THE BLOG

Cock-Fighting - Medieval-Style Crime Unmasked By 21st Century Technology

04/01/2018 13:09 GMT | Updated 04/01/2018 13:09 GMT

It’s 2018, and a gang in East London has just been sentenced for cock fighting in a prosecution brought by the RSPCA.

We tend to think of cockfighting as a Medieval bloodsport. But even back then, there were some, like St Augustine, who questioned people’s fascination for the bloodsport. In the eighteenth century, cock-fighting was banned in the UK and, since then, in many other countries too.

So you would be reasonable to assume cockfighting was a thing of the past. Reasonable, but sadly wrong. Though outlawed almost 200 years ago along with bear-baiting and other animal cruelty, cock-fighting has never really gone away. Every few months, we see another case of the organised and systematic pitting of one fighting bird against another for ‘entertainment’.

It’s hard to believe that this kind of savage behaviour still goes on. But behind the scenes, the murky underworld of cock-fighting rings is alive and kicking. In 2016, reports to the RSPCA about cockfighting reached a five-year high of 60, with raids uncovering fights taking place in people’s kitchens and garages as well as specialist pits.

In fact, cock-fighting isn’t the only cruel animal-on-animal fighting ‘sport’ that people assume - wrongly - have been consigned to the history books.

Increasingly, the RSPCA is also seeing more incidents of badger baiting and dog-fighting - other crimes that - like cock-fighting - are based on forcing one sentient animal into a bloody battle with another. Indeed dogs are deliberately and frequently goaded on to attack a variety of our British wildlife, including badgers, foxes, deer and hare.

These cruel ‘sports’ seem to appeal to a wide range of classes and people. Cock-fighting and ‘traditional’ dog fighting tend to be urban pursuits, while it’s normally deep in the countryside where dogs are set upon wildlife.

But there are three clear, common threads which link all these illegal activities: egos, organisation and social media.

Bloodsports like cock-fighting, dog-fighting, badger-baiting and other wild animal fighting are often attempts to boost the perpetrator’s standing in his criminal community. Owning the cockerel or dog that ‘wins’ the most fights against another animal is a big boost to the thug’s self-esteem. Some people get their kudos from being good at their jobs, or acts of generosity, but it takes all sorts, I guess. In some ways, the animals function as a surrogate for their owner - perhaps you feel hard for having a brave chicken, but I don’t get it. Of course, we may wonder if the animals sometimes substitute for their owners’ inadequacies.

Another similarity is that these cruel activities are often highly organised, rather than spur of the moment. Large-scale serious, organised and commercial animal cruelty is rife in the criminal community.

And despite the fact that these savage organised activities hark back to a supposedly less enlightened, medieval age, the perpetrators use 21st century technology to share and brag about their cruelty on social media. In the ‘old’ days, intelligence about these illegal activities tended to come from concerned informants. Today, it’s often posts on social media like Snapchat and Facebook. Owners will proudly post photos and descriptions of the grim results of the animal-on-animal fights they have instigated. What we might think people would want to keep secret from moral censure, some people are proud to show off.

The RSPCA’s Special Operations Unit routinely collects and pieces together information from all over England and Wales, working closely with partnership agencies, to create a detailed picture of these criminal activities.

Using this detailed data we can track criminal activities in relation to animal welfare. This not only enables us to act to stop these horrific bloodsports but to hit at the heart of the criminal communities, sending a clear message that we will not tolerate animal abuse. In 2016, we brought prosecutions that resulted in an overall conviction rate of 92.5%, including offences under the Animal Welfare Act, Deer Act, Hunting Act and Protection of Badgers Act.

And new technology doesn’t just help with the initial intelligence. It can also help secure convictions. Indeed, vital evidence that helped convict the East London cock-fighting ring came from one of the gang’s mobile phones. It included videos of cocks fighting a stooge bird, a presentation of a ‘champion’ trophy at a meet as well as introductions to some of the breeding hens. This footage proved that not only was the accused training cocks to fight but he was also breeding birds for fighting.

There’s nothing subtle about these brutish ‘sports’. Two cockerels will be put in a ring to fight each other to the death. A terrier will be sent down a hole to start a pitched battle with a badger or fox. Lurchers are deliberately set upon deer, hare, badgers or foxes with the aim of a fight to the death.

As a vet, I’ve seen the horrible aftermath of these illegal bloodsports. The end result is normally terrible injuries or death.

In cock-fighting, sharp spurs may be attached to each of the cockerel’s heels, resulting in terrible injuries or death.

And while it is ‘red coat’ fox hunting that tends to grab the headlines, illegal hunting with dogs takes many forms. Terriers are sent down holes to attack foxes or badgers. Both animals can sustain life-threatening wounds but while the terrier owner might crudely suture or staple his dog’s wounds (you would not expect him to take it to a vet of course), the wild animal, if she still lives, is left to die an agonising death alone.

Wild mammals like deer and hare are set upon, taken down and ripped apart by lurcher-type dogs owned by criminals. Badger diggers will unearth the animal, corner it to prevent it from escaping to guarantee an animal-on-animal spectacle. The physical traumas to both animals can be severe.

Those cock-fighting convictions are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to medieval cruelty that has sadly never gone away. But as the old meets the new, cutting edge technology is helping organisations like the RSPCA to expose these animal cruelty criminals and bring them to justice.