By LANCE GAY
Scripps Howard News Service
October 27, 2005
Illegal movements of birds have already caused disease outbreak here.
Roosters clandestinely smuggled from Mexico for illegal cockfighting events were blamed for a 2002 outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease in California, which eventually threatened commercial poultry flocks across the southeastern United States. And illegal imports of pet parrots and exotic caged birds have been blamed for other outbreaks of disease and parasites in the last half-century.
Federal officials say dealing with the black market in birds has taken added importance with governments around the world mapping plans to prevent avian flu strain H5N1 from spreading from Asia.
"We are genuinely concerned," said Ron DeHaven, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's animal and plant health inspection service.
DeHaven said his agency has alerted customs and border protection offices to the threat avian flu presents to the United States and has told border agents to ensure all birds coming from infected countries in Europe and Asia are kept out of the United States.
Nicholas Throckmorton, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said illegal smuggling of exotic birds ranks behind drug smuggling as a law enforcement concern. "It's big business," he said.
Several federal laws and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species restrict trade in live pet birds and prohibit the importation of some rare species. More than 330,000 live birds were imported legally into the United States last year, and all imported birds are required to go through 30-day quarantines to ensure they are disease-free.
Teresa Telecky, a consultant to the Humane Society of the United States, said there is still a significant illegal trade in live exotic birds that are illicitly imported from Asia and Africa and sold to Americans with no guarantees about their health. Federal agents say parrots and macaws are among the most lucrative of those traded illegally.
"Because it's illegal trade, we don't know the extent of it. But we used to say it's about a quarter of the legal trade," she said. Telecky favors a blanket ban on keeping live birds as pets. "People should not buy birds as pets when there is a health issue like this," she said.
Marshall Meyers, executive vice president of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, said he shares concerns about the illegal trade in birds, but he maintained black market bird trading isn't as widespread as some believe.
"Is there some? Sure. But I don't think it's anywhere near the guesstimates some have given," he said.
Meyers said prohibiting the legal trade in birds would have the perverse result of increasing illegal trading and increasing the price of birds that are traded. He said the latest estimates of the number of American households with pet birds vary from 6 million to 10 million, and the number of pet birds could be as high as 19 million.
Meyers said the pet industry is in the process of writing guidelines for responding to avian flu, if it comes to the United States.
John Goodwin, a Humane Society expert on cockfighting, said concerns about containing avian flu in the United States must also take into account the number of domestic game birds raised in backyard coops for cockfighting.
He noted the USDA last year conducted a survey indicating the number of game birds raised in backyards is much larger than previously estimated. "There are tens of thousands of these birds out there," Goodwin said, contending the high-stakes gambling that goes along with cockfighting have made raising birds for fighting a highly lucrative industry.
Goodwin said current misdemeanor penalties for interstate transportation of roosters for the purposes of fighting is insufficient for dealing with the problem, and the Humane Society is lobbying Congress to make the offense a felony. Goodwin said 32 states make involvement in cockfighting a felony.
Goodwin said the owners of the birds are already taking their roosters across borders to Mexico for fights. He said American roosters have also participated in World Slasher Cup cockfights in the Philippines, where cockfighting is legal, and he said it's clear that birds are being illegally shipped around the world in spite of government efforts to control the activities.
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