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Avian flu outbreak is forcing North American zoos to hide birds from humans

OMAHA, Neb. — Zoos across North America are bringing their birds indoors and away from people and wildlife to protect them from the highly contagious and potentially fatal bird flu.

Penguins are perhaps the only birds visitors to many zoos can currently see because they are already kept indoors in their enclosures and are usually protected behind glass, making it difficult for avian flu to reach them.

Nearly 23 million chickens and turkeys have already been killed in the United States to stem the spread of the virus, and zoos are working hard to prevent any of their birds from suffering the same fate. Zoos would be particularly upset if they had to kill endangered or threatened species in their care.

“It would be extremely devastating,” said Maria Franke, the director of conservation science at the Toronto Zoo, which breeds fewer than two dozen loggerhead songbirds in hopes of reintroducing them into the wild. “We are very considerate and the welfare and welfare of our animals is of the utmost importance. There are many employees who have a close connection to the animals they care for here at the zoo.”

A sign alerts visitors to a closed bird exhibit at Blank Park Zoo.
A sign alerts visitors to a closed bird exhibit at Blank Park Zoo.
AP

Toronto Zoo staff are adding roofs to some outdoor bird enclosures and double-checking the mesh surrounding the enclosures to make sure they keep wild birds out.

Birds excrete the virus through their feces and nasal secretions. Experts say it can be spread through contaminated gear, clothing, boots, and vehicles with supplies. Research has shown that small birds crammed into zoo enclosures or buildings can also spread the flu, and mice can track it even inside.

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

Penguins are perhaps the only birds visitors to many zoos can currently see because they are already kept indoors in their enclosures and are usually protected behind glass, making it difficult for avian flu to reach them.
Penguins are perhaps the only birds visitors to many zoos can currently see because they are already kept indoors in their enclosures and are usually protected behind glass, making it difficult for avian flu to reach them.
AP

Most steps zoos are taking aim to prevent contact between wild birds and zoo animals. In some locations, officials require staff to put on clean boots and protective gear before entering bird areas.

When cases of bird flu are found in poultry, officials order the entire flock to be killed because the virus is so contagious. However, the US Department of Agriculture has indicated that zoos may be able to avoid this by isolating infected birds and possibly euthanizing a small number of them.

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

Chief Marketing Officer Ryan Bickel goes through a shoe sanitizer as he enters a building at Blank Park Zoo.
Chief Marketing Officer Ryan Bickel goes through a shoe sanitizer as he enters a building at Blank Park Zoo.
AP

“They all agree that ordering us to depopulate a large portion of our collection would be last resort. So they’re really interested in working with us to see what we can do to make sure we don’t spread the disease while also being able to take care of our birds and not having to euthanize them,” Woodhouse said.

One of the precautions zoos are taking is to keep birds in smaller groups so that if a fall occurs, only a few will be affected. The USDA and state veterinarians would make the final decision on which birds would need to be killed.

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

A Magellanic penguin rests in its enclosure at Blank Park Zoo.
A Magellanic penguin rests in its enclosure at Blank Park Zoo.
AP
A sign is posted at the Milwaukee County Zoo advising that the bird enclosures are closed to protect against bird flu.
A sign is posted at the Milwaukee County Zoo advising that the bird enclosures are closed to protect against bird flu.
AP

The National Aviary in Pittsburgh – the largest in the country – offers individual health checks for each of its approximately 500 birds. Many already live in large glass enclosures or outdoor habitats where they don’t have direct contact with wildlife, said Dr. Pilar Fish, Senior Director of Veterinary Medicine and Zoological Advancement of the Aviary.

Sean Putney, CEO of the Kansas City Zoo, said he’s heard some complaints from visitors, but most people seem okay with not seeing some birds. “I think our guests understand that we have the welfare of the animals in mind when we make these decisions, even if they can’t see them,” Putney said.

Officials stress that avian flu does not threaten the safety of meat or eggs or pose a significant risk to human health. Infected birds are not allowed to enter the food supply, and proper cooking of poultry and eggs kills bacteria and viruses. No human cases have been found in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

https://nypost.com/2022/04/06/avian-flu-outbreak-forces-north-american-zoos-to-hide-birds-away-from-people/ Avian flu outbreak is forcing North American zoos to hide birds from humans

JACLYN DIAZ

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