Apr 6, 2022 - Health

Zoos across America scramble to protect from bird flu outbreak

flamingos in the background at the LA Zoo

Flamingos at the Los Angeles Zoo on Feb. 16, 2021. Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images

Zoos across the country are taking precautions to protect their bird populations against a recent bird flu outbreak, with some even closing their bird exhibits to the public.

Why it matters: In less than two months, at least 24 states have reported bird flu cases and nearly 23 million birds have been killed to limit the spread of the virus, making this the worst bird flu outbreak since 2015, NPR reported.

When did the bird flu outbreak begin and how is it spreading?

The Department of Agriculture announced in January that it had detected a strain of the bird flu not seen in the U.S. since 2016 in a wild bird in South Carolina.

  • A USDA map of infections of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) among wild birds shows that cases are concentrated along the eastern coastline and the Midwest.
  • The bird flu typically spreads through the nasal discharge or droppings of wild birds, which can contaminate dust and soil.
  • However, it can also spread through contaminated equipment, vehicles, boots and clothing, AP reported.
  • While bird flu infections often prove deadly to birds, infections among people are rare.

Have been bird flu cases been detected in zoos?

No outbreaks of the bird flu have been detected in zoos yet, but dead wild birds found in or near zoos have been found to be infected.

  • A wild duck that entered a private area of the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa, was found to have the virus, per AP.
  • The Dallas Zoo announced via Facebook on Monday that it would be keeping many of its birds — including African penguins and flamingos — away from the public eye and closing certain areas of the zoo to the public, after cases of the bird flu were detected in Texas, within 100 miles of the zoo.

What happens if a case of bird flu is detected?

Preventing the spread of the infectious virus usually means culling entire flocks of birds once a case is detected.

  • Positive cases among commercial or barnyard bird populations have forced farmers across the country to kill roughly 23 million chickens and turkeys in order to limit spread.
  • Some zoos are splitting their bird populations up into smaller groups so that if an infection does occur, only a few would be affected, per AP.

What other precautions are zoos taking?

  • The National Aviary in Pittsburgh is conducting individual health checks on all of its birds, while the Toronto Zoo is reinforcing some outdoor exhibits with new roofs and double-checking enclosure structures to make sure wild birds can't get in, per AP.
  • Bird handlers at Blank Park Zoo in Iowa have taken to wearing hazmat suits and undergoing additional hygiene measures before approaching the birds, Axios Des Moines reported.
  • The Minnesota Zoo and the Como Park Zoo & Conservatory in St. Paul have instituted shoe and foot baths, among other measures, for employees handling the birds.
  • The Philadelphia and Columbus zoos have removed their birds from their public-facing exhibits as an additional precaution.
  • Late last month the Denver Zoo also decided to move its birds indoors for at least 28 days due to the risk posed to them by the virus.
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