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Smuggling Cockfighting Roosters a Conduit to Bird Flu

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December 11, 2005

Smuggling cockfighting roosters a conduit to bird flu

By Elton Gallegly

Don't be surprised if the deadly avian flu enters the United States in the blood of a rooster smuggled into the country for the barbaric sport of cockfighting.

It wouldn't be the first time disease entered the U.S. with contraband roosters. Fighting roosters smuggled into California from Mexico caused the 2002-2003 outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease. Newcastle cost the U.S. taxpayer $200 million to eradicate. It cost the poultry industry millions more in lost overseas exports as it spread across the southwestern United States.

Avian flu could be much worse. The world is expecting a pandemic among the human race from the predicted mutation of one particular strain, dubbed H5N1, with deaths in the United States estimated as high as 1.9 million. The county's Public Health Department recently told the News-Press that about 400,000 people in Santa Barbara County would become infected with avian flu during an outbreak and more than 400 of them would die. Across the state, as many as 36,000 deaths are predicted.

Even if the mutation does not occur as predicted, if H5N1 reaches our shores the fear that it could mutate will mean the decimation of the poultry industry.

Right now, humans can contract the disease from an infected bird, but it cannot spread from one human to another. However, each time a human contracts the flu it increases the likelihood that it will mutate into a form that can spread from human to human. Once that happens, you have the makings of a pandemic.

Cockfighting has been identified as the major contributor of the spread of avian flu throughout Thailand and other parts of Asia, where the strain originated. Many of the humans who contracted avian flu and died from it contracted it from fighting birds. The flu now is quickly making its way across Europe. Experts say it's just a matter of time before it reaches our shores.

Cockfighting is a brutal, vicious blood sport that is outlawed in 48 states, including California, simply for its barbarism. For the uninitiated, the roosters are drugged. Specially fashioned razors are strapped to their legs. The birds fight to the death, with eyes gouged out, flesh ripped from their bodies and blood splattering in every direction. The spectators bet on the outcome. Thousands of dollars exchange hands during the sadistic spectacle. Not surprisingly, law enforcement officials have tied drug- and gun-running to practitioners of the atrocity.

Cockfighting also is practiced in Latin America and is popular among some segments of our illegal immigrant population. Because people who engage in cockfighting smuggle their birds across state and international borders to fight, it greatly increases the likelihood that a cockfighting rooster will bring H5N1 into the United States. It also increases the likelihood of the strain infecting humans because spectators and roosters' owners often are splattered with the blood and flesh of fighting roosters.

In Congress, I have been working with Rep. Mark Green of Wisconsin to increase the penalties for those who move fighting birds across state and international borders. Currently, the offense is a misdemeanor and participants just consider it the cost of doing business. Our bill would make it a felony.

Cockfighting is a barbaric, malevolent and violent pastime that has no place in civilized society. Now it also has the potential to lead to the deaths of nearly 2 million Americans. It's imperative that we bring the full weight of the law down on the blood sport and jail those who practice it.

The author is a senior member of the Judiciary Committee and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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