Cockfights Are High-Risk Venues for Transmitting Avian Influenza and Other Diseases

(This is the latest essay in continuing series about animal-use industries that have the potential to spawn a new virus or other pathogen that can threaten human and animal health)

In what constitutes perhaps the riskiest imaginable practice when it comes to animal-to-human disease transmission, some cockfighters are known to put the head of a rooster in their mouth to suck airway secretions from the injured and exhausted animal. For the cockfighter, sucking up the blood and other secretions from the lungs and other air passages after the animal has suffered a stab wound is not a life-saving intervention, but a way to prolong the fighting and pull out an unlikely victory.

Cockfighters in Puerto Rico and Guam — the two biggest U.S. territories and both international hubs for cockfighting — are not only breaking the federal law against animal fighting, but they’re courting the next wave of avian influenza and other zoonotic diseases by handling animals in these dangerous ways. The hard-core practitioners are persisting with felony-level crimes three months after the latest provisions of federal law took effect.

In staged animal fights conducted for gambling and human amusement, handlers put weapons on the roosters’ legs, drug the birds to heighten their aggression, and place them in a pit where they slash each other to death.  

Once roosters in a locale are infected with avian influenza, perhaps through contact with migratory birds with an innocuous form of avian influenza, the virus can reassort and become more virulent or contagious. At cockfights, men handle 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 them, allowing the virus to jump the species barrier. At that point additional reassortment can occur where avian and human influenza viruses mix and create a new, deadly virus like the Spanish Flu or COVID-19.

At that point, a cockfight becomes more than just a grisly, illegal spectacle; it’s a launch pad for the next pandemic.

Local politicians, especially in Puerto Rico, have been defiant about the federal law — even after a federal judge in San Juan ruled that the United States was well within its authority to eliminate cockfighting there. In Puerto Rico, lawmakers and the governor passed a sham bill “legalizing” cockfighting on the day the federal law was to take effect.

Dozens of citizens of Puerto Rico have written to Animal Wellness Action (AWA) to alert our  organization to illegal cockfighting activities on the island since the federal law took effect, signaling their own opposition to the bloody spectacles and reminding the nation that cockfighters are disrespecting the rule of law and perpetrating acts of animal cruelty. The tips have come in response to an AWA rewards program providing up to $2,500 to individuals who provide information that leads to the arrest and conviction of people violating our federal animal fighting laws.

Based on information received from tipsters, at least 25 illegal fighting venues have been identified, 15 of which had continued to operate on a regular basis (at least before the current epidemic changed all the rules for social gatherings). Undoubtedly there are more unreported fighting pits, and we have urged the good people of Puerto Rico to be our eyes and ears in calling out animal cruelty. Venue operators continue to advertise these illegal activities through posters and social media. (We’ve posted some of these promotional materials here.)

“Many Puerto Ricans don’t support cockfighting, and that’s why they’re sharing details about these illegal activities,” said Ana Maria Hernández Martí, an Animal Law attorney based in San Juan.  “It’s a political myth that the people of Puerto Rico think the federal law against animal fighting is an imposition on our country. Staged animal fighting is not representative of Puerto Rico, it does not reflect our values, nor our culture.”

The World Health Organization found that cockfights were the likely source of people contracting avian influenza in Thailand and Vietnam, where cockfighting is widespread. And it’s happening throughout the United States, though most brazenly in Puerto Rico.

Cockfighters from the U.S. mainland shipped more than 500 illegal fighting birds — violating a pre-existing provision of federal law — to customers on Guam, according to an analysis by the Animal Wellness Foundation (AWF) and AWA of 2,500 pages of live-animal transport records obtained from the Guam Department of Agriculture. The records reveal the trafficking of nearly 9,000 birds to Guam alone in a 33-month period, translating into an illegal shipment on average every other day. The top five exporters — shipping from Oklahoma, California, Hawaii, North Carolina, and Alabama — accounted for 52 percent of all cockfighting roosters sent to Guam. 

The fighting birds are shipped in boxes by the U.S. Postal Services, despite a USPS ban on such shipments. Guam Agriculture Director Chelsa Muna-Brecht has thus far declined to block the illegal transports.

Animal Wellness Action emphasizes it is not only the pangolins, chickens, and other animals abused and slaughtered at “wet markets” that pose serious threats to human health. It’s a larger set of human interactions with wild or domesticated animals that are inhumane, invasive, or just unsafe that are also putting us at risk. 

While the U.S. has been slow to address live markets, game farms, the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms, and other public health menaces related to animal use, Congress has taken decisive action on animal fighting. Now it’s a matter of enforcement, and not letting local politicians and cockfighters subvert the law and put us all in jeopardy in pursuit of their favored form of gratuitous animal cruelty.