Backyard chicken owners grapple with the wreckage from Virulent Newcastle Disease

Forced to euthanize more than 100,000 backyard birds, California chicken owners support each other, grieve...and turn to conspiracy theories.

Kerri Hand has a stockpile of eggs in her house, plus a few vacuum-sealed meat birds her husband harvested in the freezer. There’s a stark undertone to her DIY dabblingHand says she’ll never buy a chicken product from the supermarket again. “I’m boycotting it all, she says. “When it comes time for me to go to the market, chicken won’t be on our shopping list.” If Hand can’t eat meat and eggs from her own birds or small farms, she won’t eat it at all.

Hand lives in Perris, a city in Riverside County, California. In April, all of Hand’s roughly 20 birds, plus some she’d hatched for her mother, were euthanized.

Her chickens joined 108,500 backyard birds in Southern California that have been euthanized to stop the spread of Virulent Newcastle Disease, often referred to simply as Newcastle or VND. Though VND poses no threat to human health or food safety, it spreads quickly, has no treatment or cure, and is almost always fatal. While government officials believe the killings are necessary if they hope to contain this outbreak, many backyard chicken owners believe their pets should get consideration beyond the average livestock animal. It’s an issue with little middle ground.

Since the outbreak started in May 2018, it’s been a major concern for California’s egg industry (1.1 million commercial egg layers have been euthanized), as well as poultry growers in neighboring states. While commercial operations haven’t seen a new outbreak of the disease since March, and the overall number of cases is going down, according to State Veterinarian Annette Jones, new backyard cases continue to emerge. Recently there were two cases where someone moved asymptomatic birds and then poultry nearby started dying, Jones says.

“These are their family members and pets, and they’re seeing us put them in a trash can or landfill.”

As the disease has continued to spread, the organizations trying to eradicate itthe California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Information Service (APHIS)are focused primarily on stopping the disease before it harms the state’s billion-dollar egg industry. And this is making many of the state’s roughly 100,000 backyard poultry owners upset.

To control Newcastle, the government has announced quarantine zones in certain Southern California counties with a high prevalence of the disease. No birds can be moved into or out of these areas. But because quarantining hasn’t been enough to stop Newcastle’s spread so far, officials have started euthanizing poultry living near the site of any birds that tested positive.

Birds are either put into a bin filled with carbon dioxide or, if they can’t be caught, shot by certified wildlife biologists “as a last resort,” Jones says. The euthanized poultry are double-bagged and buried in landfills. In an urban area, landfills are the most practical way to dispose of over a million dead birds. Because the virus needs a live host to replicate, VND remaining in the environment (and anything remaining on the poultry) will eventually die out.

Jones understands why this would be an upsetting visual for poultry owners. “These are their family members and pets, and they’re seeing us put them in a trash can or landfill,” she says.

The size of the euthanasia zone depends on many factors, like how many birds were near that original positive site, whether there are feral chickens or other stray animals in the area, and so on. For every flock with a positive VND test, Jones says, they euthanize three to four potentially healthy flocks that have been exposed to the disease.

Ricardo Gaitan, a CDFA public information officer, likens the state’s actions to stopping a wildfire. “You don’t wait for a tree or bush around the fire to cut down a tree,…you remove all the combustible material.”

There are already over 50 countries that have put restrictions on avian products from California, Gaitan adds. “If we don’t stop this virus soon, the entire world is going to turn on us.”

But the decisions of the world poultry market can seem of little consequence to backyard owners, whose pets offer a sense of companionship and, only sometimes, a food source.

Juan Garcia, who lives in rural Midvalley, California, says his turkeys, chickens, and ducks were mostly pets that provided the occasional egg. He has a history of depression and has suffered from PTSD since he was in a car accident that killed his fiancé last year. For Garcia and his father, who suffers from dementia, the birds provided emotional support. “Those turkeys made everything different,” Garcia says. “They meant the world to me—to all of us.”

For many backyard owners, pets offer a sense of companionship and, only sometimes, a food source

On May 13th, Garcia’s birds were euthanized. He and his father left the area rather than watch it happen, and when he came back a couple hours later: “It was empty. It was quiet.” No birds were left.

Jones and the CDFA have made it clear that they know how devastating these forced slaughters can be. “The number one lesson” Jones has learned from this outbreak is that they need to eradicate the disease more quickly. “If we let the virus spread as far as it has, we impact too many people and it takes too long.” It’s exhausting for officials tasked with telling distraught residents their birds have to be euthanized. Not to mention, it creates significant unrest among an increasing number of owners whose birds were killed.

After Hand’s birds were euthanized in April, she started a Facebook group which has grown to over 4,200 members since April. (That’s nearly as many as follow the CDFA page.) The group regularly attacks the CDFA for lack of public information—everything from where positive Newcastle readings were found, to proper disposal of euthanized birds in landfills.

The shortage of useful information has led some bird owners to speculate on whether VND could be part of some vast conspiracy. “Is this a money thing? Is this to protect the poultry industry? Is this to get rid of rural areas?” Hand spitballs. “Why would they spend all this money and resources on a chicken disease that isn’t harmful to humans?”

“If we don’t stop this virus soon, the entire world is going to turn on us.”
There’s no proof that VND is part of a conspiracy of any kind, but vague explanations given by the CDFA aren’t enough for some chicken owners: They want to feel like there was a reason their pets had to be killed. (Jones says that, since the last outbreak was in 2003Facebook wasn’t even founded until the following yearher agency didn’t “really address social media adequately,” either as a vehicle for spreading misinformation or as a way to get the word out.)

While there’s incontrovertible proof of Newcastle’s destructive power, there’s still much confusion around how it’s being handled. Short of calling the state veterinarian, it can be tricky to find answers to common questions. Some well-meaning poultry owners feel they’re hitting walls in their quest for information.

Mikki Sharpe is one owner who has decided to help curb the spread of misinformation personally. Sharpe, who lives in California’s High Desert, has been spending 20 to 30 hours a week trying to educate people about VND both in person and through what is billed as a “drama-free” Facebook group. Neither the state nor local news media was doing enough to educate people about Newcastle, and social media seemed like a good place to start. Her own reaction to learning about VND, Sharpe says, was to start planning how she could get her birds far away from the outbreakexactly what owners are warned not to do, because it can spread the disease to new areas.

It wasn’t easy, but Sharpe eventually tracked down that information. Now, she hopes that she can help others do the same.

Cindy, who did not want to use her full name because of threats she says she received from other poultry owners, called CDFA to inspect her chickens after they started falling ill. “I lost five birds in four days,” she says. “It was horrific watching them.” She’d heard of VND from a flyer left at her home in Mira Loma the year before. After she called CDFA, the agency euthanized the remaining hens.

Cindy and her husband are both “farm people,” and despite her love for these chickens, she doesn’t see anything wrong with stopping this virus by euthanizing birds. “If it affects the food chain, something’s got to be done,” she says. During the first VND outbreak in the 1970s, she knew people who lost their chicken ranch and livelihoods to the disease. “If you have six birds in your backyard and could put everybody at risk, it’s not right.”

For her part, Sharpe says she’ll be devastated if VND comes to her neighborhood. “But I’m not going to be angry at the state for killing them,” she explains. “I’ll be angry at the guy who keeps moving his chickens and brought it here in the first place.”

Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

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