The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This Md. county — known for its lawyers, lobbyists and scientists — was also home to a breeding operation for cockfighting, police allege

The property in Montgomery County where police allege that roosters were raised for cockfighting.
The property in Montgomery County where police allege that roosters were raised for cockfighting. (Dan Morse/The Washington Post)

Several roosters paced in their own cages. Nearby was a larger pen, closed off by white barrels stained with what appeared to be blood splatter. Tiny leg bands that could be used to attach metal fighting spurs were found in a building.

To animal control officers, that evidence and more added up to one conclusion: The owner of a small Maryland farm just beyond Washington’s suburbs was breeding chickens for cockfighting. “He’s raising birds to fight,” said Thomas Koenig, director of the Montgomery County Animal Services Division.

To the owner, the case is an overblown reaction to a chicken-breeding operation that has been in his family for generations.

“We believe the authorities don’t fully understand what is going on here,” said Steve Chaikin, an attorney for the land owner, Raymond E. Romig.

Chaikin said members of Romig’s family have raised animals — chickens, cows and horses — on the land since 1937. Romig, 59, is a retired heating and air-conditioning contractor who enjoys maintaining the bloodlines and health of the family’s longtime chicken flock, the lawyer said.

“He is not involved in cockfighting,” Chaikin said.

Romig turned himself in to Montgomery animal control officers Monday and was charged with 20 counts of animal cruelty, accused of altering chickens or preparing them for cockfighting. Romig also faces two counts of possession of cockfighting equipment. He was released after posting an unsecured, personal bond, Chaikin said.

Animal control officers confiscated approximately 100 roosters and hens. At least 10 of the roosters had been altered for cockfighting, according to an affidavit animal control officers filed in Montgomery District Court. But the document does not assert that any cockfights took place on the property or that any of the chickens were sold to cockfighters.

For centuries, cockfighting enthusiasts have bred, sold and purchased roosters thought to be fierce fighters. Two birds are placed in a ring — often in front of large crowds and with constant wagering — with matches often fatal.

While the pursuit is not commonly associated with Montgomery County — a jurisdiction of 1.1 million residents that includes countless lawyers, lobbyists and scientists — cockfighting is not unheard of, according to Koenig. His office handled a case about three years ago, and before coming to Montgomery, he handled two cockfighting cases in Northern Virginia. “It’s a blood sport that has no place in our society,” he said.

Paul Siegel, a professor at Virginia Tech’s Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, has been studying chickens for more than 60 years — a career that has exposed him to the practice and culture of cockfighting. “It’s still prevalent around the world,” he said.

By their very personalities, Siegel said, roosters attack each other.

“It’s just natural for them to form a dominate-subordinate relationship. One has to be boss,” he said.

In a normal breeding setting, the defeated rooster will stay away from the rooster who bested him. “From then on, they get along okay because one of them knows to be submissive,” Siegel says. “They form a social order.”

By design, cockfights strip the birds of that kind of relationship by paring them against opponents they’ve never met. When stranger roosters are put into a ring together, they revert to natural inclinations and fight, Siegel said.

The case against Romig began, animal control officers say, on Nov. 18, when one of them, Angel Ricketts, was making an unrelated dog call north of Burtonsville — an area 20 miles north of Washington that is rural by Montgomery standards. On another property in the area, Ricketts spotted the individual rooster cages and decided to check whether anything was amiss.

She and police officer Erin Rorke tracked down Romig, who lives about six miles away, and he agreed to meet them back at the small farm.

This time, according to documents, the animal control officers took note of several roosters that had been altered. Someone had removed their “combs,” which are fleshy crests atop rooster heads, and their “wattles,” the fleshy patches under their beaks. The practice, Rorke wrote in court papers, is done “to prevent injury during a cockfight, as a comb/wattle will bleed profusely when cut.”

But Romig would not let the officers get close to the birds, they asserted in court papers.

The operation is not exactly hidden.

From a small side road, observers can view extensive rows of chicken cages that are patrolled by at least two large dogs. Romig’s attorney, Chaikin, said that over the previous 15 years, animal control officers apparently had made periodic visits to the farm and had seen no problems with the operation.

After getting search warrants, Rorke went to Romig’s home in the Kemp Mill area of the county. She knocked on the front and side doors, got no answer and walked into an open door of the garage. She saw Romig atop a ladder trying to put a small red-and-white tackle box into the attic, Rorke asserted in court papers.

She asked him to come down.

“I thought you and I were friends,” he said while doing so, according to Rorke’s account filed in court.

Inside the tackle box, Rorke said, were several “gaffs,” which are small, ice-pick-like spikes that are attached to rooster feet for fighting. In the garage, Rorke said, officers found several issues of the cockfighting magazines Gamecock and Grit and Steel, trophies from cockfighting competitions and VHS tapes of cockfights, according to court records.

Officers also searched the farm, finding what they described as a “training/fighting pit” marked off by the barrels.

Siegel, the Virginia Tech professor, said some of the bird alterations by cockfighting breeders are similar to alterations employed in typical agricultural settings.

That can include filing down the natural “spurs,” which are one- to two-inch hornlike structures that grow out the back of roosters’ ankles. Cockfighters trim them so they can better attach the metal “gaffs,” said Siegel. Agricultural breeders trim them so the roosters don’t hurt others in the flock, Siegel said

The breeders also remove the combs atop rooster heads, Siegel said, if the birds will be outside in particularly cold weather or to protect them from injuries. Siegel said he knew of no reason to remove a rooster’s wattle.

The arrest warrant gives no indication that animal services officers found evidence that roosters were tethered — or leashed — to a post. Cockfighting breeders like doing this because it keeps the roosters separated and gives them space to run around and get stronger as opposed to being cooped in a cage, Siegel said.

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Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.