More than 3,000 birds were rescued in what authorities are calling the largest cockfighting takedown in New York state history, with nine people arrested and dozens more taken into custody over the weekend.
State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a statement Sunday night saying that Operation Angry Birds included three simultaneous raids in the New York City boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn and in Ulster County and was among the largest animal-fighting crackdowns in U.S. history.
"Cockfighting is a cruel, abusive and barbaric practice that tortures animals, endangers the health and safety of the public and is known to facilitate other crimes," Schneiderman said.
At the cockfights, spectators were charged for admission and an additional fee for a seat in the secret basement location that housed the all-night events, authorities said. Spectators placed bets on the fights, with individual wagers reaching as high as $10,000.
In Queens, authorities raided a bimonthly cockfighting event where 70 people were taken into custody, including six arrested on felony animal-fighting charges. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), an animal rescue group, took control of 65 fighting birds, authorities said.
In a raid on a Brooklyn pet shop, 50 fighting birds were rescued from a basement. The shop's owner was arrested on a felony charge and for having cockfighting contraband, including artificial spurs and syringes used to inject performance-enhancing drugs into birds.
Authorities also raided a 90-acre farm in the town of Plattekill in Ulster County, rescuing about 3,000 birds. The property operated under the guise of a poultry farm, but the birds were living in squalor and showed signs of starvation. The farm's owners charged rent to cockfighting enthusiasts from other states.
Schneiderman said the operation was assisted by the ASPCA and the Ulster County Sheriff's office.
An ASPCA statement issued Sunday said the rescued birds have been taken to a temporary shelter. The group’s president, Matthew Bershadker, said that while the raid was a huge success, animal fighting likely remains common in New York.
"It's very difficult to know the scope of the problem because this is an underground activity," he told The New York Daily News. "You have drugs and gambling and prostitution and guns and gangs involved. I can't tell you how many there are exactly. But this is not the only cockfighting ring in New York City."
In New York, cockfighting and possession of a fighting bird at a cockfighting location each carry a maximum penalty of four years in jail and a fine of up to $25,000.
Cockfighting has long been illegal in all 50 states, but the Farm Bill signed into law on Feb. 7 makes attending an animal fight a federal offense.
Al Jazeera and wire services