Part 3 of a 3-part series
Avian influenza: of fairs and fowl
Thursday, June 25, 2015 8:00 AM
ALLEN COUNTY — Last December, the detection of H5N8 in a backyard flock in Oregon kicked off the discovery of the worst outbreak of avian influenza in this nation’s history. Since that time, over 48 million chickens, turkeys and other domestic fowl have been euthanized, including a single incident of one million birds earlier this week in Iowa.
Due to the threat of the avian flu, the poultry barn at the Putnam County fair was quiet this week. The Ohio Department of Agriculture canceled all live bird exhibitions to protect the poultry industry. Instead, 4-H members designed posters and displayed photos of their poultry. (Ada Herald/Becky Leader)
In an effort to contain the spread of the disease, large commercial poultry operations have implemented even more stringent biosecurity measures and the United States Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control are working to educate small backyard operators and the general public about the various strains of avian influenza. State agriculture departments have also assumed a role, working in their own way to help minimize the threat. On June 2, the Ohio Department of Agriculture implemented a ban on all live bird exhibitions for the remainder of 2015. Included in the list of exhibitions is the state fair, as well as all 88 county fairs.
“One of the ways avian influenza spreads is by direct contact with contaminated materials coming from other infected birds. This means that exhibitions, auctions and swap meets where birds are co-mingling pose a high risk of unintentionally spreading this disease. Until we can be sure that there has been no transference from the wild bird population migrating through the state, we need to do all we can to minimize the exposure for our domestic birds,” said State Veterinarian Dr. Tony Forshey.
While the ban works to protect Ohio’s $2.3 billion poultry industry from the avian flu, it also puts a damper on an educational experience that teens and preteens have had the chance to participate in for decades. This year, in Ohio and a handful of other nearby states, members of Future Farmers of America and 4-H who would ordinarily present and compete with the birds they’d raised won’t have the opportunity to do so. Not since the early 1980s, when pseudorabies threatened pigs in the state and incited a similar ban, has the ODA been forced to take such draconian action.
“This was a difficult decision because it means young people can’t show their birds at fairs, but it’s in the best interest of an industry that literally thousands of Ohio families and businesses depend on and which provides billions of dollars to our state’s economy,” said ODA Director David T. Daniels. “The right move isn’t always the easy move, but this is the right move, especially when you see just how devastating the virus has been to other big poultry states like Iowa and Minnesota. Ohioans need to do all we can to ensure that we protect our industry and that we help avoid a costly spike in the price of important foods like chicken, turkey and eggs.”
Heather Gottke, interim educational technology specialist and 4-H youth development coordinator with the Ohio State University Extension Office in Van Wert County, reports that the poultry prohibition, while necessary, is a hard one to swallow.
“There’s something unique about bringing an animal to the fair and the experience of raising it up to that point and then show it off to your friends, to your family,” Gottke explained. “They’re just really disappointed that they won’t be able to bring their birds.”
In Delphos, sisters Libby, Madison and Anna Spring — 18, 15 and 11, respectively — all intended to show birds in Allen County: Libby and Madison through FFA and Anna through 4-H. Now, with the ban in place, their enthusiasm is curbed, their disappointment pronounced. Madison was hoping to repeat a Best In Show performance, received the first year she participated, while Anna was looking forward to her first showing. For Libby, though, the ban is particularly unsettling.
“I just graduated,” she said, holding Nugget, an older Pekin duck the sisters raised from a duckling. “This was my last fair.”
Anna and Madison offered a brief tour of the family’s backyard coops and their occupants. They pointed to a a small flock of Silkies, chickens they’d raised for this year’s fair, to a pair of Jersey Giants, large black chickens with a rainbow sheen to their feathers, and to a pair of Buff Orpingtons, pale gold birds prized for their eggs. Both girls were eager and engaged.
“They’ve been at this for at least a couple of months, getting ready,” Dennis Spring, the girls’ father, offered. “It’s really too bad.”
But, while live birds are verboten, the various county organizations are looking for, and offering up, alternatives. Two of the more appealing replacement possibilities are a Jeopardy-themed quiz competition and, in an effort to keep showmanship in the show, the presentation of a stuffed bird.
“Having a stuffed bird and having the kids identify parts and answer questions would be the best way that we can replace that showmanship and still provide some form of active participation during the fair,” Gottke said. “It’s not the same, not by any means, but it’s something.”
Anna Spring, by way of of agreeing on one level with Gottke, said, grimacing, “I have to make a poster. Pictures just aren’t the same.”