Cockfighters spread worst U.S. outbreak of Newcastle since 1971: 3 million birds killed
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2003:
SAN DIEGO–Cockfighters are blamed for the worst outbreak of
Newcastle disease to hit the U.S. in 30 years. Agriculture officials
had ordered the killing of more than three million chickens on 20
California ranches through March 19, in futile efforts to contain
the spread of Newcastle. Other cases were reported on the Colorado
River Indian Reservation in Arizona, and were suspected in a
backyard flock near Goodyear, Arizona.
More than 12 million chickens and other poultry were killed
to control the worst-ever U.S. Newcastle outbreak, discovered in
California in 1971 but eventually afflicting most states with
significant poultry industries. That outbreak, costing poulry
producers and taxpayers $56 million, arrived with wild-caught
The international traffic in wild-caught birds was at that
time virtually without legal restraint. The Newcastle outbreak was
instrumental in convincing animal use industries to accept the
longtime recommendation of animal welfare groups that the wild-caught
bird traffic should be controlled or eliminated.
Animal advocates including the late Animal Welfare Institute
founder Christine Stevens had warned that poorly monitored bird
imports could trigger such an epidemic since 1950, when the first
known U.S. Newcastle outbreak came from Asia with exotic pheasants
who were bred for shooting preserves.
Experts suspect that the present Newcastle outbreak may
become the hardest yet to contain. The cost of the outbreak exceeded
$35 million by the end of February, with no end clearly in sight.
More than six million laying hens are kept in Riverside and San
Bernardino counties in California, in proximity to the majority of
the detected cases.
The first cases known to agricultural health officials appeared among
backyard flocks of chickens around Los Angeles in September 2002.
Because the flocks were widely separated, included free-roaming
birds, and had apparently already been afflicted for some time,
investigators realized almost immediately that this round of
Newcastle might already have spread far beyond anywhere that anyone
might have recognized it.
“We have seized sick birds at several cockfights,” Merced
County Sheriff’s Department detective Frank Swiggart noted– but how
many birds had what disease, from where, was largely guesswork.
“Fighting birds are moved around without regard to
quarantines. They don’t go to veterinarians. They are not
vaccinated,” California Poultry Federation president Bill Mattos
told the Modesto Bee.
In a February 11 posting to the ProMed online bulletin board
maintained by the International Society for Infectious Diseases,
Texas Department of Health regional zoonosis veterinarian James
Alexander, DVM, warned from past experience that trying to
eradicate Newcastle among gamecocks would be especially difficult.
“Certain segments of the population, especially those
engaged in an industry that is dependent on an illegal activity such
as cockfighting, will not comply with disease reporting because the
people do not perceive it to be in their self-interest,” Alexander
Alexander recalled that when he was with the Texas Animal
Health Commission in the mid-1980s, “A game bird owner/fighter sent
some birds to our poultry lab due to illness and death. When
infectious laryngotracheitis was diagnosed, TAHC destroyed the
remaining birds, eliminating the man’s line of game bird genetics
and an important source of income. The gist of his final comment was
that he would not make that mistake again.”
California Department of Food and Agriculture veterinarian
Richard Breitmeyer predicted that Newcastle would become endemic
among gamecocks and yard fowl.
Julia Allen, DVM, of Seattle, suggested from her
observation of the cockfighting subculture in Saipan, the
Philippines, that “continuing to pursue a traditional program of
detection and slaughter” to contain Newcastle among gamecocks “would
seem to be ignoring reality. I am opposed to cockfighting and do
think it should be eliminated,” Allen stipulated, but for the
purposes of disease control she urged “quarantine, limited
depletion, and intensified vaccination,” as also recommended by
Breitmeyer, to try to win at least some cooperation from illegal
Members of the California Exotic Newcastle Disease Task Force
swept southern California neighborhoods killing backyard poultry in
February and March, trying to stay ahead of scam artists, including
suspected cockfighters, who seized and removed live birds in some
cases, and in other cases charged residents to demolish chicken
coops and “sanitize” yards. The California Exotic Newcastle Disease
Task Force does not charge birdkeepers or property owners.
Bird fanciers protested against the massacres, to no avail.
Most animal shelters in the region quit accepting or keeping birds.
The killing exposed some of the daily realities of factory
farming to public view in mid-February, after Lieutenant Mary Kay
Gagliardo of the San Diego County Department of Animal Services told
the San Diego Union-Tribune that workers at Ward Egg Ranch facilities
in Valley Center and Potrero allegedly threw as many as 100,000 live
hens into wood chippers.
“We’re trying to find out who is behind this. It’s clearly
animal cruelty,” Gagliardo said.
Ward Egg Ranch owner Bill Wilgen-burg admitted using chippers
to kill “about 15,000” chickens because quarantine rules did not
allow him to remove the birds for slaughter. Workers said that the
use of the chippers was approved by USDA veterinarians.
Mulching newly hatched chicks alive is in fact standard
procedure at egg factory farms throughout the U.S., and mulching
“spent hens” alive is not uncommon.
Animal control and humane officials throughout California
escalated efforts to suppress illegal cockbreeding, with mixed
Mendocino County district attorney Norman Vroman on February 26
refused to prosecute Crio Ruiz, 67, of Redwood Valley, because
Vroman said county major crimes task force commander Bob Nishiyama
raided Ruiz with an illegal warrant. Mendocino County Superior Court
Judge Richard Henderson had authorized the immediate killing of all
58 birds seized in the February 12 raid, but Vroman said California
law required keeping the birds alive pending conviction of their
Authorities in Napa seized 1,546 alleged gamecocks and an
unknown number of hens and younger cocks in a February 22 raid. The
flock turned out to be free of Newcastle. The birds were to be held
for a time pending identification of their owner, and were to be
killed if no owner could be found.
In Montebello, the Southeast Area Animal Control Authority
on February 22 found about 50 people and 150 gamecocks who had
allegedly been prepared for fighting, but were unable to remove the
evidence because of the Newcastle quarantine requirements. Therefore
the alleged cockfight participants could only be charged with
quarantine violations, SEACA Captain Aaron Reyes told Michael Del
Muro of the Whittier Daily News.
The March 4 seizure of 90 gamecocks and hens from Jesus Dimas
Leon, 69, and Gonzalos Pena, 57, in Santa Ana, was comparatively
small, but was described by police as the largest in local memory.
Bills addressing cockfighting were meanwhile before the
legislatures of 13 states.
In Oklahoma, where a November 2002 ballot initiative
outlawed cockfighting by a margin of 124,000 votes, the state senate
on March 10 passed a bill proposing a statewide referendum on whether
to lower the penalty for cockfighting from a felony to a misdemeanor.
The state house passed a similar bill on February 24.
The West Virginia senate on March 6 approved an amendment to
a state house bill that would keep cockfighting a misdemeanor. The
West Virginia House of Delegates had approved making arranging fights
among dogs, cats, cows, horses, and pigs a felony, but had
entirely exempted cockfighting from the anti-animal fighting
The Oregon house on March 13 passed a bill to criminalize
raising gamecocks and make cockfighting a felony, 46-9, but the
Oregon senate killed a similar bill in 2001 and was expected to kill
this one. Opponents of the bill argue that the illegality of
cockfighting is causing the spread of Newcastle, and that breeders
would comply with disease control regulations if they could not be
The New Mexico house passed a similar anti-cockfighting bill,
45-21, but the New Mexico senate killed a parallel bill earlier in
the spring legislative session.
The Maryland house unanimously passed a bill to criminalize
possession of cockfighting paraphernalia, use of premises for
cockfighting, and attending a cockfight.