Zoo hides birds as bird flu spreads in North America

OMAHA, NEB. Zoos across North America are moving their birds indoors, away from humans and wildlife as they try to protect them from the highly contagious and potentially deadly bird flu .

Penguins may be the only birds that visitors to many zoos can see right now, because they’ve been housed inside and are often protected behind glass in their exhibits, prompting flu outbreaks. It is harder for poultry to reach them.

Nearly 23 million chickens and turkeys have been killed across the United States to limit the spread of the virus, and zoos are working to prevent any of their birds from experiencing a similar fate. It is especially frustrating for zoos to have to kill any endangered or threatened species in their care.

“It would be absolutely devastating,” said Maria Franke, welfare science manager at the Toronto Zoo, which has fewer than two dozen Loggerhead Shrike songbirds. said. “We take great care and the welfare and health of our animals is of paramount importance. There are many staff members who have a close relationship with the animals they care for here at the zoo. .”

Toronto Zoo workers are adding shelters to some outdoor bird exhibits and double-checking the netting around the enclosures to make sure it will keep wild birds out.

Birds shed the virus through their feces and nasal secretions.

Experts say it can be spread through contaminated equipment, clothing, boots and vehicles carrying supplies. Research has shown that small birds crammed into zoo exhibits or buildings can also spread the flu, and rats can even track it inside.

To date, no outbreaks have been reported at zoos, but wild birds have been found to have died from the flu. For example, a wild duck that died in the backstage area of ​​Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa, after tornadoes last month tested positive, zoo spokesman Ryan Bickel said.

Most of the steps zoos are taking are designed to prevent contact between wild birds and zoo animals. In some places, officials require employees to change into clean boots and wear protective gear before entering bird areas.

When avian flu cases were discovered in poultry, officials ordered the killing of entire flocks because the virus was highly contagious. However, the US Department of Agriculture has shown that zoos can avoid that by isolating infected birds and possibly killing a small number of them.

Sarah Woodhouse, director of animal health at the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, said she was optimistic after speaking with federal and state regulators.

“All agreed that ordering us to sell a large portion of our collection would be an absolute last resort. So they were really interested in working with us to see them. What can I do to make sure we won’t say Woodhouse.

Among the precautions zoos are taking is confining birds into smaller groups so that if a case is detected, only a few are affected. The USDA and state veterinarians will make the final decision on which birds should be killed.

“Euthanasia is really the only way to stop it from spreading,” said Luis Padilla, vice president of animal collections at Saint Louis Zoo. “That’s why we have so many of these very proactive measures in place.”

The National Aviary in Pittsburgh – the nation’s largest — is doing individual health checks on each of its approximately 500 birds. Dr Pilar Fish, senior director of veterinary and zoology at the aviary, said many birds lived in large glass enclosures or outdoor habitats where they had no direct contact with wildlife. .

Kansas City Zoo CEO Sean Putney said he’s heard a few complaints from visitors, but most people seem to agree with not getting to see certain species of birds. “I think our guests understand that we always have the animals’ best interests in mind when we make this decision even though they can’t come see them,” Putney said.

Officials stressed that avian influenza does not jeopardize the safety of meat or eggs or pose a significant risk to human health. No infected poultry is allowed into the food supply, and proper cooking of poultry and eggs kills bacteria and viruses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no human cases have been detected in the US.

Associated Press writers David Pitt contributed to this report from Des Moines, Iowa, Lindsay Whitehurst contributed from Salt Lake City, Julie Watson contributed from San Diego, Chris Grygiel contributed from Seattle and Tom Tait contributed from Las Vegas.

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