- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A cockfighting bill aimed at stemming the spread of bird flu to the U.S. has stalled, despite support from the Bush administration and the poultry industry.

The bill targets trade from Southeast Asia, where cockfighting is suspected of spreading bird flu from chickens to humans. The measure would increase penalties for transporting fighting birds across state lines and from other countries.

But the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has not brought the bill, which has passed the Senate, to a vote. Cockfighting is banned in every state except Louisiana and New Mexico.

“That’s a bit of a stretch to say that the animal fighting bill should be an important part of any avian flu efforts,” said Jeff Lungren, spokesman for Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and House Judiciary Committee chairman.

Issues such as the USA Patriot Act and immigration have kept the panel busy, Mr. Lungren said he played down the idea that the bill would do much to keep bird flu from reaching the U.S.

Yet Agriculture Department officials have made just that case.

Last year, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said the bill would enhance the department’s ability to protect U.S. poultry against avian flu and other diseases. Her successor, Mike Johanns, expressed support for the bill during his confirmation hearings.

Cockfighting is popular in parts of the South, even where it is illegal, with spectators often gambling on the outcome.

Last year in Thailand, an 18-year-old man who raised fighting cocks died from avian flu. According to health authorities, he would suck mucus and blood from his injured roosters’ beaks. Also, the fights themselves can spread disease because the birds slash each other in the pit.

A report by the New England Journal of Medicine found that most bird-flu victims in Southeast Asia were people who had direct contact with birds, including people who handled and groomed fighting cocks.

It is already illegal to ship fighting birds to the United States and across state lines, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. The proposed legislation would make the violation a felony, with jail time of up to two years.

“Under current law, the penalties are too mild for it to be worth the efforts of federal prosecutors to go after the illegal trade,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mark Green, Wisconsin Republican.

Mr. Green has urged Mr. Sensenbrenner to hold hearings on the bill, citing the need to prevent the spread of bird diseases in the U.S.

“We know that if we get to a vote on the floor, it will pass,” Mr. Green said. The bill has 184 other sponsors.

The Judiciary Committee passed the bill in the previous Congress, with Mr. Sensenbrenner’s backing, but the legislation never made it through the House.

The National Chicken Council, which represents chicken producers and processors, has urged Congress to pass the legislation.

“Because cockfighting is unlawful in all but two states, the traffic is underground,” council spokesman Richard Lobb said. “It’s potentially a means by which animal disease can be spread.”

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