June 27, 2022



Here’s what the Houston Zoo is doing about deadly bird flu outbreak

3 min read

The most contagious avian flu to hit the United States in years has not yet arrived in the Bayou City, but the Houston Zoo is taking precautions to keep animals safe in case it does. 

So far that includes moving particularly susceptible species—anything closely related to chickens or ducks—to safer locations, suspending educational programs involving birds, and closing the Savanna Aviary to foot traffic, though visitors will still be able to see the birds from outside the exhibit.

“We’re doing everything that we can here to make sure that our animals are safe and doing well,” said Ric Urban, the Houston Zoo’s bird curator.

The Houston Zoo is not alone in taking such precautions; zoos across the country have taken measures to protect birds since the the USDA announced in January that a “highly pathogenic Eurasian H5 avian influenza” had been found for the first time since 2016 in a wild American wigeon in South Carolina. 

The virus, which is transmitted through fecal material, dander and respiratory droplets, spreads quickly during the migration season.

It has since been reported in more than 40 species across 30 states, including last week in Texas, when it was detected at a game-bird operation in Erath County, about 70 miles from Fort Worth.

“It’s somewhat surprising how widespread it is already in North America,” Jonathan Runstadler, an influenza researcher at Tufts University, told NPR.

While wild birds can contract and carry the virus, it won’t necessarily kill them, but this particular flu has already claimed a lot of poultry lives—as many as 23 million chickens and turkey have either died from the flu or been euthanized to prevent its spread.

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Unlike livestock operations, Urban said zoos are allowed to be more cautious about diagnosing cases and isolating animals before taking the most drastic steps, in part because they are sometimes dealing with endangered species or species that are part of a breeding program.

“We all know that unless that animal is showing signs [of the flu] we can still test it and [perform] multiple tests,” he said. “The government agencies will work with zoos and aquariums.”

Experts have repeatedly stressed that this strain of bird flu very rarely infects humans, and there’s no need to avoid eggs or poultry that are properly cooked—although the prices of both are rising. The issue at places like the Houston Zoo isn’t protecting the humans from the birds but protecting the birds from what the humans may track in on their shoes, according to Urban.

And though the virus is serious, avian flu has been around for years and facilities that handle animals, such as zoos and aquariums, have planned extensively for this kind of outbreak. This strain of avian flu also doesn’t like to live in temperatures over 80 degrees, Urban said, so Houston in the summer is not its ideal habitat.

“We have been prepared,” Urban said. “I’m not too worried, because I know we’re prepared.” 

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