In light of the Coronavirus Pandemic, It’s Common Sense to Crack Down on Reckless and Economically Insignificant Animal-Use Enterprises Such as Live Animal Markets and Cockfights
WASHINGTON, D.C. — There are reports from Guam indicating that cockfighting has dramatically waned since the federal ban went into effect on December 20th. Today, Animal Wellness Action and the Animal Wellness Foundation urged all Guamanians, including political leaders, to continue that momentum to rid the island of illegal cockfighting. While the impetus for the ban was grounded on concerns about cruelty to animals, Animal Wellness notes that banning cockfighting is a prudent policy to minimize the risks of transmitting highly pathogenic avian influenza to humans.
The coronavirus pandemic — spawned at a live animal market and killing thousands, infecting hundreds of thousands (including dozens on Guam), and causing a global economic calamity — reminds us that 70 percent of diseases that afflict people originate in animals. Epidemiological historians believe that the Spanish flu, which originated in chickens and reassorted with human influenza and became highly virulent and infectious, claimed the lives of more than 50 million people a century ago.
“China’s leaders were reckless in allowing live-animal markets to flourish even after warnings that capturing and butchering pangolins, civet cats, and other wild animals posed considerable risks of spawning a zoonotic disease,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action. “It’s similarly irresponsible for political leaders in any part of the world to have any degree of tolerance for cockfights, which are dangerous mixing bowls where humans and birds interact in ways that can readily pass blood and respiratory fluids to people and infect them.”
At the intersection of two major migratory bird flyways, Guam has ripe conditions for the delivery of bird flu from ducks and other waterfowl migrating from the Asian mainland to domesticated chickens on Guam. Once local chickens are infected, the risk of transmission to humans would be most acute at cockfighting venues, where men are handling bloodied birds, with knives attached to their legs, potentially exposing the handlers to cuts. The blood and infectious respiratory secretions from an infected bird can infect a person, jumping the species barrier. At that point reassortment can occur where avian and human influenza viruses mix and create a new, deadly virus like Spanish Flu or Covid-19. In what constitutes the riskiest imaginable practice, some cockfighters are known to put the heads of roosters in their mouths to suck airway secretions from the exhausted birds to try to rejuvenate and enable the birds to resume fighting.
The coronavirus pandemic launched in China at a live-animal market, where wild animals are captured and butchered or sold live to customers. The SARS virus started at a live-animal market, and China failed to ban them in the wake of that event. China says it has ordered the shuttering of its 20,000 so-called wet markets. Vietnam has done the same, but it is not clear if politicians will vigorously enforce the bans. Only a small percentage of Chinese eat wild animals, but the wet markets there put billions of people throughout the world at risk with their actions.
“The coronavirus pandemic reminds us not only to take precautions and to engage in social distancing to avoid infection, but also that there are high-risk animal-use enterprises that can spawn a viral outbreak that may cause a global public health and economic catastrophe,” said Dr. Annie Harvilicz, a veterinarian and chief medical officer of the Animal Wellness Foundation. “It’s just foolish to allow people to interact with birds and exchange bodily fluids with them, only for the purpose of gambling on staged fights. Talk about an unnecessary risk.”
Animal Wellness emphasizes it is not the pangolins, chickens, or other animals who are the source of the serious threats to human health. Rather, it’s human interactions with animals that are invasive, inhumane, or just unsafe that put us at risk. Handling bloody, injured birds during cockfights is one example of a dangerous and inhumane interaction with animals.
A poll conducted last fall by the Guam-based Market Research & Development determined that 62 percent of Guamanians favor the federal ban on cockfighting.
Cockfighters from the U.S. mainland made more than 500 illegal transports of fighting birds to customers on Guam, according to an analysis by the AWF and AWA of 2,500 pages of live-animal shipping records obtained from the Guam Department of Agriculture. The records reveal the illegal trafficking of nearly 9,000 birds to Guam alone in 33-month period — translating into an illegal shipment, on average, every other day. Guam Agriculture Director Chelsa Muna-Brecht has, thus far, declined to stop these illegal live-animal transports.