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Industry looking for 'humane' way to slay thousands

To contain a possible bird flu outbreak, researchers seek the quickest methods of euthanasia that pose the least risk to people.

August 26, 2007|Jeff Donn | Associated Press

MOUNT PLEASANT MILLS, PA. — His eyes scan 5,000 ducks quacking and pacing across a barn longer than a football field. Jim Skinner knows exactly what he most fears.

Back in November, one of his flocks caught bird flu. He had to kill 2,500 ducks to block any spread, gassing them with carbon dioxide or simply breaking necks by hand.

"It's the most horrible experience I've ever been through," he says. He also lost $90,000 in business and came "this close" -- his fingers form a pincer -- to going under.

And now he spies them: ducks sprawled lifeless in the dirt, nine in all. "Boy, oh boy, we got a problem!" he says.

But this time, as he lays the contorted bodies in a corner, it becomes clear that dehydration probably killed them. For some reason, the ducks didn't walk up a ramp for water. Relieved, Skinner declares, "It's not disease!"

This time, there will be no mass killing.

Under industry and government rules, flocks infected with the strongest strains of bird flu are put to death as quickly as possible. That's because if the disease spreads, it imperils both farms and foods they raise. Some strains also can sicken and kill people.

An earlier flu killed perhaps 40 million people worldwide during the 1918-1919 pandemic of Spanish flu. The most-feared virus today, known as H5N1, has never reached U.S. shores and has killed fewer than 200 people, mostly in Asia.

But mutations could let it pass more easily between people, unless its avian carriers are destroyed before it reaches that stage. More than 23 million fowl have been exterminated in U.S. outbreaks since the early 1980s.

The industry prefers the term "depopulate," but no euphemism softens the raw reality of putting down birds by the tens of thousands. This may be done by electrocuting, gassing or chopping under international standards.

Yet, in a virulent outbreak, even these may be too slow and spare too many.

So representatives of industry, academia and government have sought another way.

For three years, they've investigated the fastest, cheapest and, they say, most humane way to dispatch birds en masse. After debating and field-testing, they say they've found an answer in an unlikely place.

The new poultry-killing instrument of choice is foam.

These soapy air bubbles, adapted from what firefighters use to smother blazes, can smother birds within several minutes, with minimal contact between workers and infection. Supporters say this method saves precious hours and costly labor.

The problem is that some consider it less humane than gassing. Carbon dioxide at least knocks birds unconscious before it poisons them, its advocates say.

Foam simply fills their windpipes and strangles them. "You might as well drop them in a bucket of water," fumes Dr. Mohan Raj, a British veterinarian at the University of Bristol who specializes in animal welfare during disease control.

So, what to do? The question is especially pressing in places like central Pennsylvania.

Here, plain-living farmers often of Amish or Mennonite stock tend ubiquitous poultry houses as long as airplane hangars. Almost 140 farms annually raise 50 million chickens for one company alone. Single barns may teem with 40,000 fowl, an inviting target for a virus that can travel from bird to bird in their own droppings.

The people of these rolling green lands are accustomed to living close to death. Three commercial plants keep busy plucking, skinning, and carving chicken in Fredericksburg, a simple brick village lined with banners displaying its unofficial logo, a chicken. Farmers Pride, the largest local company, promotes "humane" treatment of its Bell & Evans brand chickens, but owner Scott Sechler once had to gas more than 100,000 to stop flu.

He recoils at the thought, though, and has visited farms elsewhere in the hope of finding better techniques. "I'm still on the search," he says. "I haven't seen anywhere in the world where they can put chickens to sleep without a struggle."

The American industry realized it needed something better when the powerful H5N1 virus first began spreading across Southeast Asia in early 2004, while a weaker bird flu turned up in flocks in Delaware and Maryland. More than 400,000 chickens had to be put down in those two states.

At one poultry house, Michael T. Scuse, Delaware's secretary of agriculture, watched as almost two dozen workers laid out big plastic sheets, covered up birds, and opened valves on carbon dioxide tanks. It took hours to finish.

"The one thing that struck me is how long it took to do it, how cumbersome the process was, and the manpower needs," Scuse recalls.

Sometimes the process slows when willing workers are hard to find, even with the use of protective suits and respirators. "Some people in the industry were saying, 'Wait a minute. I'm not going to go in there!'" acknowledges Bill Satterfield, who runs the Delaware-based Delmarva Poultry Industry trade group.

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