Illegal Cockfighting in Oklahoma May Worsen Avian Influenza Outbreak and Endanger Poultry Industry

According to the Center for a Humane Economy and Animal Wellness Action (AWA), the major illegal cockfighting industry in Oklahoma threatens to make the outbreak of Avian Influenza (AI) even more menacing.

AWA also stated that the rampant underground cockfighting in Oklahoma may spread the disease across the county and even to foreign nations. AWA has also documented the shipment of thousands of fighting birds to other states, nations, and U.S. territories in violation of federal law.

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) also confirmed the presence of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPIA) H5:N1 in a commercial chicken breeder flock in Sequoyah County, east-central Oklahoma. This is the 161st US commercial flock infected with the epidemic HPAI strain H5:N1. There are also 91 backyard (non-commercial) infected flocks.

Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy said, “Cockfighting has a unique potential to make the avian influenza outbreak even more deadly and far-reaching.” He added, “Cockfighters are orchestrating illegal fights in the state that cluster people and their animals from multiple states, creating perfect conditions for birds to contract the disease and then to spread it back home when the derbies are done.”

Animal Wellness Action and its affiliates have been doing a long-running investigation, documenting 20 major cockfighting traffickers throughout Oklahoma, with a concentration in the eastern region to circle the impact area for the AI outbreak. Through the investigation, it was revealed that cockfighters are not only hosting fights but also shipping birds from Mexico to Guam to the Philippines.

Dr. Jim Keen, D.V.M, PhD, director of veterinary programs for the Center for a Human Economy and former USDA infectious diseases specialist said, “Animal movements by people are the most important risk factor for the spread of domestic animal infectious diseases. If cockfighting birds are infected, they have the potential to expand the reach of the virus across Oklahoma and throughout the world.”

The 2022 HPAI epidemic has affected 35.2 million poultry. At least one poultry worker was infected with the virus. It is believed that wild migratory waterfowl introduced the virus to U.S. domestic poultry in the late winter. A major egg-laying state, Oklahoma sits on the western edge of the so-called “broiler belt” of the southern U.S. The state produces 8 billion meat chickens annually.

Dr. Keen added, “Cockfighting is a particular threat to the broiler and laying hen industries in Arkansas and Oklahoma because of the wide-ranging movements of cockfighting birds between derbies and also shipped for sale to other cockfighters throughout the U.S. and abroad. Now that Oklahoma has confirmed HPAI in the state, the imperative for federal, state, and local officials to take steps to stop the cockfighting industry is even greater. We have a roadmap that can guide them to the illegal operators.”

The HPAI epidemic has spread to 30 states. Southeastern states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, which are home to billions of commercial broilers, have not yet been infected. Iowa, the largest concentration of egg-laying hens, has been heavily impacted by HPAI. The virus has caused retail egg prices to have more than doubled in recent months. According to experts, if HPAI spreads to the enormous southeastern commercial broiler flocks, a similar price hike in retail chicken and turkey meat will follow.

Animal Wellness Action executive director Maty Irby stated, “We could very well see the spread of disease from gamecocks to humans as cockfighters often stop the fights when roosters’ lungs have been punctured and suck the blood out of roosters’ lungs themselves in mouth-to-mouth resuscitation-like contact so the gamecocks can continue to fight to the death — blood and feathers flying all around.”

Wayne Pacelle added, “If Oklahoma continues to tolerate a major cockfighting industry, it puts its poultry flocks at risk and is a potential launching pad for the virus around the world.”