Zoos Are Closing Bird Exhibits and Moving Birds Indoors as Precautionary Measures Against Avian Flu

As Highly Pathogenic Avian Flu (HPAI) rapidly spreads across more than 30 states, infecting commercial and backyard flocks along with wild birds, zoos are racing against time to protect their own birds from the deadly virus.

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The H5N1 HPAI strain was first detected in January of this year in a wild American wigeon in Colleton County, South Carolina, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). A few days later, there were two more additional findings — one in Colleton County, South Carolina, and one in Hyde County, North Carolina.

Then, in February, the USDA confirmed HPAI H5 infection in a commercial turkey flock in Dubois County in Indiana.

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Since then, more than 24 million birds have died from this particular HPAI strain, mostly chickens and turkeys.

Zoos are compelled to take urgent precautionary measures to protect their birds, which can be easily infected by wild birds, humans, or new birds introduced to avian facilities.

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“This strain of the disease is highly contagious and lethal to birds,” said the The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore on its website. “As a precautionary measure, we have closed our aviaries and moved several of our bird species to behind-the-scenes facilities with limited human contact until the threat of avian influenza has subsided.”

Zoos in Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin have followed suit by closing outdoor bird exhibits and keeping their birds indoors.

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“By bringing these animals indoors, we can more closely monitor them and prevent contact with wild birds who may be carriers of HPAI,” said Dr. Ann Duncan, who heads animal health at Detroit Zoological Society.

A Zoo and Aquarium All Hazards Partnership program has also been established by The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Strict quarantine protocols, placing tarps or nets around bird exhibits, and restricting public access to walk-through aviaries are among the preventative measures that are being taken.

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“Facilities are going to be in full response mode to protect their birds for at least the next couple of months until transmission decreases,” Rob Vernon, AZA’s senior vice president for communications and strategy, told CNN in a statement.

While the health risk that H5N1 HPAI virus poses is low for humans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still cautions the public against exposure to infected birds.

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There have been isolated cases of respiratory illnesses and human deaths in Asia and Africa due to this virus strain. Human infection occurred under the following conditions:

  • direct physical contact with infected birds
  • direct physical contact with contaminated surfaces
  • being in close proximity (within 6 feet) of infected birds
  • paying a visit to a live poultry market

In addition, the CDC informs the public that eating well cooked poultry meat does not cause avian flu infection.

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