Lovers or fighters? When it comes roosters, the answer is both

A Q&A with Jewel Johnson of Rooster Sanctuary at Danzig’s Roost

Cockfighting is cruelty in its purest form. Cockfighters strap knives or gaffs (curved, razor-sharp picks) to birds’ legs, place them in a pit, and goad them to fight to the death. They do it for the thrill of the bloodletting and for illegal gambling. 

Cockfighting is illegal in all 50 states and at the federal level, but that doesn’t stop pit operators from setting up large facilities hidden deep in country woods and marketing fights surreptitiously to other fighters across the United States and elsewhere. Owners travel hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to contest against one another’s birds. Common at these events are illegal gambling, contraband drug-use and unlicensed firearms.

What makes the blood sport ever more repugnant is that while fighting roosters are capable of great ferocity, they also are specifically bred to be handled easily by humans, giving them a sometimes sweet, docile disposition with people. Jewel Johnson, who knows a thing or two about the emotional lives of fighting birds, has seen this dual nature time and again.

Johnson is the owner and operator of Rooster Sanctuary at Danzig’s Roost, a 38-acre safe haven for unwanted or abandoned chickens and roosters. The sanctuary, which she started in 2013, is nestled in the high plains of Colorado, about an hour’s drive east of Denver.

By 2014, Johnson started taking in fighting roosters confiscated by authorities who busted illegal cockfighting operations. She has saved hundreds of former fighting birds and is one of the only operations of its kind in the country, so it’s no surprise that she is at capacity.

Roosters raised for the fighting pit are different from your average backyard bird, Johnson says, and it’s important to learn why.

Animal Wellness Action: What makes a fighting rooster different from your average backyard rooster in terms of how they are bred to look and to act for fighting purposes?

Rooster Sanctuary: Birds bred for fighting are bred for agility. They have a closer connection to their wild ancestors, so their need to roost high to stay safe from predators at night and their drive to have families of their own are prominent in their daily behavior. An average barnyard breed rooster is bulkier and cannot jump and fly as well as a bird bred for fighting.

Fighting roosters have feathers that are tighter and closer to their bodies, they’re lighter and stronger, their heart rates are higher, and their body temp is higher than the barnyard breeds. These birds have been selected for thousands of years to be in a higher state of fight-or-flight than other birds, so they’re typically more aware of their surroundings than barnyard breed roosters.

All fighting roosters are hatched with a comb and wattles, but people who raise the birds to fight cut off all of that skin.

Animal Wellness Action: What about their emotional characteristics? Are they aggressive to humans and other animals? 

Rooster Sanctuary: Birds bred for fighting are wildly in tune with their surroundings, so they’re very sensitive to humans that approach them. The fight or flight drive is high, so if a human is not calm on approach, these birds will pick that up. They’re geared towards survival. After they’ve adjusted to their new surroundings, however, they are much calmer and far more handleable than your average barnyard breed rooster.

Fighting roosters are more predictable and safer with children as long as they’ve been handled regularly. They’ve been bred to be handled and worked with, making them incredible companions for humans and for their hen friends. Hens that are used for breeding on game farms are some of the most valuable birds, as they pass down the “winning” DNA to their offspring. The roosters and hens have incredible friendships, and the roosters are complete gentlemen to their hen friends. The kindness and care that fighting roosters show hens rivals that of any barnyard breed rooster.

Animal Wellness Action: What generally happens to these birds if they cannot be saved and re-homed? 

Rooster Sanctuary: Unfortunately, they’re usually killed.

Authorities that know very little about these birds make the call to kill them all under the assumption the birds are dangerous and that they’re trained to be aggressive. That is just not true. They’re relatively small animals and they would pose little threat to our safety even if they were aggressive.

The fact is, most of them are scared upon seizure, and they’re never given a chance. The public believes the lies authorities repeat about the nature of the birds, giving the easy out to just kill them all. Euthanasia of birds requires the skill of a good bird vet. At shelters, these birds are killed by workers using methods that are cruel and painful. The way these birds leave this world is quite brutal.

Animal Wellness Action: Why is it important for people to recognize the emotional traits of fighting roosters?

Rooster Sanctuary:  Because it is the depth and array of emotions that fighting roosters have that makes their own lives important to them. They are invested in their own lives, friendships, and the things in their own lives that they have an interest in. It’s important for people to recognize the emotional traits of fighting roosters in order to know how much is lost when their lives are taken.

Although birds brains are structured differently from mammals, they still have the same capacity to be impacted by trauma as mammals are. The processes of recovery from trauma for birds are also similar to trauma recovery in humans.

People should care because they can do something to help—and their help is needed.

Animal Wellness Action: What else should the public know about what happens to roosters in the illegal fighting world?

Rooster Sanctuary: A lot of people who visit the sanctuary believe that cockfighting is animal cruelty that is committed by sadistic people and that the people who fight roosters do not care about the birds. In some way, they’re correct, but not completely. A lot of care and time and practices are put into raising birds for fighting. But the people invest in the birds not because they care about the birds as living beings, but because the birds offer a financial pay-off and they are an extension of their manhood. Much like hunting.

Many people also ask us if it’s mostly Mexicans who fight roosters. That misconception is untrue. Cockfighting has been around as long as using chickens for eggs has been around. It goes back to the Roman times, and it’s spread throughout the world and through various cultures and nationalities.

Animal Wellness Action: What can people do now to help? 

Rooster Sanctuary: Know the truth about the birds in cockfighting, that they’re bred to be fought but they’re also bred to be great family birds. They’re also bred to be handled. They’re amazingly kind and wonderful with hens, and they’re often great with humans as well. When cockfighting seizures are in the news, call the arresting officer or the facility holding the roosters and let them know that the birds should be allowed to live and be adopted into good homes.