Timberwolves games activists protest bird flu depopulation, but vets say it’s human choice
On several occasions over the past few weeks, an animal rights activist has staged protests at Minnesota Timberwolves games.
Wearing a shirt that read ‘Glen Taylor is roasting live animals’, the activist was trying to draw attention to the depopulation of poultry due to bird flu on farms owned by Taylor, owner of the Timberwolves .
A virulent strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI, was first identified in the United States in February in Indiana. Since then, more than 33 million domestic birds have died or been killed to stop the spread of the disease nationwide, including more than 13.3 million in Iowa and more than 2.7 million in the Minnesota, until April 25, according to the US Department of Agriculture. A strain of HPAI in 2015 resulted in the death of over 50 million birds.
The disease spreads quickly and depopulation is considered the most humane method to ensure poultry suffer as little as possible and to prevent the virus from spreading and injuring more birds, said Beth Thompson, veterinarian at the state of Minnesota. Thompson said officials are following the American Veterinary Medical Association’s guidelines for depopulation, which describe depopulation as “the rapid destruction of an animal population in response to urgent circumstances with as much consideration as possible for animal welfare”.
“We know this virus is going to kill poultry,” she said.
One of Taylor’s businesses is Rembrandt Enterprises. Rembrandt, based in Spirit Lake, Iowa, calls itself a “leading global supplier” of eggs and egg products. Although the USDA does not identify companies or individuals with confirmed cases of bird flu, several press accounts have identified Rembrandt Enterprises as a large-scale depopulation site in Buena Vista County, Iowa.
Reports on this situation also talk about the use of VSD+, or “Ventilation Shutdown Plus”. Thompson explains that VSD+ is one of the approved methods for poultry depopulation under certain circumstances. The “stop ventilation” part refers to stopping the ventilation system, while the “plus” refers to adding heat or carbon dioxide to the barn.
Thompson said VSD+ is a depopulation method used in operations with chickens that may be in cages. Minnesota is the No. 1 state for producing turkeys, and Thompson said water-based foam is the most common depopulation method for turkeys. Foam works best for turkeys because they are floor birds that aren’t usually kept in cages, she explained.
Thompson explained the bird flu identification process in Minnesota. Flocks are tested when birds are moved between barns and before slaughter, and suspected sick birds are also tested.
When samples come back as “non-negative” for bird flu at the Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory or the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, a flock is quarantined while testing is done by the National Animal Health Laboratory Network from the USDA. An emergency response team begins to plan for a possible depopulation.
Depopulation is necessary, Thompson explained, because the virus is extremely contagious and deadly. Wild waterfowl often carry avian influenza viruses; however, few of these viruses cause fatalities in wild birds themselves, although they could be fatal to poultry. This particular strain of bird flu, she said, has been shown to be very deadly even in wild birds, which means it is even more deadly for domestic birds.
Infected birds will show decreased feed and water consumption and become less active, she said. Infected poultry houses become abnormally quiet as the birds begin to suffer from a combination of respiratory and neurological symptoms. She explained that the disease progresses so rapidly that autopsies of sick animals show they still have food in their system at the time of death.
“We’ve had a handful of cases where the farmer and worker didn’t even notice the birds were sick (when a sample came back as non-negative),” Thompson said. But in these cases, the birds will start dying within 24-48 hours.
In companion animals, veterinarians and owners go through a long process to determine that euthanasia is the humane option for an older animal in pain.
“We call it a ‘good death,'” Thompson said.
Depopulation, however, cannot be a long process, as it must move quickly to reduce the risk of spread.
The AVMA guidelines state that VSD is justified when other methods of depopulation are unavailable or not available in a timely manner and “amplification of virus at the scene poses a significant threat to onward transmission. and the continued spread of HPAI”.
“A primary objective in the event of an outbreak of HPAI (or other highly contagious pathogen) is to stop the spread of the virus as quickly as possible in order to reduce further bird suffering and economic and , in the case of a zoonotic agent, to minimize the threat to human health,” the guidelines state. “However, the most compelling reason for using VSD when all other methods have been ruled out is that when Done correctly, it provides a faster kill, eliminating the risk of birds dying over a longer period of distressing and devastating time. sickness.”
Because avian influenza is an exotic animal disease, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service takes the lead and pays for depopulation and disposal costs, as well as cleaning and disinfection facilities, Thompson said.
The USDA pays compensation for birds that must be killed, as well as certain other losses, such as eggs that must be destroyed. However, the USDA says these payments, in addition to covering the cost of removing the virus from the premises, do not compensate for all of the losses incurred by growers.
“While the cost of HPAI goes well beyond the value of herds destroyed and clean-up work, our ability to pay compensation is limited by specific conditions in the Animal Health Protection Act. For example, we cannot provide compensation for lost revenue or production during downtime or other business disruptions due to HPAI,” says a USDA fact sheet on the indemnification and compensation process.
Thompson said it’s important for the public to remember that whether the herd in question is a large commercial operation or a small backyard herd, “there is an individual or a family and a community that is tied to all this”, and the stress goes beyond the financial aspects. The constraints extend from farms to others who work with farms, including feed suppliers.
“We currently have farmers who are under a lot of stress,” she said. “They raise these birds for a purpose.”