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Feds Pay for Game Birds to End Disease

July 8, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved. 

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Fighting a devastating poultry disease, federal officials in California paid premium prices to destroy birds probably used as fighting cocks. Halting the infestation far outweighed concerns about dealing with outlaws, they said.

The Agriculture Department spent $11.5 million from October to May to destroy 144,000 birds characterized mainly as game fowl, including thousands of roosters and brood cocks that agriculture officials believe were used for fighting.

Those payments averaged $79.31 each, with some roosters and brood cocks valued as high as $500, according to the records obtained by The Associated Press.

That average was over 27 times the average per bird -- $2.89 -- the government paid to kill 3.7 million commercial birds, virtually all egg-laying chickens.

Overall, $22.3 million was paid to chicken ranchers and owners of backyard flocks in the effort to eradicate Exotic Newcastle Disease. Newcastle can wipe out entire flocks of poultry but is harmless to humans.

The payments drew criticism from the Humane Society and lawmakers who have sought to clamp down on cockfighting.

``I think it's inappropriate to be using taxpayer dollars to be paying for cockfighting birds or to be supporting the cockfighting industry in any way,'' said Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., who is a veterinarian.

Cockfighting is illegal in California and all states except Louisiana and parts of New Mexico. In Oklahoma, voters approved a ban last year, but lawsuits by gamefowl breeders have suspended enforcement of the new law in about 30 of the state's 77 counties. The Oklahoma Supreme Court has been asked to decide the constitutionality of the ban.

Federal law bans breeders from shipping fighting cocks even to states where cockfighting is legal. Violation is a misdemeanor.

Agriculture officials said they had no qualms about compensating people who probably owned banned fighting birds, saying their sole mission was to eradicate the disease.

``The whole idea of paying compensation is to give people incentive to participate in the program,'' Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said.

By some estimates, there are 50,000 illegal cockfighting locations in California alone. And while California outlaws cockfighting, owning game cocks is legal, said Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

``By law, we're required to pay any individual who owns a bird that is taken ... irrespective of what the bird is used for,'' Lyle said.

Francine Bradley, a poultry expert at the University of California, Davis, said owners should get credit for contacting authorities when they saw outbreaks of Newcastle in their flocks.

``If they wanted to, they could have moved these birds in the dark of night in the backs of vans outside the quarantine area,'' Bradley said.

Just how the latest outbreak of Newcastle began last fall remains a mystery, but officials said one theory is that fighting cocks were responsible.

``The fighting-bird theory is a real one because that activity involves the movement of birds and because it's such a contagious disease'' said Leticia Rico, spokeswoman for the state-federal task force created to fight the Newcastle outbreak.

The disease is caused by a virus found in the droppings, breath and eggs of birds. Containing the disease is especially hard in California because many people keep birds in their back yards.

The outbreak appears to be on the wane. The most recent case was found in a back yard in Los Angeles County on May 31, Rico said.

When it was at its peak in late fall and again last winter, inspectors asked few questions and did not coordinate with law enforcement.

``It does put us in an awkward position. I'll admit that,'' said Larry Hawkins, a USDA spokesman in California. ``We're accused of somehow supporting cockfighting. We don't.''

Wayne Pacelle, vice president of the Humane Society, said paying owners market value instead of prosecuting them tacitly encourages cockfighting.

``The breeding and fighting are inseparable because you have to demonstrate your bird is a good fighter to get good value for it,'' Pacelle said.

The handful of Californians who advertise in cockfighting publications were unwilling to talk to the AP. The government withheld the names of all but commercial bird owners.

Bill Mattos, executive director of the California Poultry Federation, said he is not complaining about the discrepancy in compensation for commercial poultry and backyard birds.

``It certainly is an issue that maybe should be discussed, but we should be concentrating on getting rid of the disease. If we weren't paying them, we wouldn't be finding them in a lot of cases,'' Mattos said.

On the Net:

Agriculture Department's Exotic Newcastle Disease site:

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