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Bird Kingdom owner and manager Marilyn Vann isn’t gambling with the health of hundreds of birds at the Niagara Falls attraction.
“We would never take any risk. … The staff just wouldn’t stand for it,” she said.
While two outbreaks of the highly contagious H5N1 have been reported on poultry farms in Southern Ontario in the past week — including an outbreak on a farm in West Lincoln on Tuesday and an outbreak on a farm in Chatham on Friday — led to the closure of the aviary. Toronto Zoo exhibits, Vann said her business will remain open.
“We think the risk is quite low, but that doesn’t mean we’re not keeping a close eye on things,” she said. “If anything changes, we will do what is necessary for the safety of the birds.”
She said the company has implemented protocols to protect the 75 bird species in its fully enclosed indoor facility on River Road after avian flu outbreaks were reported in Ontario nearly a year ago. Those protocols remained in force in the following months.
“We never stopped doing that,” she said, referring to procedures such as using footbaths with hospital-strength disinfectant to kill any pathogens that might be catching a lift on visitors’ shoes, and strict cleaning and disinfection policies.
“We just kept it up since last year. It was just a precaution.”
Vann said Bird Kingdom’s feathered residents also don’t come into contact with wild birds that can carry the disease.
Poultry farmers are also vigilant.
Niagara Federation of Agriculture (NFA) president Chris Mullet Koop said the West Lincoln outbreak was too close for many farmers in the region — whether or not they live within the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s 10 km “primary control zone.” (CFIA) fall. around the farm where the contamination was reported.
Although the 20,000 or so birds his family has on their egg farm in Jordan are outside of that 10 km buffer zone, “I feel way too close anyway,” Mullet Koop said.
“Everyone kind of considers themselves in the zone when it’s in the county.”
While regulations to prevent the spread of infections outside the zone may not apply, he said there is still “a heightened awareness and caution” among poultry and egg farmers.
“It’s everyone’s first priority.”
And Mullet Koop is one of many poultry farmers implementing protocols to prevent the spread of infection, including limiting access to his farm and following recommendations from the Feather Board Command Center and CFIA.
“We do what we can,” he said.
NFA Vice President and West Lincoln Regional Councilman Albert Witteveen said that while farmers routinely take steps to keep their birds healthy, the outbreak in West Lincoln has made them “highly alert to biosecurity.”
Outbreaks of bird flu, also called highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), occur annually, usually in the spring when migratory birds — mainly waterfowl — return from the south and sometimes carry the infection with them, said Witteveen, a former poultry farmer who still works freelance in the industry.
“This is the season when everyone is paying attention, everyone is watching the herds — usually in March, April and May, they’re watching closely,” he said.
Mullet Koop agreed.
“Everyone knows it’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of when. We’re prepared for it, but of course there’s a hope that it just passes,” he said.
However, he said the season in which H5N1 reigns “appears to be expanding”.
“It seems like a six-month period, if not more, and sometimes, like last year, it extends into the early summer months, and then it kicks in at the end of summer. It may not be so critical in those moments, but it’s already there,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said a vaccine for H5N1 remains in development and he hopes it will be available in three to five years, “but three to five years is an eternity right now… for us commercial farmers.”
“Today I have 20,000 birds on my farm that are healthy and alive, and we are doing our best to keep the biosecurity protocol at its peak,” he said.
Those biosecurity protocols can also help protect people from infection, which may be rare.
Following a recent bird flu outbreak, Niagara Region Public Health said transmission of the virus from birds to humans usually occurs through prolonged, close contact with live or dead infected birds or their droppings.
When bird flu is diagnosed in birds, public health contacts anyone who may have had close contact with those birds to assess their risk and advise on next steps.
Public health advises anyone who may have been in contact with potentially infected birds to check themselves for symptoms, such as fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches or vomiting, and diarrhea. If symptoms appear, see a health care professional and get tested for avian flu.