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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, April 2, 2005

Cockfighting target of HPD effort

By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer

KAHALU'U — A crackdown on cockfighting on O'ahu has led to a significant spike in arrests, the Honolulu Police Department said. In just the past three months, the number of arrests has equaled the total number in the last two years combined.

John Cambra raises various types of birds in Kahalu'u as well as in Louisiana, where cockfighting is legal.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

"In the past where we may have tried to do more preventative things, now we're saying we're just going to go out and arrest these people," said Lt. Walter Ozeki, head of HPD's gambling detail. "We're trying to make a stand with this and show we're not going to accept it."

Police had made 87 arrests as of March 21, compared with 53 last year and 34 in 2003. Police are crediting the increased number of arrests on a new focus on the crime and the availability of more officers to investigate gambling.

The sport has been condemned by animal rights activists but draws support from others who make a living breeding and selling game roosters.

In the latest crackdown, HPD's Narcotics/Vice division raided a cockfight held on Waialua Beach Road on the North Shore on March 20.

Five men were arrested on two misdemeanor offenses for which rooster fighters can be arrested in Hawai'i: suspicion of cruelty to animals and a prohibition against gaffs, the sharp hooks attached to roosters' legs to make their fighting deadlier.

City ordinance sets a minimum fine of $250 and raises the maximum fine to $1,000 for the manufacture, exchange or possession of gaffs and slashers.

John Cambra comes from a long line of people whose roosters fought. Because of various federal and state laws, he makes buyers of his birds sign an affidavit saying they will not use the roosters for fighting.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Violators also face up to 30 days in jail.

Cruelty to animals is a misdemeanor in Hawai'i, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The push comes as police have reassigned more officers to gambling enforcement.

Ozeki said there have been times when his antigambling unit had as few as four officers. But that number has increased significantly, he said, allowing the unit to change tactics and put more emphasis on cockfighting.

He said he believes he now has the right mix of detectives with the array of skills needed to infiltrate fights and make arrests.

"In the past there have been safety concerns with so (few) guys because there can be up to 500 people at these cockfights. Whether we could even take enforcement action was a question in the past," he said. "We're never going to be in a situation where we have the advantage, but we've accepted the fact that we have to be very careful and we have to make do with what we have right now."

Arrest increase

Number of cockfighting arrests

2003: 34

2004: 53

2005 (as of March 21): 87

Source: HPD Narcotics/Vice Division

Ozeki said that while cockfighting is illegal, it's also a tacitly accepted part of local culture, with some families having participated for generations.

"Would we like to see a little more results for our efforts? Of course we would, but it hasn't happened in the past and it is accepted (in society here) and unless the attitudes change we're basically doing what we can."

Cockfighting is a fight to the death, a savage exchange between two roosters that spurs heavy betting. Participants tie small metal gaffs to the birds' legs, then carry them into the ring. Bets are placed on which bird will win, and the owners squat in the middle of a dirt ring, usually surrounded by makeshift stands, firmly holding the birds above the ground.

Sometimes, the owners rub the beaks of the birds together before fighting them. At the signal of a bell, whistle, or the gesture of a referee, the birds are dropped facing each other and the fight begins.

It is a brutal and bloody conflict that lasts anywhere from a minute to a half-hour, and usually one, if not both, of the birds dies. The birds that survive are often disfigured. Animal rights activists decry the sport.

"This is one of the crudest and cruelest form of gambling," said Jacque Smith, spokeswoman for the Hawaiian Humane Society. "It causes extreme suffering and harm to the animals and it desensitizes kids and adults to the value of life. It's inhumane and it's illegal in nearly 50 states and a felony in 30 states."

Fighting roosters are a multimillion-dollar, international industry that counts millions as fans and participants. Cockfighting takes place in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, South and Central America, and in some parts of the United States.

Despite HPD's recent crackdown, game breeders and fighters say the fights will never stop; they'll just go underground or relocate indoors.

John Cambra, 53, a longtime state employee who lives on his family's 30-acre compound in Kahalu'u, grew up around gamebirds.

Today he runs Cambra Game Fowl Farm/Onipa'a and sells fighting roosters to cockfighters in Guam, Latin America, Micronesia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, California and New Mexico. His roosters range from $300 for a well-muscled, dark-colored rooster with his comb and gobble trimmed to $1,200 for a multi-hued gamecock that could double as a show bird.

He made $21,000 selling birds last year and he said the side business has helped him put two sons and a daughter through college. A 2003 federal law prohibits the interstate transportation of chickens for fighting purposes, so he has buyers sign affidavits saying they won't use the bird for fighting.

"My great-grandfather fought roosters; my grandfather fought roosters; and my father fought roosters," said Cambra, standing in the middle of his yard, which he converted into a gamebird farm compete with incubators, feeders and watchdogs.

He currently has about 500 chickens of various ages at his Kahalu'u farm, as well as ducks and pheasants. He also rents a two-acre farm in Louisiana, where fighting birds still is legal. Cambra does all his fighting in Louisiana these days because he doesn't want to risk his legitimate business of selling birds, nor does he want to get his family in trouble.

"My son's a policeman; my brother is a policeman; I don't want to jepordize them," he said.

Cockfights take place every weekend between January and late July at secluded locations on the North Shore, Wai'anae, Kalihi, Waipahu and 'Ewa, police said. By late July, the birds begin to molt, and are unable to fight. Ozeki said that because of his officers' enforcement activities, most fights have moved to Wai'anae and Waialua.

He said officers have gone so far as to camp out at known cockfighting venues for hours, literally waiting out the fighters until they tire and go home.

Cambra said he sells birds to fighters who are multimillionaire developers, contractors and everyday working men who just like to fight roosters.

"It's too bad you can't really fight here because you worry about the police," he said. "The cops are just doing their job. But we're not criminals; we're not out to hurt anybody."

Reach Peter Boylan at 535-8110 or pboylan@honoluluadvertiser.com.