For Lisa McAnally, last Christmas Day was hardly the peaceful experience most people reasonably expect from the holiday.
On that morning, and well into the afternoon, the 23-year-old art history graduate student and her boyfriend sat on McAnally's backyard balcony in East Dallas, watching in disbelief as her neighbors across the alley hosted a long and noisy day of cockfighting, with its requisite gambling. One-by-one, brightly plumed gamecocks entered a makeshift fighting pit in the backyard of a house in the 5800 block of Reiger Avenue.
The birds slashed each other to death with sharp razors tied to the spurs on their legs, and their owners unceremoniously tossed bodies of dead birds into a dumpster in the alley.
McAnally, who had moved into her spacious duplex in the 5800 block of Victor Street only weeks earlier, says she immediately called 911 and reported what she was witnessing. A Dallas Police dispatcher, she says, dutifully took down the information. Then McAnally settled in again on her balcony, hoping police would arrive and break up the fights.
The fighting continued for hours, finally breaking up in the early afternoon, McAnally says. But no police officers ever showed.
"I know the police have a lot to do, but they had hours to come by and check this out," McAnally says. "We were actual eyewitnesses to this, for hours. It's really a disgusting thing, and no one seems to be interested in doing anything about it."
To this day, in fact, no one seems interested in doing anything about it.
So angered was McAnally by the city's lack of response that she began working the phones on December 26--the first business day after Christmas--trying to find someone in some agency who might care that cockfights are taking place in East Dallas.
Although the Christmas Day fight was the only one she has witnessed, McAnally says it appears that it was not an isolated incident. Rows of cages containing fighting cocks are set up in the backyard of the Reiger Avenue house, McAnally says, and it seems the bird fighting is an ongoing enterprise.
But more than two months after first raising her complaints, McAnally is still waiting for some authority to do anything, and has found her concerns strangled in red tape.
A more timid person might have given up long ago. But McAnally, a political junkie who, at age 18, was the youngest candidate ever to run for the Dallas Independent School District board of trustees (she lost to ex-trustee Dan Peavy), is no shrinking violet.
"I just keep at it. I just want something done about it. So do my neighbors," says McAnally, a petite woman with chic wire-frame glasses, an infectious laugh, and a knack for nonstop chatter.
The story McAnally recounts of trying to unleash justice on the cockfighters--in Texas cockfighting is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a fine of up to $4,000--sounds like a spoof of the operations in some wretched banana republic. And in Dallas, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.
"Actually, on [December 26] we first called the police department's non-emergency number," McAnally recalls. "They told us to hang up and call 911, which we did. After we explained everything to the dispatcher, she told us to hang up and call animal control, so we did."
An animal control dispatcher took the complaint, McAnally says, but told her that unless an actual fight was in progress, the problem would be a matter for the city's code enforcement office.
"I was like, hel-lo," McAnally says, indignantly. "I had just called the day before, reporting this big long cockfight in progress. But no one had bothered to come over."
Increasingly frustrated but undaunted, McAnally says she then called code enforcement. She says a worker there told her, quite simply, that cockfighting "was not their issue."
"They said that, at one time, the city had tried to outlaw the possession of roosters within city limits," McAnally says. "And there was this huge backlash. Everyone apparently claimed they kept chickens as pets and for the eggs. So now it's only legal to keep them as pets, but you can't fight them."
This is true, says Sgt. Jim Chandler, a Dallas Police Department spokesman. The legal distinction is drawn between raising roosters and fighting them. But, Chandler acknowledges, most folks don't keep scores of roosters in their yards without the intention of fighting them.
As for code enforcement's position, a department employee contacted by the Dallas Observer denies that anyone in the department would respond that cockfighting is "not their issue."
"It is something we would look into for possible code violations, like a noise ordinance," the employee says. "And we would direct the complaint about animal cruelty to animal control."
McAnally says she was prepared to give up on the animal cruelty aspect of the case--though after watching a fight, that was clearly the most troubling part of the problem to her. "When they're not fighting, those roosters are just crowing all day long," she says. "So I figured maybe we could go at it like a public health issue. You know, noise pollution. Or pestilence. A bunch of birds together like that could attract lice, or roaches, or something."
Indeed, their constant crowing is one characteristic that separates game cocks from purely domesticated roosters, which prefer to make most of their noise at sunrise. Cockfighters, in fact, appreciate a particularly noisy bird. It is one of several attributes that illustrates a rooster's "gameness"--its stamina and power. This may well be a point of pride in the cockfighting subculture, but urban neighbors usually just don't see it that way.
Buoyed temporarily by the hope that health officials could solve the problem, McAnally called the city health department with her complaint. "The woman I talked to there gave me a couple of options," McAnally says, by this time barely able to contain herself from breaking into laughter. "She said to call the Dallas County Sheriff's living livestock division. And if that didn't work, she said to call the press."
A living livestock spokesman listened patiently to McAnally's complaint. And then, she says, he calmly told her, "I'm sorry, but we don't deal with anything smaller than a goat."
Which brought McAnally to her final outlet--the press. Last week, the Observer paid a visit to the home in question. There was no response to several knocks on the door. A trip to the unpaved, trash-strewn alley behind the house, however, was met with a loud cacophony of greetings from the suspicious roosters. A couple of battle-scarred tomcats sauntered past the high fence surrounding the property.
The back yard--seen through a gap in the fence--was strewn with a curious mix of children's toys and bikes and wire pens stocked with more than a dozen silken-plumed roosters, unquestionably of the fighting variety. The yard also had a small section devoted to "exercise" equipment--a crudely fashioned balance beam and perch typical of equipment cockers use to condition their birds for fighting.
McAnally says she has yet to witness another cockfight, which one longtime animal cruelty investigator says is imperative if the activity is to be seriously attacked. "It's really unfortunate no one responded to her first call when the fighting was going on," says Reed Young, an investigator for the Humane Society of Fort Worth. "Eyewitnesses are very important in these cases, or video of the fighting. It's often very difficult to get there while a fight is in progress. These guys are real pros. Usually they have a couple of lookouts posted and escape routes planned out."
Deputy Dallas Police Chief Frank Hearron is commander of the Central Patrol Division, territory which includes McAnally's neighborhood. He says he is not familiar with the house McAnally has complained about, but that cockfighting "is not something that is reported to us a whole lot. It often comes to us after the fact, and that makes it a little harder to take care of."
After hearing, however, of McAnally's unsuccessful attempts to rid her neighborhood of the problem, Hearron said he would check into her complaints.
Meanwhile, McAnally recently received a written response to her complaint to the city's Animal Control Division. The letter, dated January 15, 1997, arrived at McAnally's home one month after she called to complain. Larry Tryon, supervisor of Street, Sanitation and Code Enforcement Services of the Animal Control Division, wrote that "we have, without identifying you, made the resident aware of your concern." The department has also warned the resident that allowing any animal to make "unreasonable noise (for more than 15 minutes or above the acceptable sound level of .56 decibels) near a private residence is a violation of the Dallas City Code.
"We have encouraged the person to monitor the animal(s) in question to insure compliance with city ordinance," the letter states.
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Tryon, who did not return a phone call from the Observer by deadline, also wrote that McAnally may file an outside complaint with the city prosecutor's office if the noisy animal problem continues.
The problem, of course, has continued. McAnally says sometimes the birds crow so loudly she can hear them over her stereo. They crow day and night. And yes, at the break of dawn, too.
McAnally says she's considering whether to follow this fight to its logical conclusion, though she has no idea what that will be. "I work every day, and I haven't been able to get time off to go down to the prosecutor's office and file a formal complaint.
"I won't say I've completely given up yet," she says, "but I'm getting more resigned to just living with it.