Los Angeles - Horrified by reports from Asia of chickens being set on fire or buried alive in plastic bags, U.S. animal welfare groups are gearing up with trepidation for the arrival of bird flu and the probability of mass killings to contain it.
Animal rights activists have campaigned for years against the cramped conditions for billions of chickens, turkeys and ducks on U.S. factory farms. Now, as experts suspect the deadly H5N1 virus could find its way from Asia to Alaska this summer, they are lobbying the food industry and U.S. state veterinarians to conduct the expected slaughter of millions of poultry humanely.
Americans who keep small backyard flocks are also desperate to ensure their chickens and ducks will not be swept away in the general hysteria.
"Suffocation, starvation, bludgeoning, bleeding and poisoning should be explicitly prohibited in your planning documents," says a letter being sent by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to officials in all 50 states. "We urge you to dictate in writing that only humane methods of killing are used," the PETA letter adds.
Some 200 million birds have been culled in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East since 2003 to limit the spread of the H5N1 avian virus which has killed more than 125 people.
Fire Fighting Foam
Although preventive vaccination has been used in some countries, notably the Netherlands, the National Chicken Council says it is impractical for the United States. National Chicken Council spokesman Richard Lobb said broiler birds live for only six weeks and two courses of vaccine are needed. The first course could be given when chickens are hatched "but the second dose would have to be applied on the farm where you can have 20,000 birds running around loose in a grow-out house and that would be quite a job," Lobb said.
Mass euthanasia and disposal training programs are being carried out around the United States. One method demonstrated in central California last month used fire-fighting foam that can smother thousands of birds in a few minutes, said Kim Sturla, who runs an animal sanctuary nearby.
Although reluctant to sanction slaughter at all, PETA and other welfare groups are urging the "controlled atmosphere killing" method, which uses a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen or argon. PETA has been in contact with the government's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which has pledged to act humanely. "We expect receptivity to the message to be high. But implementation will be the dicier proposition in the heat of the moment, which is why we want to insist that humane protocols are communicated in advance," said Bruce Friedrich of PETA.
Other animal rights campaigners are not so sure. "You are looking at all kinds of resistance. The industry doesn't want to do anything that is going to cost a penny more than the cheapest method," said Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns. Davis said some groups are debating whether to push for a legislative package in the U.S. Congress on bird flu and animal welfare, including culling methods.
Fears for Backyard Chickens
Teri Barnato, director of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, said mass slaughter was "a tragic method of dealing with disease." "I think it is unfortunate that we have all grown accustomed to (the food industry) telling the public that this is how you deal with these outbreaks," she said.
Lobb of the National Chicken Council said animal activists opposed to culls had "no place in this discussion."
"They are not serious about the management of animals. We are going to do whatever we need to do. The only way to manage this type of situation is to destroy the infected flock. It's not appropriate to suggest you can get by without destroying some animals if there is an outbreak," Lobb said.
Barnato, who keeps chickens, ducks and geese at her California animal sanctuary, is worried about the possibility of being ordered to kill her own "companion birds."
"I am concerned that people will panic and target wild birds and companion birds out of fear for their safety when the chances of someone becoming infected is very remote.
"Someone would have to kill me first before I did that to any of my companion birds," Barnato said.
Kim Sturla, who runs the Animal Place sanctuary in northern California, was more sanguine. She said animal activists saw bird flu as an opportunity to raise awareness about the evils of factory farming. "If avian influenza comes and they are killing millions of birds, gassing them or foaming them or whatever they are going to do is no worse than what's done every single day to birds who are grabbed out of barns, taken to the slaughter line, shackled upside down and have their throats slit. Mass culls "may make a grisly story but at least their miserable lives are cut short," Sturla said.