updated 5/28/2004 2:22:42 PM ET 2004-05-28T18:22:42

A Bush administration official is backing legislation that would strengthen federal penalties for cockfighting and ban interstate sale of equipment used in the blood sport.

The legislation, now pending in Congress, would increase penalties for holding animal fights to a felony.

In a letter sent this week to Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, U.S Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said, "We believe that tougher penalties and prosecution will help to deter illegal movement of birds as well as the inhumane practice of cockfighting itself."

Bills have been introduced in Congress and in the U.S. Senate to increase the penalty from one year in prison to two years for transporting a bird across state lines or sending one overseas to engage in cockfighting, the Tulsa World and The Oklahoman reported from their Washington bureaus.

The bills would also make it illegal to sell, buy, transport or deliver in interstate or foreign commerce a knife, gaff or other sharp instrument used in a bird-fighting venture.

In Oklahoma, the House of Representatives on Thursday killed a proposal that would have asked voters to lessen the penalties for cockfighting, making it a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

In 2002, Oklahoma voters passed a ban on cockfighting. Cockfighting is legal in New Mexico and Louisiana.

Veneman said in addition to strengthening current laws against the "inhumane practice of animal fighting," the bill would help to safeguard the health of the poultry industry against deadly diseases.

"As you know, fighting birds have been implicated in the introduction and spread of exotic Newcastle disease in California," she stated in the letter, citing the millions spent in fighting that disease.

"Many birds used in illegal fighting are smuggled into the United States or across state lines, thereby avoiding inspections and certifications by state or federal veterinarians verifying whether they are disease-free."

Tougher penalties, Veneman said, would help deter such illegal movement of birds as well as the practice of cockfighting.

Wayne Pacelle, with the Humane Society, said Thursday, "Animal fighting is a barbaric and gruesome practice that deserves no safe harbor in the United States. We hope the administration's strong endorsement will help push the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act over the finish line."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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