[ OUR OPINION ]
SOUTHWESTERN states are emerging from an epidemic of a deadly poultry disease that cost millions of dollars to combat. The epidemic is believed to have resulted from cockfighting operations in California. It is further reason for stronger laws to eliminate cockfighting and for full enforcement of a new federal law prohibiting interstate transportation of gamecocks.
The federal government has begun to lift a moratorium on poultry shipments caused by a highly infectious bird disease.
The outbreak of Exotic Newcastle Disease began last October in small flocks of backyard birds in Los Angeles County. It was identified in commercial poultry two months later, and the epidemic spread within a few months to Nevada, Arizona and Texas. Twelve million birds were destroyed and the eradication program cost taxpayers more than $110 million.
A state and federal task force in California came under appropriate criticism for setting a range of $50 to $200 in compensation for destruction of gamecocks while compensating poultry and egg farmers only $2.50, even though cockfighting is illegal in California. "These people shouldn't be compensated. They should be prosecuted," remarked Wayne Parcelle of the Humane Society of the United States.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture lifted a prohibition against the movement of poultry this month in Arizona, Nevada, Texas and parts of California. The disease paralyzes and kills birds but poses no threat to humans.
Hawaii has been spared the disease, but widespread cockfighting and the large number of chickens freely roaming the islands could devastate the state's poultry industry if it were to find its way to the islands. People's clothing and shoes can be vehicles for spreading the disease.
"This disease could flare up in the coming months," warns Bill Lyons, California's secretary of food and agriculture.
Cockfighting is illegal in Hawaii but enforcement is hampered because it is only a misdemeanor. Rep. Eric Hamakawa, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has blocked bills in the last two Legislatures that would have made cockfighting a felony, as it is in 30 states. Hamakawa has indicated he is acting at the behest of constituents in his Big Island district who engage in the illegal activity.
President Bush signed into law last year a prohibition against interstate transportation of birds for the purpose of being used for cockfighting. Gamecock breeders can no longer say they are breeding them for cockfighting in foreign countries or in the three states -- Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico -- where it is allowed. However, the government still must prove the breeders' intent in shipping birds, which can be difficult.
The Humane Society's Parcelle praises Senator Inouye for supporting a bill in Congress that would establish felony-level prison sentences of up to two years for violation of the animal fighting provisions of the federal Animal Welfare Act, which prohibits dogfighting and cockfighting. Such a strengthening of the law would motivate the U.S. Attorney's Office in Hawaii to prosecute such cases, circumventing Hamakawa's protection of animal cruelty.