A state senator and two animal rights groups are calling on federal officials to take action against East Tennessee breeders they allege are shipping birds to Guam for cockfighting.
While cockfighting is a felony in 42 states, it is not in Tennessee and remains an industry that is "persistent on a shockingly large scale," according to officials from Animal Wellness Action and the Animal Wellness Foundation.
The organizations released a report Thursday stating that breeders in East Tennessee shipped 148 fighting birds to Guam from November 2016 to September 2019. Tennessee ranks No. 6 in the United States for number of birds exported to the country, they said.
State Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, joined the virtual press conference Thursday on the issue.
"It's much more than just a couple of birds fighting," he said. "This is a very, very violent activity ... as a legislator ... I am disappointed in the findings."
The groups wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney J. Douglas Overbey for the Eastern District of Tennessee urging him to investigate three breeders — two from Athens and one from Manchester. The Times Free Press has chosen not to name the breeders because they have not been charged with a crime.
"We have a simple request: work with the U.S.Dept. of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and other federal law enforcement agencies as necessary and investigate and take appropriate legal action against these individuals," the letter states.
Rachelle Barnes, public information officer for the U.S Attorney in East Tennessee, said the office received a phone call Thursday asking for its mailing address, but otherwise had no information about the groups' demands.
Many of the birds are outfitted with knives before fighting begins and drugs are often bought and sold at the cockfights, Sen. Lundberg said.
Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, said many diseases that afflict human beings start in animals and jump the species barrier, which is called zoonotic transmission.
For example, COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease thought to have originated in Chinese horseshoe bats before spreading to humans, possibly with a stop in a different animal in-between. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 was caused by an influenza virus with genes of avian origin, and the world's last flu pandemic — the H1N1 swine flu pandemic of 2009 — began when a virus jumped from pigs to humans.
Dangerous interactions with animals, like cockfighting, increases the possibility of zoonotic transmission, Pacelle said. That's because, depending on how the disease is transmitted, people can get infected with germs that can cause zoonotic diseases if they come into contact with saliva, blood, feces or other bodily fluid from an infected animal. Other zoonotic diseases are transmitted through a "vector," such as a mosquito.
"You cannot imagine an activity from a human behavioral perspective that is more dangerous in terms of the spread of animal zoonotic diseases," Pacelle said.
Many fighters handle the birds while they are bleeding and even attempt mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the groups said.
"If a bird is stabbed in the lungs or some other part of the respiratory system, some of the cockfighters will literally put their mouth over the bird's mouth and suck the fluids that are filling the passageway of the birds in order to give them a little bit of new life, because they are gambling on the outcome," Pacelle said.
Cockfighting is also a global industry and disease transmission can happen with global transport of the fowls, the groups said.
"This is an activity where animals are being illegally shipped from the United States to all over the world," Pacelle said. "... You have the pathway of transportation to spread this rapidly all over the world."
Contact Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.