds survive to breed. "Just like a racehorse, you brood them and breed them and you get good hens out of them," J. Lopez says.
You also get cocks that are killers.
Massachusetts outlawed cockfighting in 1836. Today the blood sport is illegal in all but two states, Louisiana and New Mexico. In Colorado, not only is producing a cockfight a felony, but so is watching a cockfight, possession of a gamecock intended for fighting, and possession of cockfighting paraphernalia.
At cockfighting tournaments in Louisiana and New Mexico, as well as in Mexico, Vietnam and the Philippines, more than a thousand birds may fight to the death in a single weekend tournament as tens of thousands of dollars are won and lost. And the sport's popularity in Mexico spills over into this country. "It's pretty popular with the Mexican nationals," Lopez says. "Every time I've ever had a dealing with them, it's a Mexican national, and they tell you they're taking them to Mexico."
The Mexico excuse, along with the fact that cockfighting is still legal in a couple of states, created a handy loophole for cockfighters caught transporting birds on highways in Colorado and other states that had banned the sport. Law-enforcement authorities couldn't cite drivers who claimed they were simply transporting the birds to states where cockfighting was legal.