As bird flu spreads, zoos worry about birds

Published 9:00 am Sunday, April 26, 2015

By Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio News

The spread of avian influenza has stirred alarm in Minnesota’s poultry industry, but turkeys and chickens aren’t the only birds people across the state are worrying about.

Minnesota’s zoos also have started to take steps to protect their birds — from flamingos, toucans and puffins to all kinds of other birds — many of which live indoors.

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The people who run the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley and those responsible for the Como Zoo and the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center in St. Paul are watching the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza carefully — even though it’s unclear what risk the flu might pose.

Como Zoo spokesman Matt Reinartz said the same migrating waterfowl suspected of spreading the disease in turkey farms also stop at the zoo in St. Paul.

“The Chilean and Caribbean flamingos that we have here, they’re less susceptible to (avian flu),” Reinartz said. “But our plans are to wait for the heaviest migration to pass before we fill the bird exhibit with water and bring the flamingos out.”

The Como Zoo also has puffins and penguins, but they’re kept inside and are less susceptible to exposure. Still, the zoo is testing any dead wild birds found on the grounds for avian flu.

At the Minnesota Zoo, the bird show is one of the main attractions.

“We’re very concerned because these birds are trained,” said Kevin Willis, vice president for biological programs at the Minnesota Zoo. “They’re not easily replaced.”

Willis said exposure to disease isn’t just a theoretical concern.

“It is a risk for us to put them out. Also, a lot of birds like to bask in the sun and it’s good for their feather quality,” he said. “So weathering birds outside is part of our normal procedures and that is also putting them at risk. Because if the virus is in the waterfowl that are in the main lake, they are right next to our bird show.”

The show is enclosed by netting, but that doesn’t mean that goose or duck droppings can’t get in. So bird handlers are taking extra precautions to make sure the food for the birds doesn’t touch the ground.

Wild birds routinely are in the zoo. Turkeys wander the grounds and eat at the zoo’s feeders. Geese land in the animal enclosures — and a tiger killed one a couple days ago.

Willis said zoo personnel are trying to be extra careful to limit the possibility of cross contamination between the enclosures. But he said it isn’t practical to seal off the zoo’s birds, including the exotic birds held indoors.

“It is possible that guests that walk through the parking lot, and there’s plenty of geese on site, so they might step in fecal material,” Willis said. “And they could end up carrying that on their shoes right through the aviary where one of our animals could pick it up. It would be quite a drastic measure to limit the public’s access to the building, because the Tropics Trail walks right through the aviary. There’s no way to avoid it.”

Zoo and animal experts said the best they can do is keep a sharp eye out for any signs of the disease.

With that in mind, the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota is focusing on making sure volunteers who keep the place going know what to do. Raptors are susceptible to the virus.

“We have a lot of people who love to be outdoors, love to go birdwatching,” said Executive Director Julia Ponder, a veterinarian. “And we communicate that we’d like them to change clothes before they come here, and just be really aware of not moving the organic physical material between the two areas.”