At the Austin Animal Center, crowding is the normal order of things. People from all over the region bring stray cats and dogs to the city — even if they’re not supposed to — because of its “no kill” animal policy. But the center recently got an influx of a different kind, leaving staff and volunteers with a conundrum.
What to do with 32 fighting roosters.
The roosters came to the center from the Austin Police Department, which had seized them after a cockfighting bust. They’re currently being held in two parts of the building: some on display in kennels usually reserved for cats or dogs, and many more in the loading bay, each assigned its own crate.
“They are … very vocal,” the center’s director, Don Bland, says over the crowing.
They’re also beautiful, with striking plumage, ranging from red to iridescent green. But some bare the marks of cruelty. They have broken beaks, or their wattles and head combs have been cut off, allowing opponents fewer places to latch on in a fight.
And they do fight.
“When you’re trying to go to feed and clean it and it’s trying to get you with those sharp talons, it makes it challenging,” Bland says.
Bland says he initially thought Austin Public Health would take responsibility for the animals, but that was a nonstarter. Now he’s urgently trying to re-house the roosters to free up room for the dogs and cats that already have few places to stay. The day I visited, dogs were being kept in a conference room because there was no other space.
The situation gives rise to an obvious question. In the quieter environment of Bland’s office, away from where the roosters could hear, I ask it:
A lot of people will be listening to this on the radio and maybe going home to a chicken dinner. Is there a point when the center euthanizes the chickens?
Bland says the center could have done that when they first arrived, but now it’s working with Austin Pets Alive to try to save them.
‘Life saving across all species’
Austin Pets Alive is a nonprofit animal rescue group that partners with the city to help it achieve its “no kill” policy — the city rule that 95% of animals that come to the center cannot be put down.
Under the city’s contract with APA, it must be informed if an animal runs the risk of being killed. So, when APA heard about the roosters, it sprung into action. The group contacted animal sanctuaries around the country. Kelly Holt, a program manager, says APA is planning rooster road trips to deliver them to safety.
“One sanctuary, Foreverland in Ohio, they’re taking one” bird, she says. “Rancho Relaxo in New Jersey is taking two, and then we have a rooster sanctuary in Colorado that’s taking in a few.”
Holt has assessed the roosters and says some of them may not have been trained to fight yet, making them more easy to house. When I asked her my chicken dinner question, she says:
“At APA we focus on shelters and companion animals, but we want to promote life saving across species, as well. I think that you can support the saving of a life and giving animals a second chance regardless of your diet or your typical day-to-day beliefs.”
Ideally, Holt says, these birds would all be housed in a sanctuary or farm. But back at the Animal Center, Bland is entertaining offers from regular Austinites who might want a pet rooster.
Some conditions are attached.
“You have to be able to isolate it. It can’t be next to other roosters and chickens until it gets acclimated and socialized and doesn’t try to kill them,” he says.
Applicants also have to undergo a screening, and the birds come microchipped.
“We don’t want them to go back to a fighting ring,” Bland says. “If one of these microchip birds that’s linked to you ends up back up in a fighting ring … well, you’re not going to be in a good situation.”
He says euthanizing the chickens is still a very slight possibility, but highly unlikely.
“The pushback we get from the public when we need to euthanize an animal that’s a public safety risk, we get roasted over that,” Bland says. “We’re mandated at 95% ,so we’re going to try everything possible to find a live outcome.”
“After I said that I thought, ‘I shouldn’t have said that!’” Bland quickly replies. “That was the wrong word to use when we’re talking about chickens and roosters! But you’ve gotta have a little humor, right?”
So, if you’re able to find room in your home and your heart for a former fighting rooster — or a cat or a dog — the Austin Animal Center would love to hear from you.