WASHINGTON – A cockfighting (search) 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 Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (search), R-Wis.
Issues such as the Patriot Act (search) and immigration have kept the committee busy, Lungren said, who 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, then-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. He told Sen. Rick Santorum (search), R-Pa., that it would help deter cockfighting, which "could play a role in the introduction and spread of exotic poultry diseases.''
Johanns also said the bill made sense from an "animal welfare standpoint.''
President Bush has made the fight against bird flu a priority, asking Congress for $7.1 billion to help the country prepare for a possible pandemic.
Cockfighting pits two roosters sporting steel blades on their legs. During a typical tournament, one-third to one-half of the birds die; many endure broken wings, punctured lungs and gouged eyes.
Cockfighting is popular in parts of the South, where spectators often gamble on the outcome. In states where the sport is illegal, it's conducted underground.
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, a practice not uncommon in that part of the world.
Also, the fights themselves can spread disease because the birds slash each other in the pit.
A recent report by the New England Journal of Medicine (search) 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, R-Wis.
Green has urged 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,'' Green said. The bill has 184 other sponsors.
The Judiciary Committee passed the bill in the last Congress, with Sensenbrenner's backing, but the legislation never made it through the House.
Last year, U.S. cockfighters formed Citizens for Preserving Historic Animal Use, which spent $60,000 lobbying against the legislation from mid-2004 through mid-2005, federal records show.
Repeated messages left with Larry Meyers of the Washington lobbying firm Meyers & Associates, who was listed as the lobbyist on those reports, were not returned.
Cockfighters also established a political action committee, Citizens for the Humane and Ethical Treatment of Animals (search), or CHETA, which gave $1,000 each to then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search), R-Texas, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas.
King has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the animal fighting bill on the Judiciary Committee.
In an e-mail interview King said that 3 million "human illegal aliens pour across our southern border every year. We can't control our borders. What are we doing trying to regulate chicken travel?''
The National Chicken Council, which represents chicken producer-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.''
The Humane Society of the United States, which is leading the effort for the bill, said cockfighting is barbaric and a public health risk.
"Cockfighting is practiced more widely in Southeast Asia, which is ground zero for avian flu,'' said the group's president, Wayne Pacelle. "There is a vibrant underground trade between U.S. cockfighters and those in Southeast Asia.''