Seized Chickens Still Without Homes 20 Months After Montgomery County Cockfighting Arrests
Three defendants sentenced to probation after agreeing to plea deal
A video posted on the Montgomery County Animal Services and Adoptions Center Facebook page shows hens and roosters still available for adoption.
SCREENSHOT FROM MONTGOMERY COUNTY ANIMAL SERVICES AND ADOPTIONS CENTER VIDEO
This story was updated at noon on Nov. 15 to clarify the type of mycoplasma detected in the chickens and what the effects would be.
About 20 months after Montgomery County officials broke up an alleged cockfighting ring, they’re still trying to find homes for animals they seized.
Three men were charged in the case and took plea deals that found them guilty of possessing cockfighting materials, Montgomery County police Animal Services Division Investigator Jack Breckenridge said. They were sentenced to three years of probation.
“It was the first time that we charged someone with cockfighting in Montgomery County to my knowledge,” said Breckenridge, who’s been with Montgomery County police for 15 years.
The Montgomery County Animal Services and Adoptions Center initially seized 61 chickens and eight dogs from the men’s properties in Clarksburg and Gaithersburg in March 2016.
This month, 23 of the seized chickens and two of the pit bull-type dogs remain at the center in Derwood.
Montgomery County Animal Services and Adoptions Center outreach coordinator Katherine Zenzano said a few of the chickens and two dogs had to be euthanized because they were aggressive.
Sergio Valencia Santiago Sr., 72; Melbert Ignacio Santiago, 37; and Sergio Ignacio Santiago Jr., 43, all of whom have Gaithersburg addresses, were charged in the case. Santiago Sr. is the father of Melbert Ignacio Santiago and Sergio Ignacio Jr.
Under the plea deal, charges of dog fighting and cockfighting were dropped for Melbert Santiago and Sergio Santiago Jr.
Among the various charges that authorities filed:
- Sergio Santiago Sr. and Sergio Santiago Jr. were charged with possessing birds and dogs for fights.
- Sergio Santiago Jr. and Melbert Santiago were charged with dog fighting and cockfighting.
- Melbert Ignacio Santiago was charged with being a dog fighting spectator.
An attorney representing Sergio Santiago Jr. disputed the county’s allegations.
“This was never a cockfighting ring to begin with. My client pleaded to a very minor charge,” said Sergio Santiago Jr.’s attorney, Robert C. Bonsib.
He said Santiago Jr. “took very good care of the chickens when they were in his custody, and it was a great hardship for him to accept the fact that those animals would be taken from [him].”
The other men’s lawyers did not respond to a request for comment last week.
Police said they found evidence of cockfighting and dog fighting from photos and videos found on devices seized from the home. All of the men were seen on video encouraging and commenting on dog fights, according to charging documents.
There was veterinary medication, treadmills for dogs, incubators with eggs and manuals that described how to train animals for fighting in the Clarksburg home, according to the documents. There were also sparring muffs, which absorb physical impact during fights.
All of the men claimed ownership of some of the animals, according to charging documents.
Court records show the charges for Sergio Valencia Santiago Sr. and Melbert Ignacio Santiago were adjudicated in April. Sergio Ignacio Santiago Jr.’s charges were adjudicated in June.
The center couldn’t put up any of the birds or dogs for adoption until the plea deals for all three men were worked out, Breckenridge said.
“This is the first time we’ve had this many [chickens],” Zenzano said.
MCASAC has “hit a wall” trying to get the chickens, particularly the roosters, adopted, Zenzano said. The center put out appeals for animal rescuers and adopters to take in the chickens, with no luck.
A video shows hens and roosters awaiting adoption. Credit: Montgomery County Animal Services and Adoptions Center
While information about the chickens gets a lot of attention and shares on Facebook, adoptions are only “trickling into homes here and there,” she said.
“This is not easy for people,” Zenzano said. “Given that they’re roosters, [and] they come from a cockfighting situation, [and] they have mycoplasma … it’s a tough pill to swallow.”
All of the chickens from the seizure tested positive for mycoplasma synoviae, a bacterium that settles in the chickens' joints, said Roxanne L. Borrok, the staff veterinarian and interim shelter manager at the Montgomery County police Animal Services Division. All of the chickens are asymptomatic, but if symptoms arise, they will have swollen joints and eyes, she said.
“It’s less transmissible than the respiratory illness [mycoplasma gallisepticum],” Borrok said.
The remaining 15 roosters and eight hens at Montgomery County Animal Services and Adoptions Center have taken a toll on the staff, who have been caring for the birds since March 2016. The 23 chickens are housed in a barn on the center’s property, where eight roosters are individually paired with the eight hens in cages to improve their quality of life, Zenzano said.
The center is considering euthanasia for the seven unpaired roosters out of concern that their quality of life is likely to deteriorate without a partner.
The roosters put a strain on the 11 animal caretakers who tend to them, in addition to the other animals MCASAC houses, Zenzano said.
“If we were dealing maybe with 10 males and females, this might be slightly manageable,” she said. “But the fact that we have that many … it's really tough."
MCASAC has two pit bulls left from the seizure and is looking to adopt them to people who live outside the county to protect the new adopters’ anonymity, Zenzano said.
People have adopted 25 chickens, mostly hens, since they went up for adoption this summer.
Zenzano recommended that potential adopters talk to their veterinarian about mycoplasma before introducing the chickens to their home, even though, she said, “a lot of chickens have actually been exposed to it.”
“We always have a difficult time adopting roosters. [With] hens, there’s usually not a problem. [Roosters are] just not as in demand,” she said.
Behaviorally, the chickens are afraid of humans and lack proper socialization, but there’s no concern that they will be aggressive toward people, Zenzano said.
At the time of the seizure, the chickens were housed in pens on a property in Clarksburg that were “less than ideal circumstances for the birds,” Breckenridge said.
Emails and texts on the men’s devices revealed that they bred, sold and trained dogs for fighting, according to charging documents. The messages included code often used for dog fighting.
Some of the roosters were dubbed for fighting, meaning their combs and wattles were removed, Breckenridge said.
“They’ve been here way too long,” Zenzano said of the birds. “And part of that was because the case was dragged out for such a long time.”