Prize-fighting chickens battle for six-figure purses while the sale and export of prize birds is a lucrative business.

The deadly shootings of two people at an illegal cockfight in Waianae earlier this month raised questions about public policy regarding the violent sport and the ability of police to shut down something many view as part of Hawaii culture.

But there’s another aspect of cockfighting often lost amid the debate over animal rights and human culture. 

Cockfighting in Hawaii is a big business.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars flow through weekend-long cockfight tournaments, which offer six-figure prizes to winners and fight promoters. That’s on top of people legally breeding fighting roosters, which supporters say pumps millions of dollars into the state’s economy each year.

According to a recent study, Hawaii is one of the nation’s leading exporters of fighting roosters. This can mean big bucks for people in the cockfighting ecosystem.

Advocates of game fowl breeding say the activity pumps millions of dollars into the economy each year. Meanwhile, breeders like Bernie Llanes, of Aggressive Gamefarm on the Big Island, say they raise fighting roosters purely for shows. (Courtesy: Bernie Llanes/Aggressive Gamefarm)

Earl Koanui, a retired Honolulu Police Department detective, spent three years posing as a corrupt cop to infiltrate cockfights and gambling rooms. During that time, he raked in $330,000 in bribes — much of it from cockfight promoters paying him to tip them off if other police officers were planning a raid, he said.

“One Waianae promoter paid $5,000 for one day in 1998,” Koanui recalled.

The April 18 shootings in Waianae have drawn renewed attention to cockfighting. Gary Rabellizsa, 34, and Cathy Rabellizsa, 59, were both killed in the incident. Three others were wounded.

Two suspects turned themselves in a few days later. Jacob Borge, 23, was charged with first- and second-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder and firearms charges. Borge, who is being held without bail, pleaded not guilty Thursday

Prosecutors filed the same charges against 16-year-old Shaedan Styles.

Six-Figure Purses For Winning Birds

The ability of promoters to pay a bad cop $5,000 a day for protection comes down to simple economics. As Koanui describes it, cockfights fall into two categories: smaller events called hack fights and big tournaments called derbies. On Oahu, there might be a few hack fights per week and a few derbies a month. 

At hack fights people generally show up with a bird or two and find someone willing to fight for a wager of, say $1,000, Koanui said.

The money bet is called a table. The winner of that fight would get $1,900 while the promoter would keep $100, Koanui said. There can be dozens of fights per hack event, he said. 

Spectators place bets with each other or with a bookmaker not affiliated with the promoter. Promoters can make extra money by charging for amenities like parking and spectator seating, he said.

Derbies are bigger, involving perhaps 100 five-bird teams. When he was working, the entrance fee for a five-bird derby was $2,400, Koanui said. Now it’s about $3,700, he said.

Accordingly, entrance fees can generate $370,000 in revenue to be split between the promoter and the winning team. Generally, the overall winning five-bird team takes 60% to 70%, Koanui said, while the promoter takes the rest, although there are consolation prizes for teams that win any three fights in a row.

Promoters also rent space for vendors and food trucks, which create a carnival atmosphere for between 300 and 800 spectators, ranging in age from babies to grandparents. Asked why there isn’t more violent crime at the events, given the crowds, cash and lack of police, Koanui said security is often provided by organized crime gangs — another expense for promoters — who people don’t challenge. If someone gets out of line, he said, “You’re going to be crab food.”

In the past, Hawaii lawmakers have praised the economic impact of the fighting rooster business, also known as the “game fowl” industry. (Courtesy Bernie Llanes/Aggressive Gamefarm)

Besides the illegal fights, there’s a legal aspect of the business: breeding fighting roosters, which a 2010 Hawaii House resolution said is a boon for Hawaii.

“Hawaii game fowl breeders legally pump an estimated $9,000,000 into the local economy each year, which is subject to general excise taxes,” the resolution said, citing a game fowl industry spokesman. That would be worth just under $12.5 million in 2023 dollars.

The resolution’s sponsor, former Hawaii Rep. Joey Manahan, said he didn’t remember the measure. “To be honest with you, I never authored a resolution on this subject,” he said at first, then added: “I did author it, but it was years ago.”

Now a spokesman for the Honolulu rail project, Manahan stressed he’s “very much against” cockfighting.

While Manahan said the $9 million figure was hard to verify, a more recent study found that Hawaii is a national leader in the export of fighting roosters. The 2020 report by the group Animal Wellness Action analyzed records of fowl shipped from the U.S. to Guam.

The organization looked at Guam because it has a cockfight culture but little poultry industry that would justify importing roosters, said Wayne Pacelle, Animal Wellness Action’s executive director.

Nonetheless, the study found Guam imported nearly 9,000 roosters over three years.

“Hawaii cockfighters accounted for the largest number of total shippers, even as a small number of exporters from Oklahoma and California sent more birds,” the report said. 

‘Not All Breeders Are Fighters’

Hawaii breeders say their birds aren’t used for fighting but for shows. For Bernie Llanes of Aggressive Game Farm near Kealakekua on the Big Island, raising the birds is a hobby, a way to maintain bird lineages and continue family farming traditions that include a cousin’s operation, Llanes Kona Coffee Estates

“Not all breeders are fighters,” he said in an interview.

As for prices, he said, his birds start at around $20. “It’s like anything else. Everybody’s looking for a deal.”

While animal rights activists like Pacelle call the shows a sham to justify breeding fighting chickens for illegal bouts, Bucky Harless begs to differ.

A spokesman for the national United Gamefowl Breeders Association, Harless spends his weekends as a judge for shows on California’s rooster show circuit, where birds compete in avian beauty contests for trophies and ribbons under the auspices of the California Association for the Preservation of Gamefowl.

In fact, on Saturday, Harless was scheduled to be judging birds in Corning, California, at Rancho Tehama Mercantile store. Next week, according to the 2023 California poultry show schedule, he’ll be at Country Hills Feed in Watsonville, California.

An unabashed cockfighting enthusiast, Harless says state governments are foregoing substantial tax revenue by not legalizing and regulating cockfighting.

Still, Harless said, people can make money breeding fighting roosters as show birds; it just takes work and skill.

“Having gamefowl and raising them as a business is kind of like having a dairy,” he said. “If done right, it can provide a living for you.”

Fighting roosters certainly can command a hefty price. Prices on the website of North Carolina, for instance, ranged from $100 for eggs to $800 for a Sweater Cock

Offspring of derby winners can command even more: upward of $2,500, said Animal Wellness Action’s Pacelle.

Koanui agreed. 

“If a guy wins a derby and is selling birds, people are going to buy that line,” he said. “It’s like a winning race horse.”

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