Chicken Wars

Ohio becomes an underground center for cockfighting.

cockfighting animal cruelty chicken wars
At best, Jed Mignano's cramped office at Cleveland's Animal Protective League fits three adults. It's too small for meetings, too small for even cursory chats. But this is where his most important work is done.

Cuyahoga County's chief humane officer is charged with investigating animal cruelty large and small. He's dealt with guys who've pounded their cats with toilet plungers and people who take the Buchenwald approach to pet care, starving their Dobermans to the size of an Olsen twin.

His job may rest on the lower rungs of law enforcement, but it comes with a front-row seat to the worst of human behavior.

About a month ago, a mailman stopped by the office with a concern. A cardboard box in the back of his delivery truck was emitting high-pitched squawking. Would Mignano check it out?

In the back of the truck, the humane officer found a small, kennel-sized box with pinprick breathing holes. Inside were two roosters. The package was on special rush order from New York.

It wasn't hard to deduce that the birds weren't headed for Popeye's. "How many people do you know who ship roosters overnight for $50 for McNuggets?"

No, these were fighting birds, headed for the not-so-bright lights of basements and garages, where they would do battle for amusement and wager.

Cockfighting has long been big in Ohio. In places like Vinton County, where chickens constitute many farmers' livelihoods, the sport is considered as American as football.

But while it might seem a game more suited to the 19th century, it's growing in Ohio. Nine years ago, the Humane Society began a nationwide push for harsher animal-fighting penalties. Traditional cockfighting hotspots like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and North Carolina started cracking down on big-time offenders, sending them scurrying to states with weak laws. Many naturally landed in Ohio, where the offense remains a misdemeanor. As a result, the state has become a "magnet for cockfighting," says the Humane Society's John Goodwin.

Cracking down hasn't been easy. By nature, it's a secretive, underground sport, with matches taking place in dank basements and fenced backyards. While organizers and players know each other well, they carry a country suspicion of outsiders that's been passed on for generations.

Vinton County Sheriff David Hickey has been dealing with these calls for 30 years. But he must summon the Department of Agriculture to investigate. "Our own law enforcement officers are too recognizable now," he says.

It isn't much easier in Cleveland, where the sport remains equally popular -- especially on the near West Side. Last year, Mignano caught a break when a West 11th Street drug house was razed. In the back were dozens of chicken coops, remnants of one of the largest cockfighting operations in the state.

Four hundred chickens were rescued, but Mignano knew the well-publicized bust had sent fighters farther underground. He just didn't know where.

Now, as he trailed the mailman's delivery of the squawking package, he was pursuing his first solid lead in months.

The two pulled up in front of a two-story house in Ohio City. The place looked vaguely familiar to Mignano. He peeked behind the fence and saw the small, angry heads of a half-dozen roosters peeking out from rusty coops.

He'd been to this house a year ago, when he was investigating the West 11th ring. The homeowner here had denied everything.

When no one answered, the two headed next door to get a neighbor's signature. Mignano gave the neighbor strict orders to contact him the moment the owner arrived. Thirty minutes later, Mignano received a call from the chicken man. The guy knew nothing about the package. Nor did he know who sent it. Must be a wrong address.

Mignano asked if he could retrieve the chickens. No, the man said quickly. A carrier had already picked them up. He had no idea where they'd been taken, and he didn't ask questions. The package wasn't for him, after all.

The next week, state officials headed to the chicken man's house to investigate. But the guy was one step ahead. The roosters in the back yard were gone. Mignano, a former Delta cop with the mannerisms of a small-town sheriff, had been on his new job for only a few days when he got his first call about a chicken in October 2004. A dog walker at Clark Park heard suspicious squawking. Similar calls rolled in over the next few days.

Rumor had it that a large cockfighting ring had been operating near the park for decades. "It was not a well-kept secret," Mignano says.

But when animal officers complained, city officials -- many of whom were said to have attended the fights -- suddenly lost their hearing. Cockfighting was a "Cleveland tradition," Mignano learned.

In some ways, it's easy to understand. Chickens aren't cuddly household pets with cute names like Fido. They're dinner-in-waiting. And the art of putting them to battle is nearly as old as the country. Abe Lincoln kept fighting pens in his front yard.

But Mignano views cockfighting as a vicious episode of cruelty. Owners strap three-inch gaffs sharpened like razors to the rooster's heels. A winner is declared only when one is dead or too injured to fight on. Mignano has seen surviving birds so badly slashed, he could see organs pumping inside their chests.

"What type of person takes pleasure out of suffering like that?" he asks, lips curling in disgust.

So he headed out to the Tremont park, an overrun mess of brush and uncut grass near I-90. In a hill behind the baseball diamond sat a slouching, unkempt house with the frame of a sickly man. In the yard sat dozens of wire coops, filled with roosters whose thick, colorful necks looked swathed in plush scarves. Next to the cages was a 10-by-10-foot fighting pen.

Mignano knocked on the door. An elderly Hispanic man answered.

The officer asked about the fighting pen, but the man seemed bored by the question.

Yes, he said. It had been there for decades. But it hadn't been used since cockfighting was outlawed. It was a mere relic, a decoration, if you will. And as far as he knew, there was nothing illegal about possessing a ring. Did Mignano have any other questions before he slammed the door?

Unfortunately, the man was right. Without witnessing a fight, or finding evidence of mauled chickens, Mignano had nothing. And as long as owners kept their birds 100 feet away from the nearest residence, owning roosters was no different from keeping a cocker spaniel.

Even if Mignano had evidence, there was no guarantee police would arrive to back him up. Ohio has one of the country's lightest cockfighting laws. Getting caught is but a fourth-degree misdemeanor -- the same as a speeding ticket. And in America's poorest city, police naturally have better things to do.

"There's no incentive for law enforcement to go after [chicken fighters]," says Deputy Sheriff David Hunt, who heads a Franklin County task force on animal cruelty. "Prosecuting cockfighting is labor-intensive and costly. It's not productive to tie up your resources on it."

Because of that, large rings essentially operate with impunity around Ohio. Huron County humane officer Karla Williams knows farmers who raise chickens for fighting, which is not illegal. But that also means "there's got to be some big fights happening nearby," she says, though she has yet to find one. "The culture is very, very hard to infiltrate."

In Medina, a pig farmer says fights take place every weekend. Asked for a location, however, he simply smiles. "Do I have the word 'stupid' written on my hat?"

In May 2006, Franklin County officers arrested four men operating a ring in a basement. The men pleaded out. Their punishment: a $100 fine.

It was the only cockfighting prosecution in Ohio last year.

Investigators claim that weak laws and even weaker enforcement are encouraging big-time operations to move to the state. "Ohio has one of the five weakest state laws in regards to animal fighting," says the Humane Society's John Goodwin. "When you have very weak penalties like that, it makes your state a magnet for cockfighters . . . There's virtually no deterrent against fighting in the state."

But Mignano pressed on. Over the next 18 months, he stopped by West 11th after work or early in the morning, hoping to catch the fights. He grew frustrated. No luck.

Then, in winter of 2005, he received a call from federal agents, who had long suspected the house of headquartering a large drug-trafficking ring. They'd wiretapped the phones. Officers kept intercepting calls about cockfighting. Did Mignano know anything?

He called city housing officials. As usual, they weren't thrilled to hear from him. The two agencies have different ideas on what constitutes a pressing issue.

But this time, housing officials couldn't ignore him. This wasn't just an issue of badly treated birds. This had to do with a federal drug-trafficking ring.

Eight months later, agents stormed the house, arresting five men on drug charges. They were sent to a federal pen in Florida, where they await trial.

But Mignano was worried about the chickens. There was a fire in the coop in late winter, and there was no one there to be held accountable. After repeated phone calls to city officials, the Cleveland Housing Court finally issued an order last summer to destroy the chicken coops and remove all birds. On a Monday morning in June, Mignano arrived at the site with a slew of rescue workers. All wore haz-mat suits, surgical masks, and elbow-length plastic gloves.

The place looked like the site of The Birds, the famed Hitchcock movie. The coops were filthy, filled with dead varmints. In the yard, wild-eyed chickens ran around with the energy of ADD kids who'd been cooped up for months. The 400 caged roosters were vicious, their eyes dark like the points of Sharpie markers. They pecked at the rescue workers' arms, legs, and faces. One worker had her lip clawed in two.

Inside the cages sat evidence of recent cockfighting. Hanging from the ceilings were cloth bags filled with blood, used to get roosters revved for competition. There were also steroid bottles, syringes, and pails filled with protein feed.

For a week, Mignano nursed the birds as best he could, attempting to find them homes. But steroids had made the chickens violent and dangerous. Most had to be put to sleep. "Another little-talked-about side effect of cockfighting," the investigator says sadly.

A few months later, the city demolished the house. All that remains is a charred pile of stumps, shiny shards of glass, and a few crunched beer cans.

"To me, this is one of the most beautiful sights in the world," Mignano says, smiling.

But not everyone knew that the owners had been sent to jail. In the week Mignano spent at the house, he intercepted packages of roosters. One came from Earl Kanzeg, a Medina County farmer and scrap-metal dealer long suspected of operating cockfighting rings.

To get to Kanzeg's rural Medina farm, one must pass miles of rolling green fields with scratchy grass that grows as high as a child's knee. Paved roads disintegrate into gravel with no warning. Barns and sheds feature old paint curling like wet corners of paper. In the fields, mean-looking dogs are tied loosely with frayed rope to guard posts. They bark at every car that approaches.

Earl Kanzeg stands in the yard, holding a watering hose. Beside him, piles of scrap metal sit rusting on the lawn. He squints as a visitor from Cleveland ambles up his long driveway. When told she's a reporter, he asks sarcastically, "Did you bring the SWAT team with you?"

At 59, Kanzeg's face is tanned, arms sinewy and muscular. If he lived in Hollywood, people would be asking for the name of the plastic surgeon that kept him looking so young. But the answer is obvious: He works on the farm every day, raising cows, horses, pigs, and until recently, chickens.

Kanzeg doesn't understand the fuss over cockfighting. As a kid, his family used to travel the southern Ohio cockfighting circuit every weekend. These were crowded affairs. If you didn't arrive when the door opened, you weren't getting in.

The sport felt natural. He was intrigued by the battles. "If you put two chickens together, they'll fight," Kanzeg says. "It's nature. There ain't nothing wrong with it."

At 12, he started raising his own fighters.

Training roosters is an art form, he says, not much different from training boxers. You run them up and down a slanted board to build endurance. You toss them in the air like beach balls, making them fight their way to the ground to build wing strength. You place soft leather gloves on their claws and let them spar.

Asked if he's a good trainer, Kanzeg simply grins.

Like many of his friends, he sees no reason cockfighting should be outlawed. It's no different from humans pummeling one another. "There's guys in the ring that beat the shit out of each other all the time," he points out. "That's not illegal."

What should be illegal are the activists -- the PETA types who are out to ruin him, he says. "They need to mind their own damn business."

In this part of the country, that's a popular sentiment. In the supposedly civilized city, dead chickens are served on family dinner tables and in the finest restaurants in town. Cockfighting, by comparison, harms far fewer birds. "What's crueler, going to Gerber's, where they kill 2,000 chicken every day?" asks Mick, a farmer who attends the fights. "We kill 20 chickens on a Friday. Which one's worst to you?"

And though it may seem illogical to some, Kanzeg considers himself an animal lover. His mailbox sports a metal rooster cutout. His biceps is imprinted with a smeared animal-like image. "It's supposed to be a chicken, but he was as drunk as I was," Kanzeg says of the tattoo artist, then laughs.

All of which is why Kanzeg is still incensed about the February raid on his farm.

In 33 years, Medina Chief Deputy Kenneth Baca has pursued only five cockfighting cases. But in the last year, the department began fielding calls about squawking chickens, and Medina County Park officers kept finding dead roosters in trash cans.

This wasn't the work of coyotes, Baca knew. Suspicions centered on Kanzeg. For weeks, agents surveyed the house, watching shipments of roosters moving in and out.

On a frosty winter day, an undercover officer posing as a scrap-metal dealer walked up to Kanzeg's door with a washing machine to sell. While the two talked business, the cop peeked inside Kanzeg's barn. The place was damp as a cave, filled with rusty cages stacked like a toddler's building blocks. The curious red heads of roosters peered out.

The agent mentioned his fondness for cockfighting. Kanzeg wouldn't happen to know where he could catch one, would he?

Funny you should ask.

The conversation was caught on tape.

That Sunday, February 18, was the type of cold day that inspires mornings spent near burning fires -- which, it turns out, is what half the expected guests did that morning.

But 20 unlucky people arrived at Kanzeg's in pickups. Inside the garage, Kanzeg had arranged a circle of folding chairs around the ring. A mother and son hawked oily sloppy joes and spicy chili. Five-dollar cups of beer helped wash down the grub.

Opening announcements were brief. Five-dollar bets were quickly placed. People wanted to see blood.

By afternoon, the first two gamecocks were released into the ring. They tore at each other like men fighting over the same girl. They attacked with curled claws and sharpened beaks, wings flapping like fans. It lasted only a minute and a half. One rooster lay limp on its side, surrounded by a pool of blood.

"It was more blood than I've seen at the site of some fatal accidents," Baca says. After two fights, the undercover had seen enough. A dozen SWAT officers busted down the door and ran into the garage, guns pointed.

All 20 attendees were booked on cruelty charges. Eleven have copped to one or more of the charges in a plea agreement. Prosecutors are asking for the maximum sentence for those who attended the fight, including a $250 fine and mandatory forfeiture of any poultry they own.

Kanzeg was charged with running a cockfighting operation and a gambling house.

But in his version of the story, he and his friends were in the garage, minding their own business, when the police simply "busted in the door."

"That wasn't very bright," the farmer harrumphs, since "the door was unlocked already. All they had to do was turn the knob. Shows how smart they are."

Besides, "All we was doing is sparring," he adds. But last Thursday, he agreed to plead to one count of animal cruelty and one count of engaging in a cockfight.

These days, Kanzeg keeps busy with his dogs and cows. The worst part about the whole bust is that the Humane Society took away his friends: the roosters.

"I really miss them."

On a recent morning, Mignano is busy hunting another criminal. A visitor has apparently stolen the office donation jar.

But a few minutes later, he visibly brightens when he talks about another tip. A West Side resident reported that his neighbor was hurriedly moving chickens into a van. Mignano recognized the address. He'd visited the home a few times before, but never found any evidence.

He once again swung his car past the house. In the driveway, a beefy man sat in a folding chair with his arms crossed against his chest. "I was hired by the owner to watch the place," the man told Mignano.

The owner, claiming he had nothing to hide, agreed to let Mignano inside. It wasn't a smart move. The agent found rubber gaff covers, steroids, balm used for healing puncture wounds, and a large wooden ring the owner claimed he "used for exercise."

Mignano would love to chat more about the case, but he has to run. He just got a call about another chicken. by Rebecca Meiser

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