Cockfighting, while illegal, continues to be popular in an underground culture in the central San Joaquin Valley, as borne out in recent raids, authorities say.
Since Jan. 6, police have broken up two cockfighting rings, cited seven people and seized dozens of birds in raids in Fresno and Madera counties.
Participating in one of the events is against the law in every state but Louisiana -- where it will be banned later this year. Yet support for the blood sport remains strong among those who attend bouts, much as a football fan would head out to a big game.
"It's a party culture," said detective Greg Isaac, who investigates cockfights for the Fresno County Sheriff's Department. "There will be food and beer."
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The events are staged throughout the year, he said. They are advertised by word of mouth, making it difficult for law enforcement to prevent them from taking place. When cockfights are raided, it's often because someone lost a bet or watched their prized rooster killed, prompting them to make a call to authorities out of spite.
Near Orange Cove, five people -- Antonio Carlos, 42, of Selma; Enrique Ayala, 33, of Kettleman City; Oriero Pulido, 24, of Avenal; Martin Soria, 53, of Riverside and Rosemarie Valdovinos, 47, of Fontana -- were cited after a raid on Jan. 6.
On Jan. 13, Madera County sheriff's deputies raided a fight attended by up to 50 spectators. Pedro Juarez, 44, of El Nido and Timoteo Polanco, 46, of Fresno were booked into Madera County Jail on suspicion of illegal bird fighting and evading deputies.
Unlike several states where it is a felony, cockfighting in California is a misdemeanor, as is possession of cockfighting paraphernalia.
However, conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor can be a felony, so an organizer could face more serious charges, Isaac said.
Large sums of money are wagered at the events, in which roosters valued in the hundreds of dollars often fight to the death as they slash at one another with razor sharp blades called gaffs that are attached to their legs, Isaac said.
Cockfights are usually staged at remote rural locations, where a telltale sign might be a barn or outbuilding surrounded by dozens of cars.
Also evident following the Madera event were dead and maimed birds and vials of steroids and syringes, which humane society officials say can make the birds better, more aggressive fighters.
While many local participants might be Hispanic or Asian, cockfighting has a strong following in many cultures, including the American South. A Web site dedicated to the Aseel, reputedly the oldest fighting breed, documents cockfights in ancient Persia, Greece and Rome.
Isaac said participants at the Orange Cove cockfight were Hispanic and Caucasian.
Until recently, the sport was legal in Oklahoma and New Mexico.
Even where the sport is illegal, breeding and selling roosters often remains legal.
Aficionados have their own national newspaper, Grit and Steel, and an Internet presence as well. The Cracker Game Fowl site advertises fighting birds raised in Florida.
Another, "Bandido Game Farm," features the logo of an outlaw motorcycle club and offers birds from a Louisiana location.
Like other game farms, the breeders offer the disclaimer that their birds are not to be used for illegal purposes.
Isaac said birds that have never lost a match are highly prized, can be worth $1,000 or more and get a privileged position with a pen all to themselves.
Those seized after a raid, however, are often euthanized because they are bred to fight, according to Kirsten Gross, director of animal services in Madera.
"They're not adoptable," she said of the roosters, although hens seized recently in the Fresno raid were offered for adoption.