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Activists at Timberwolves games protest avian influenza depopulation, but vets say it's the humane choice

The currently circulating strain of highly-pathogenic avian influenza spreads quickly, and depopulation is seen as the most humane method to make sure poultry suffer as little as possible and to keep the virus from spreading, said Minnesota State Veterinarian Beth Thompson.

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Because chickens are not "ground birds" like turkeys, water-based foam does not work as well for depopulation. Instead, Ventilation Shutdown+ is often the chosen method of depopulating a chicken population infected with highly pathogenic avian influenza.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek file photo
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On multiple occasions in recent weeks, an animal rights activist has staged protests at Minnesota Timberwolves games.

Wearing a shirt that read, “Glen Taylor roasts animals alive,” the activist was trying to bring attention to poultry depopulation due to avian influenza at farms owned by Taylor, who owns the Timberwolves.

A virulent strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI, was first identified in the U.S. in February in Indiana. Since then, more than 33 million domestic birds have died of or have 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 Minnesota, through April 25, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture . An HPAI strain in 2015 led to the deaths of more than 50 million birds.

The disease spreads quickly, and depopulation is seen as the most humane method to make sure poultry suffer as little as possible and to keep the virus from spreading and hurting more birds, said Minnesota State Veterinarian Beth Thompson. Thompson said officials follow the American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines for depopulation , which describe depopulation as “the rapid destruction of a population of animals in response to urgent circumstances with as much consideration given to the welfare of the animals as practicable.”

“We know this virus is going to kill poultry,” she said.

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One of Taylor’s businesses is Rembrandt Enterprises. Spirit Lake, Iowa-based Rembrandt labels itself a “leading global supplier” of eggs and egg products . While the USDA does not identify companies or individuals with confirmed cases of avian influenza, multiple news accounts have identified Rembrandt Enterprises as a site of a large-scale depopulation in Buena Vista County, Iowa.

News reports of that situation also talk about the use of VSD+, or “Ventilation Shutdown Plus.” Thompson explains that VSD+ is one of the approved methods for depopulation of poultry in certain circumstances. The “ventilation shutdown” part refers to shutting off the ventilation system, while the “plus” refers to the addition of either heat or carbon dioxide into the barn.

Thompson said VSD+ is a method of depopulation that is used in operations with chickens that may be in cages. Minnesota is the No. 1 state for turkey production, and Thompson said water-based foam is the most common depopulation method for turkeys. Foam works better for turkeys because they are ground-based birds that are not usually kept in cages, she explained.

The depopulation process

Thompson explained the avian influenza identification process in Minnesota. Flocks are tested when birds are being moved between barns and before slaughter, and suspected sick birds also are tested.

When samples come back as “not negative” for avian influenza at the Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory or the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, a flock is quarantined while testing is completed by USDA’s National Animal Health Laboratory Network. An emergency response team begins to plan for 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 those viruses cause deaths within the wild birds themselves, even if they could be deadly to poultry. This particular strain of avian influenza, she said, has been shown to be highly deadly even within wild birds, which means it is even deadlier to domestic birds.

Infected birds will show a decrease in feed and water consumption and become less active, she said. Barns with infections become abnormally quiet while the birds begin suffering from a combination of respiratory and neurological symptoms. She explained that the disease progresses so quickly that necropsies of diseased animals show that they still have feed in their systems at the time of death.

“We’ve had a handful of cases where the farmer and the worker haven’t even noticed that the birds were sick (when a sample came back as not negative),” Thompson said. But in those cases, birds will start to die within 24 to 48 hours.

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In pets, veterinarians and owners go through a long process to determine that euthanasia is the humane option for an older pet that is suffering.

“We call it a ‘good death,’” Thompson said.

Depopulation, however, cannot be a long process, because it needs to move fast to lessen the chances of spread.

The AVMA guidelines say VSD is justified when other depopulation methods are not available or not available in a timely manner and “the amplification of the virus on the premises poses a significant threat for further transmission and ongoing spread of HPAI.”

“A primary goal in the case of an outbreak of HPAI (or other highly contagious pathogen) is to stop the spread of the virus as quickly as possible to reduce further bird suffering and economic losses and, in the case of a zoonotic agent, minimize the threat to human health,” the guidelines say. “However, the most compelling reason to use VSD when all other methods have been ruled out is that, when done properly, it provides a quicker death, hence eliminating the chance for the birds to die over a longer period of time from distressing and devastating disease.”

Because avian influenza is a foreign animal disease, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service takes the lead on and pays the costs of depopulation and disposal, as well as cleaning and disinfecting facilities, Thompson said.

USDA pays an indemnity for birds that must be killed, as well as some other losses, such as eggs that have to be destroyed. However, the USDA says those payments, as well as covering the cost of removing the virus from the premise, do not make up for all losses incurred by producers.

“While the cost of HPAI goes well beyond the value of destroyed flocks and cleanup work, our ability to pay indemnity is limited by specific terms in the Animal Health Protection Act. For example, we cannot offer indemnity for income or production losses during downtime or other business disruptions due to HPAI,” a USDA fact sheet on the indemnity and compensation process says.

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Thompson said it is important for the public to remember that whether the flock in question is a large commercial operation or a small backyard flock, “there’s an individual or a family and a community that is tied to all of these,” and the stresses go beyond financial ones. The stresses extend from farms to others who work with the farms, including feed suppliers.

“We’ve got some farmers right now that are going through a lot of stress,” she said. “They raise these birds for a purpose.”

Jenny Schlecht is the editor of Agweek and Sugarbeet Grower Magazine. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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