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Hawaii officials urged to investigate rooster exporters

A Washington, D.C., animal rights group named 12 Big Island residents and businesses as suspected distributors of fighting roosters to cockfighting operations in Guam.

During a news conference Tuesday, Animal Wellness Action, an organization dedicated to end the exploitation of animals, announced the results of a months-long investigation into Hawaii’s involvement in the international trade of fighting roosters, identifying 22 people or organizations throughout the state thought to have exported such birds to Guam in the past three years.

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According to the group’s report, 12 of the people named have addresses on the Big Island — four in Hilo, two in Pahoa, two in Waimea, one in Keaau, one in Kealakekua, one in Mountain View and one in Hawi. The remaining 10 addresses are on Oahu.

Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action, explained Tuesday that the organization combed shipping records on Guam from between 2016 and 2019 and identified nearly 9,000 birds suspected of being bred as fighting roosters. About 1,000 of those birds, he said, were sent from Hawaii.

“(The exporters) sometimes claim they’re selling breeding stock,” Irby said. “But Guam has no commercial poultry industry, and almost all of these birds are roosters.”

“Any chicken farmer would tell you that’s not how you breed chickens,” added Drew Edmondson, a former Oklahoma attorney general and current co-chairman of the National Law Enforcement Council of Animal Wellness Action. “These birds are meant for fighting, not making love.”

Irby said the chickens are typically transported in closed boxes without food or water for hours at a time, before being used in events where they typically slash each other to death using blades strapped to their claws.

“It’s a blood sport,” Irby said. “They are killing and maiming animals for entertainment.”

Based on the shipping records — which indicate that fighting roosters sell for anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars — Irby said the investigation then took a closer look at the people sending chickens to Guam. While Oklahoma sent the most birds by volume, Hawaii has the highest number of people shipping birds.

The investigation includes satellite photos of the shippers’ properties, as well as social media posts, criminal histories and associations with other known or suspected cockfighting operations. Some Facebook posts purportedly show some of the named exporters at cockfighting events such as the World Slasher Cup, which Irby called “the Super Bowl of cockfighting.”

Other posts appear to show exporters openly discussing their chickens’ fighting prowess, or participating in interviews for BNTV, a television station in the Philippines that follows cockfighting.

One exporter, a Waimea resident, appeared on a televised interview with Philippine network Tukaan saying he admired “(the chickens’) beauty, their courage, the way they, you know, no matter what, they’ll continue fighting even if they’re chopped up, you know, chopped up to pieces, they just keep coming.”

“There’s a huge set of reinforcing details,” Edmondson said. “It shows that they’re not just knee-deep in it, they’re neck-deep.”

While cockfighting is legal in some countries, particularly throughout Southeast Asia, U.S. federal law forbids staging combat between animals and also, more pertinently, the buying, selling, transportation and training of fighting animals, as well as using the U.S. Postal Service to aid in such transactions. Irby said nearly all of the transactions between Hawaii and Guam went through the USPS.

However, while cockfighting is a felony offense in 42 states, it is not so in Hawaii. The current state statute dealing with cockfighting largely imposes penalties on organizers of cockfighting events, not on participants, unlike other state laws.

Former Hawaii Attorney General Margery Bronster, who spoke during Animal Wellness Action’s news conference Tuesday, said she was “appalled” by the proliferation of such a cruel sport throughout the state, as well as the state’s lax penalties for those involved.

Since 2013, only one new bill relating to cockfighting was introduced in the state Legislature. That bill, introduced in 2015, would have made training, owning, buying and selling roosters with the intent to enter them into fights a felony offense, but it died with little to no discussion.

Royce Serrao, lieutenant with the Hawaii Police Department’s Vice Division, said investigating cockfighting reports, like any criminal report, first requires officers to verify a crime is taking place.

“And if there’s no fight going on when we get there, we can’t really investigate,” Serrao said.

The last two cockfighting-related arrests in Hawaii County took place in May, Serrao said.

Those arrested were Hilo residents Dennis and Jesley Saniatan — the former of whom was named in Animal Wellness Action’s investigation as an exporter — and each was charged with eight counts of second-degree cruelty to animals, a misdemeanor offense.

But, Serrao said, the issue is widespread.

“It’s all over,” he said. “All through the rural areas, anywhere there’s big land.”

Animal Wellness Action sent letters to lawmakers and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Honolulu urging them to review the organization’s findings and shut down the operations throughout the state.

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Irby pointed out that the 22 suspected shippers in the state are only representative of those who sent birds to Guam between 2016 and 2019, and does not show how many others are sending birds to the Philippines, Vietnam or other countries.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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