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Chicken Disease Spreads Fear

County fairs, parrot fanciers are canceling bird-related events due to outbreak in poultry.

January 22, 2003|Nita Lelyveld | Times Staff Writer

The live poultry show has been canceled at next month's Riverside County Fair. The ever-popular ostrich races are a scratch too. And hundreds of California schoolchildren who have spent the last year raising chickens, ducks and geese for county fairs will have to demonstrate their fowl-handling skills using puppets.

Since a highly contagious and deadly bird virus hit Southern California in October, state and federal agencies have been forced to take extreme measures to contain the outbreak. Exotic Newcastle disease is so virulent that a speck on a shoe, a shirt or a feather can spread it. Southern California bird owners are so panicked that many won't visit a pet shop or feed store for fear that they'll carry the bug back to their broods.

The disease won't hurt humans, but it can kill chickens, cockatoos, cockatiels -- just about any bird.

So before heading to last week's meeting of the Antelope Valley Caged Bird Society, Suzi Eslick of Palmdale, who breeds birds and has 100, put on a painter's coverall she had purchased at Home Depot. She insisted that all club members wade in their shoes through a bath of disinfectant before entering the meeting hall.

"I don't even want anyone coming to my house," Eslick said. For her precious African grays, macaws and lovebirds, it's just too risky.

The San Gabriel Valley Parakeet Assn.'s members frequently bring their birds together in small parlor shows. The group is considering canceling its March event, said president John Miles, a champion exhibitor who has about 300 birds at his Glendale home.

"We're not talking pet shop birds. We're talking about birds that cost anywhere from $100 to $1,000 apiece," he said.

Because of the threat to the state's $3-billion poultry industry, birds in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties have been quarantined since December. This month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expanded the quarantine to include the nearby counties of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Imperial. Inspectors trying to contain the virus kill not just contaminated birds but also any that may have been exposed. Birds can't leave the quarantined areas.

As founder of the Parrot Education & Adoption Center in San Diego, Bonnie Kenk regularly rescues and finds homes for birds. The disease has halted such activities. She also travels around the area giving seminars on themes including avian "potty training" and "Sex and the Single Parrot." For a recent seminar on parrot anatomy she had planned to take along Ariel, a Moluccan cockatoo, as a model. Instead she got a friend to videotape her pointing at Ariel's parts -- no easy task because Ariel was fascinated by the camera.

"She kept flying right at it. It took a while," Kenk said.

Kenk said she would have to rework her other seminars too, so that her educational activities won't be disrupted now that the birds have to stay home.

She's not the only one.

Each year in California, hundreds of young people participate in poultry exhibits and competitions at dozens of fairs as members of 4-H programs or Future Farmers of America. State officials have been worried that the disease's various quarantines will disappoint the children, many of whom are 5 or 6 years old. They're also worried about teenagers, who can spend many months carefully feeding and tending their birds to prepare them for auctions and competition. Officials are scrambling to come up with alternatives so that no one will miss out on the educational experiences.

Bird Shows Banned

This month, the state banned bringing birds to shows in the eight quarantined counties. And the state also is urging the operators of the 80 state fairs to eliminate live birds from the 2003 season. "We want to make sure that the kids have time to be redirected to other projects," said Elizabeth Houser, director of the state agriculture department's fairs and expositions division.

Right after the first cases of the virus were found in Compton in October, the state closed down the Fur and Feathers building at the Big Fresno Fair. But fair officials rearranged the events so that 400 children wouldn't have their dreams crushed. Instead of bringing in their birds to auction them off, the children held up photographs, Houser said. They demonstrated their knowledge of poultry using a chicken made of felt.

It's going to be a familiar sight at county fairs this year.

Puppets Substituted

Puppets and dolls are less-than-ideal substitutes for real birds, but they're better than nothing, said Kristina Byrne, chairwoman of the small animal advisory committee for San Diego County's 4-H program.

At most fairs, young poultry show participants compete in showmanship events, where they show judges how they hold their birds and how well they can control them.

"They have to walk the birds the length of a table using a little pointer to guide them. It takes practice. A lot of times, birds will fly away, so that's points off," she said.

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