Donna Heilman, manager of Birdland in North Park, takes no chances when it comes to protecting her store full of birds, from $5 finches to $10,000 macaws, which can live over 70 years. "We have chains up at the door of the store," she says, "to stop everybody that comes to the door. They have to soak their shoe soles in bleach water and completely disinfect their hands, arms, and clothing before they even come into the store. And we are making sure that the store is kept completely disinfected. We go through it five times a day, cleaning it, bleaching it."
A recent outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease, a viral infection fatal to birds, though harmless to humans, is causing Heilman and bird hobbyists to take these extraordinary measures. The outbreak occurred last October on a handful of poultry ranches around Ramona and Valley Center, and immediately a government task force was formed to address the problem. "The task force," says Jamul parrot breeder Marty Muschinske, "is a cobbled-together bureaucracy between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, specifically the animal-health branches of both departments. In general, [the federal agency] is the head of the dog and the [state] is the tail. And while it is an awkward and often contradictory arrangement, it works to suppress the disease."
During past outbreaks, suppression of exotic Newcastle was a fairly simple process. "The disease," Muschinske adds, "was first found in the 1920s and '30s in Newcastle, England. There was no treatment so they approached it much as they did hoof-and-mouth disease and other diseases at the time; they just killed everything. The thinking was: you kill the host, you kill the disease. And in that period of time, that was an effective means of killing the disease."
During the last San Diego County outbreak, in the '70s, the Department of Agriculture task force made no distinction between poultry ranching, where the disease is usually found, and pet bird owners. "They came to my door," Cookie Ivester, a local parrot owner, recalls, "and they asked me if I had birds and I said 'No.' But my macaw started screaming, and I had a bird shirt on." Ivester chuckles with the memory. "But I wouldn't let them in. I said, 'I have a big picture window. You can go around and stand outside of it, and I will bring each one of my birds to the window, and you can look at them and see that they are healthy, but other than that, you don't come in my house.' So I did that for them. I decided to accommodate them as much as I could. But here they are going around to people's houses where there could be a bird that has it, and then they want to bring it to my bird? I don't think so."
Other bird hobbyists weren't as lucky during the '70s outbreak. "I remember my girlfriend called me," Ivester says, "and she said, 'They are outside killing my bird right now.' And the bird didn't have it. But she had bought it from a place where the disease had been detected."
After the October outbreak, Ivester again had a run-in with the task force. "My African grays were in Ramona when the outbreak came, and someone called the task force and told them my birds had Newcastle, that there were dead birds lying all over. So they came out and they quarantined us. But the good thing about it is that they swabbed all of our birds -- they tested them -- and they came back fine."
"I happened to live in Rainbow [during] the '70s [outbreak]," explained Muschinske, "and in that period of time, they were actually killing birds wholesale. There was a bird farm in Rainbow that was totally depopulated; and that might be an acceptable solution for a poultry farmer. He gets compensated if the bird is put down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So it is a net wash as far as they are concerned. They get a fair-market price for the bird, and it is an expedient way of dealing with the disease. But the American Federation of Aviculture, whom I represent, had to go to court to stop [the Department of Agriculture] from implementing these broad-brush strategies for killing birds. We have had a number of policy changes implemented by virtue of the fact that we are a national organization and we do represent a lot of bird people, aviculturists."
When the disease broke out again last fall, Muschinske says, "We were concerned that the broad-brush application of 'kill them all and let God sort them out' kind of approach was going to be implemented. And that is how I got involved, because people were afraid that their birds would be killed. In most cases, parrots are cherished members of the family. Many are owned by women who treat their birds better than they do their husbands. I think I am not speaking out of turn when I say that most bird people -- and since I am a bird person I can say this -- we are a little wacko. We develop very strong feelings for our birds; they are more than just objects that happen to be there. You develop a very strong relationship and appreciation for their intelligence and their essence. Really, they do become like family members."
Possibly because of the legal pressure brought to bear in the 1970s, the Department of Agriculture task force worked with the American Federation of Aviculture to develop a protocol for handling last fall's outbreak. "In the last few months," Muschinske says, "we have been able to develop a fairly strong line of communication with [them], and we've gotten them to develop ways to control and eliminate the disease, without creating unnecessary hardship for people who have birds other than chickens. At least we were able to get the respective departments to understand that you really don't have to kill everything. You can take a more moderate approach, and we have been able to get those kinds of concessions that otherwise would have never developed.
"As it stands now," Muschinske continues, "their procedures are: they go out, survey all the properties in the immediate area, identifying everything within a kilometer, more or less, as being in the quarantined zone. Sometimes they increase it, and then they let everybody know that nothing can be let out of that quarantine zone. No birds can be moved out, nor the bird-related things, such as cages or equipment. And in the past, they have had the latitude to go out and kill everything within the radius. While that may be true in some circumstances today, in general, that practice would be restricted only to those birds that have been exposed and that are not what you would normally call 'companion birds.' "
So far, there have been no known cases of pet birds being infected with the disease. And owners of the birds are taking extraordinary precautions. "It's called biosecurity," Ivester explains. "Don't take your birds anywhere, don't let anybody come over that has birds, unless you know them and know their birds are healthy. And don't let anybody handle your birds right now; you just don't do it."
Ivester also disinfects her own hands and feet before handling the birds.
"We're recommending," Heilman says, "that if the birds are outside, that their aviaries and cages should be completely roofed or tarped. Because wild birds -- sparrows and pigeons -- can easily fly onto the chicken farm and then fly to the cage and, through their droppings, can infect the other birds. And normally, people that have pet birds like to take them to the beach on the weekends, or camping, or to the desert. We are telling them not to do that until this is over with."