By Lynne Terry The Oregonian
PORTLAND, Ore. — For owners of a company that prides itself on the humane treatment of its chickens, this was their worst nightmare: Police break up a cockfighting event and a rogue employee is hauled off to jail.
The event took place Saturday morning at Willamette Egg Farms’ distribution center in Eagle Point. When Jackson County Sheriff’s deputies arrived, roosters with razor blades strapped to their legs were fighting in an abandoned building with a makeshift bar serving drinks.
Up to 30 people fled and eight were arrested, including a Willamette Egg Farms truck loader. Deputies found one dead rooster and another severely injured. About 35 others were rescued.
“This is absolutely disgusting for us,” said Greg Satrum, co-owner of Willamette Egg Farms. “We’ve been working with the Oregon Humane Society and the Humane Society of the United States to improve the living standards for egg-laying hens and to have our name associated with something like this is enraging.”
The family-owned company, created by Satrum’s great uncle in 1934, is Oregon’s largest egg producer, with 2 million hens producing 10 million eggs a week. Some are housed in traditional battery cages with several birds in one compartment, but many are cage free, fed organic food and have areas to nest, scratch and perch, Satrum said.
The company backed a law passed last year that will phase out battery cages in Oregon.
“Without their help, that style of housing wouldn’t become illegal,” said Sharon Harmon, executive director of the Oregon Humane Society.
Willamette Egg Farms is lobbying for a federal ban.
“The last thing we want are angry chickens,” Satrum said.
The company doesn’t own any roosters, and all of its hens are housed in Canby and Moses Lake, Wash.
The cockfight was staged in an abandoned chicken house far from the street on the company’s multi-acre spread in Eagle Point. Once a producing facility, the site is now solely used as a distribution center for Willamette Egg Farms shipments to southern Oregon and northern California. There are no more animals on the property.
About 9:30 a.m. Saturday, a company employee visiting the warehouse noticed unfamiliar vehicles and called the manager, who notified the Jackson County sheriff’s office.
When deputies arrived about 11 a.m., they said the cockfighting event was in full fury in the empty building. Participants fled, but deputies nabbed eight men, 18 to 77 years old, on allegations of trespassing and participating in cockfighting, a felony.
They were released, but deputies took 26-year-old Leonel Sanchez of Eagle Point to the Jackson County Jail on accusations of participating in cockfighting and criminal trespass. He was later released, jail officials said.
A five-year employee of Willamette Egg Farms who loaded trucks at the distribution center, Sanchez is suspected of unlocking the gates to the property and staging the event.
The Jackson County sheriff’s office said at least one fight took place before officers arrived. They found a dead rooster tossed in a field and another in bad shape. They also collected a set of fighting razors that are used to make the roosters more lethal in cockfights.
It’s not clear when the fighting started Saturday or whether it was the first such event at the property, but one thing is clear to officials: Stacks of cash changed hands. Participants paid $25 to watch and $500 to enter a rooster.
Satrum was stunned — and horrified — when he learned about the event Saturday afternoon. Company officials fired Sanchez on Monday.
“He was clearly involved,” Satrum said. “That’s all we needed to know.”
Jackson County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the case, which will be turned over to the county’s district attorney, Mark Huddleston, for prosecution. Huddleston said he’s prosecuted only three or four cockfighting cases in the last few years, and offenders usually are sentenced to probation or time in jail.
“It’s highly unlikely that they would be sentenced to prison,” Huddleston said.
Satrum said Sanchez never had contact with the company’s animals. But his arrest will change company policy.
Right now employees that work with hens are trained in animal welfare and health and have to sign a code of conduct that forbids any type of animal abuse or neglect and requires them to report any that they see. Satrum said all employees will have to sign the document in the future.
“This is absolutely disgusting to us,” Satrum said. “We want everyone to understand that any form of animal abuse will not be tolerated.”