Bird Flu Outbreaks in Oklahoma Occur Due to Cockfighting, According to Animal Welfare Groups

According to intelligence gathered by animal welfare group Animal Wellness Action, cockfighters are set to start the new cockfighting season around Thanksgiving, coinciding with the spread of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) throughout the United States, including Oklahoma.

Oklahoma has reported four recent bird flu outbreaks in backyard poultry flocks.

Animal Wellness Action (AWA), as well as Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK) and its partner groups have labeled Oklahoma as the “cockfighting capital of the United States.” The groups have identified dozens of major fighting pits and gamecock farms in the state, with many concentrated in the southeast.

Oklahoman and senior veterinarian with Animal Wellness Action Dr. Thomas Pool documented the widespread movement of fighting birds raised in Oklahoma and set as far off as Guam and the Philippines.

Several lawmakers from Oklahoma have unsuccessfully worked in the Legislature earlier in the year to promote bills to decriminalize cockfighting. Cockfighters in Oklahoma are gathering in McAlester to raise more money to resume their pro-cockfighting campaign in Oklahoma City.

Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, believes that the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission is a front group for cockfighters. One of the Commission’s leaders was arrested for illegal cockfighting earlier in the year, however, the group has continued to discuss plans for the upcoming fighting season and to supply illegal pits inside and outside the US with fighting birds.

Pacelle stated, “Make no mistake, the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission is a front group for cockfighters and its leaders are neck deep in this criminal enterprise. No one at the State Capitol should be under any illusion but that a criminal syndicate is at work to clear a legislative path so these lawbreakers can stage acts of cruelty to animals without legal consequences for them as participants.”

During the 2023 legislative session, AWA and SHARK released information detailing that the people behind the Commission led an organized cockfighting network in the state. The groups also provided footage of the gamecock farms of the Commission leaders, documenting their efforts and participation at cockfighting derbies, as well as evidence of shipments of gamecocks through the U.S. mail.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 61.26 million birds have been affected by HPAI since early 2022. It is already the most expensive animal disease outbreak in U.S. history, costing billions of dollars to extirpate the virus, and so far all attempts have been unsuccessful. Consumer prices for eggs and poultry have also inflated due to the outbreak.

The USDA’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS) reported more than 54 commercial and backyard flocks have been infected by H5N1 (HPAI) nationwide within the last five weeks, resulting in the depopulation of 2.5 million birds in October and November. APHIS won’t reveal how many of the backyard flocks are gamecock operations but cockfighting flocks are almost certainly part of the matrix of infected populations

Cockfighting yields risk disease vectors and reservoirs because fighting birds are reared outdoors under poor biosecurity and widely sold, traded, and deliberately commingled with other birds at fighting derbies. Avian Influenza (AI) and virulent Newcastle Disease (vND) can infect commercially raised poultry, while AI can mutate and threaten human health.

“This HPAI outbreak is a wake-up call for lawmakers and law enforcement about the threats posed by an out-of-control Oklahoma cockfighting industry. The entire poultry industry should join us in fending off the efforts to repeal Oklahoma’s strong anti-cockfighting law and they should stand by our side in promoting the FIGHT Act in Congress to allow a stronger crackdown on illegal cockfighting operations,” said Pacelle.

Both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate have issued the Fighting Inhumane Gambling and High-Risk Trafficking (FIGHT) Act, and the authors hope to include the provision as an amendment to the pending Farm bill.