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Bird Flu: A Bird's Eye View
Simon Jarvis

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You can hardly pick up a newspaper these days without reading something about avian influenza or bird flu. No wonder since the deadly strain, the one that affects people, H5N1 has recently appeared in several European countries as far west as Italy and Germany and has also now manifested in Nigeria. Accepting that the spread of the disease in the Far East is due largely to the poultry industry, much is being made of the role migrating birds have played in bringing it to the west.

However the only cases of H5N1 in Britain were discovered in Taiwanese mesias which are small colourful soft-billed parrots that share one characteristic with many popular tropical cage birds such as zebra finches, parrots and the like in that they are essentially non-migratory. It is believed that they were originally smuggled out of China, legitimised in Taiwan and only British quarantine stopped them getting into the pet shops.

All the human deaths attributed to bird flu so far have been associated with the poultry industry. Graham Wynne chief executive of the RSPB points out, however, that the RSPB know more about the movement of wild birds than any government knows about the movements of poultry. And its beginning to look as though the close proximity of people with poultry and birds sold as pets might be presenting a peril.

Clifford Warwick, director of the Bio Veterinary Group states "The most dangerous place for spreading emergent infections from pet birds to poultry is a bird market". On its website policy page the society states that it "believes the ban on import of wild birds into the EU should be made permanent because the trade as it is currently practised is not proven to be sustainable, and places our native wildlife as well as the health of humans and livestock at risk."

The international trade in wild birds moves these creatures faster than any feathered wing can with birds being taken to places they would not naturally fly to. As spring approaches, wild birds are returning to their summer breeding grounds which means that bird flu is for the present unlikely to spread further west through migration.

The international trade in wild birds has posed public health risks and has been campaigned against by the RSPB and conservation bodies alike for decades. The ethical treatment of live birds has been repeatedly scrutinised by them to reveal that for every bird hopping about in the pet shop, several others have died untimely deaths during capture, transport and quarantine.

Many birds are smuggled into Europe bypassing the quarantine process and import bans temporary or otherwise. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), who once considered imported birds as 'high risk' actually lifted a ban that was in place under pressure from bird traders. Wild bird trading, for example, resumed in January this year at the Ribbledale Centre, Clitheroe a venue which is also used as a poultry market despite the fact that this kind of dual purposing is specifically outlawed under the Pet Animals act of 1951.

DEFRA also manage the quarantine facility in Essex where the infected mesias were detected. An officially empty facility was then found to contain about 2000 birds. Pulling no punches, Warwick commented that "DEFRA's latest revision of the facts suggests an institutional flaw in both quarantine accountability and DEFRA's management of the system. 2000 birds are a lot to misfile even this figure is uncertain. Many epidemiologists will also be concerned to note that only five birds were reportedly tested for such an important disease [bird flu]." He went on to say, "We also know that these 'sentinel' birds used as an early disease warning mechanism are unreliable. DEFRA's revelations will do little to raise public or scientific confidence."

Besides the moral dilemma of trapping and caging wild birds to satisfy our penchant for them, most of the popular species are easily bred in captivity, making the exploitation of wild birds seem even more reckless.

There is one thread that joins bird flu, BSE, foot and mouth and TB which is that they are all caused and/or exacerbated by the unnatural movement of animals with the birds and animals themselves enduring unnecessary suffering. Examples include not only the millions of tons of poultry which have been lost to bird flu alone but also less talked about cases such as the Ostriches slaughtered by machine gun fire in Nigeria and the swans deaths occurring in several European countries.

The tensions of the situation are further expressed in the strong pressure being placed upon governments by conservation bodies against the culling of wild birds with the argument that apart from being ineffectual it would scatter the survivors and disperse bird flu even wider. We cannot stop wild birds flying around but the control of malpractice and transportation is something we could tackle. From a bird's eye it looks as though we'd be doing our feathered friends as well as ourselves a big favour if we did.

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