New Report Reveals Urgent Zoonotic Disease Threats from Cockfighting to Avian Wellness and Agriculture

Typically, Thanksgiving isn’t just rough on turkeys, but also on chickens. It’s opening day for the months-long cockfighting season, with action taking place at hundreds of fighting arenas scattered across the hinterlands. The states of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and California and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and Guam have the most extensive cockfighting syndicates. And inseparable from the fights is the brisk business of shipping American-raised fighting birds across the states and to more than 25 nations, with Mexico and the Philippines taking in the largest number of exports by a long shot.

Even though cockfighting and a host of related activities are a federal felony everywhere in the United States, and felonies under state law in 42 states, it’s still rare when the sounds of police sirens drown out the sounds of crowing roosters and cries of gamblers at the arenas where the staged fights occur.

While it’s a federal crime to possess birds for fighting, it is not illegal to raise cockfighting breeds itself. Travel around rural reaches of the United States and you’ll see “farms” with dozens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of brilliantly colored Sweaters, Kelsos, and other breeds tethered to A-frame huts or barrels. The United States may have a population between 10 and 25 million fighting birds, with the cockfighters and their birds “hiding in plain sight” and spinning a yarn that their birds are only for “show” and “exhibition.”

In east Tennessee this weekend, the Union County Sheriff did, however, burst into a major fighting venue after the animal-protection group SHARK tipped him to animal-cruelty crimes in progress, issuing citations for 98 people and even finding children in the crowd. Just two weeks earlier, SHARK got word of a fight in nearby McCreary County in Kentucky and called the police to raid that operation. Cockfighters got wind of the tip and thought better of proceeding with the scheduled derby, so the fighting pits were silent that night.

Right now, AWA and the Center are backing Tennessee legislation, introduced by Senator Jon Lundberg and Representative Sam Whitson, to make cockfighting a felony offense. And we have also formulated new federal legislation to strengthen the existing statute against animal fighting and enhance enforcement:

  • Banning simulcasting and gambling of an animal fight, no matter where it originates
  • Halting the shipment of mature roosters (chickens only) shipped through the U.S. mail
  • Creating a citizen suit provision to allow private right of action against illegal animal fighters and ease the resource burden on federal agencies
  • Enhancing forfeiture provisions to include real property used in the commission of an animal fighting crime.

Cockfighting enterprises are not just hotspots of cruelty, but a multi-billion-dollar, above-and-below-ground enterprise entwined with illicit drug possession, illegal gambling, prostitution, violence, gang activity, unlawful guns, and money laundering.

The birds are also high-risk vectors and infection reservoirs known to spread zoonotic disease. With the COVID-19 pandemic still a threat, and the nation’s worst-ever outbreak of Avian Influenza wreaking havoc with wild and captive bird populations, it is most certainly time to put combatting cockfighting on America’s priority to-do list.

Key Points

  • Cockfighting threatens to extend the geography and prolong the duration of the current highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1 (“bird flu”) US epidemic.
  • Bird flu has killed or caused the deaths of almost 60 million US poultry in the past 12 months, including 44 million laying hens (13% of the national flock) and nine million turkeys (4% of the national flock), driving up egg and turkey meat prices to record highs. Millions of wild birds have also likely died from HPAI.
  • There have been 15 introductions of virulent Newcastle disease (vND) into the United States since 1950, ten of which occurred via the illegal smuggling of game cocks across our southern border from Mexico, costing the federal government a billion dollars in a series of containment and compensation efforts.

Cruelty and contagion fester at the cockfights

There’s no question that the illegal cockfighting industry puts our nation’s multibillion-dollar legitimate poultry industry at risk from severe avian infectious diseases, especially potentially zoonotic highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) and virulent Newcastle disease (vND). Both viruses cause severe, highly contagious, acute and often fatal multi-systemic febrile disease of the respiratory, digestive, reproductive, and nervous systems of birds.

Neither virus is normally present in the U.S. or other countries with a well-developed veterinary infrastructure. When HPAI or vND are discovered, authorities typically conduct mass culling of infected and exposed birds to stop the spread. Millions of birds suffer greatly whether they die from the disease itself or are euthanized due to virus exposure.

The HPAI (H5N1 strain) bird flu epidemic that began in February 2022 in Indiana has already killed nearly 60 million commercial and backyard poultry and unknown thousands, perhaps millions, of wild birds in 48 states over the past 12 months. There have been 309 commercial poultry flocks (mostly layer flocks and meat turkeys) and 427 backyard flocks in 47 states infected and euthanized as of January 2023. It is unknown if any infected backyard flocks are game fowl because USDA does not report this data. This epidemic is the largest and will be the costliest animal disease outbreak in our nation’s history.

Virulent Newcastle disease can cause commercial and backyard poultry devastation similar to that of HPAI if not contained. There have been 15 introductions of vND into the United States since 1950, ten of which occurred via the illegal smuggling of game cocks across our southern border from Mexico. (Virulent Newcastle disease is endemic in Mexico and all of Latin America).

On three occasions, in 1971, 2002, and 2018, vND introduction led to large-scale epidemics in Southern California. The 2002 and 2018 outbreaks started from smuggled cockfighting birds from Mexico. In all three epidemics, cockfighting activities prolonged the outbreak. In total, 16 million birds died or were killed in these three vND epidemics at an inflation-adjusted cost of more than one billion dollars.

This week, Animal Wellness Action and the Center for Humane Economy are releasing a comprehensive 63-page report on the links between cockfighting and avian influenza and virulent Newcastle Disease.

What’s all this got to do with the price of eggs?

Avian diseases and cockfighting may be below the general public’s radar, but not without their effects on our lives. In the ongoing HPAI epidemic, more than 13 percent, or about 44 million laying hens have died, while 9 million of 217 million US turkeys have died (4%). This has resulted in record high prices for eggs (up 60% in December) in the US and record high prices for turkey meat (up 73%) over the 2022 Thanksgiving holiday.

One way to understand the role of cockfighting in bird flu or vND is to imagine an avian-human relay race where the baton is the virus.

  1. For HPAI, the first relay leg is among wild migratory birds that are naturally infected with bird flu. They cover thousands of miles, crossing cockfighting country, especially throughout the Upper South, the mid-section of the nation and down the corridors on the West Coast.
  2. As they migrate over the Mississippi or central flyway, they defecate onto cockfighting roosters tethered outdoors in long rows across rural America. The game cocks are infected from the wild bird waste, taking the baton from the infected wild birds. When the wild bird-origin flu virus passes through poultry, it sometimes becomes more virulent.
  3. Infected fighting birds are taken to cockfighting tournaments, traded, sold, or shipped to destinations near and far, where the virus is spread to other fighting birds and game fowl farms and where human attendees also become contaminated with the virus, the third leg of the relay. (Note: One gram of manure from an HPAI-infected chicken has enough virus to infect one million birds).
  4. On the anchor (fourth and final) relay leg, the bird flu virus is spread by cockfighters who also work in the live poultry industry, and thus vector the virus to layers, turkeys, and broilers. This leads to the epidemic death of commercial birds from infection or depopulation. Humans can also, so far rarely, become infected with the bird flu virus at cockfighting derbies. About 850 people have died of bird flu since 2003 globally.

This relay-race scenario has been well documented in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, during the 2003 to 2006 HPAI H5N1 epidemic.

A similar three-leg relay can be visualized for vND, and likely occurred in Southern California in 2002 and 2018, where 1) smuggled vND-infected fighting cocks carried the virus into the Southwest, 2) virus spreads among cockfighting farms and derbies, and 3) cockfighters who also work at poultry farms act as mechanical vectors and spread the virus to commercial poultry farms.

Scientists are recognizing that zoonotic disease spread and spillover are now widely recognized to be vastly more common than we thought prior to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

The War on cockfighting

Most people rightly believe cockfighting is a morally settled matter. But it’s far from settled on the ground, with cockfighting organizations and their infrastructure and sales operations at work as if it’s all a legitimate enterprise. The nation will stop it only when there are sufficient enforcement assets deployed; legal penalties in the courts that cut as deeply as their fighting implements do in the pit; and a strategic effort to nab the kingpins, seize the live contraband, and penalize the whole cast of characters involved.

The imminent introduction of the Animal Fighting Amendment of 2023 in the new Congress offers the prospect of shutting down the pathways for transporting fighting animals, cutting off the gambling that fuels it all, and empowering average citizens to join in on the enforcement efforts and run the bad guys out of town. But even as Congress considers that legislation, state and federal officials should know they already have formidable legal tools to interdict illegal animal fighting operations. Mercy must come, at some point, to the sentient, iridescent birds at the center of these merciless and gratuitous death matches.