Chicken Disease Spreads Fear

Times Staff Writer

The live poultry show has been canceled at next month's Riverside County Fair. The ever-popular ostrich races are a scratch too. And hundreds of California schoolchildren who have spent the last year raising chickens, ducks and geese for county fairs will have to demonstrate their fowl-handling skills using puppets.

Since a highly contagious and deadly bird virus hit Southern California in October, state and federal agencies have been forced to take extreme measures to contain the outbreak. Exotic Newcastle disease is so virulent that a speck on a shoe, a shirt or a feather can spread it. Southern California bird owners are so panicked that many won't visit a pet shop or feed store for fear that they'll carry the bug back to their broods.

The disease won't hurt humans, but it can kill chickens, cockatoos, cockatiels -- just about any bird.

So before heading to last week's meeting of the Antelope Valley Caged Bird Society, Suzi Eslick of Palmdale, who breeds birds and has 100, put on a painter's coverall she had purchased at Home Depot. She insisted that all club members wade in their shoes through a bath of disinfectant before entering the meeting hall.

"I don't even want anyone coming to my house," Eslick said. For her precious African grays, macaws and lovebirds, it's just too risky.

The San Gabriel Valley Parakeet Assn.'s members frequently bring their birds together in small parlor shows. The group is considering canceling its March event, said president John Miles, a champion exhibitor who has about 300 birds at his Glendale home.

"We're not talking pet shop birds. We're talking about birds that cost anywhere from $100 to $1,000 apiece," he said.

Because of the threat to the state's $3-billion poultry industry, birds in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties have been quarantined since December. This month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expanded the quarantine to include the nearby counties of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Imperial. Inspectors trying to contain the virus kill not just contaminated birds but also any that may have been exposed. Birds can't leave the quarantined areas.

As founder of the Parrot Education & Adoption Center in San Diego, Bonnie Kenk regularly rescues and finds homes for birds. The disease has halted such activities. She also travels around the area giving seminars on themes including avian "potty training" and "Sex and the Single Parrot." For a recent seminar on parrot anatomy she had planned to take along Ariel, a Moluccan cockatoo, as a model. Instead she got a friend to videotape her pointing at Ariel's parts -- no easy task because Ariel was fascinated by the camera.

"She kept flying right at it. It took a while," Kenk said.

Kenk said she would have to rework her other seminars too, so that her educational activities won't be disrupted now that the birds have to stay home.

She's not the only one.

Each year in California, hundreds of young people participate in poultry exhibits and competitions at dozens of fairs as members of 4-H programs or Future Farmers of America. State officials have been worried that the disease's various quarantines will disappoint the children, many of whom are 5 or 6 years old. They're also worried about teenagers, who can spend many months carefully feeding and tending their birds to prepare them for auctions and competition. Officials are scrambling to come up with alternatives so that no one will miss out on the educational experiences.

Bird Shows Banned

This month, the state banned bringing birds to shows in the eight quarantined counties. And the state also is urging the operators of the 80 state fairs to eliminate live birds from the 2003 season. "We want to make sure that the kids have time to be redirected to other projects," said Elizabeth Houser, director of the state agriculture department's fairs and expositions division.

Right after the first cases of the virus were found in Compton in October, the state closed down the Fur and Feathers building at the Big Fresno Fair. But fair officials rearranged the events so that 400 children wouldn't have their dreams crushed. Instead of bringing in their birds to auction them off, the children held up photographs, Houser said. They demonstrated their knowledge of poultry using a chicken made of felt.

It's going to be a familiar sight at county fairs this year.

Puppets Substituted

Puppets and dolls are less-than-ideal substitutes for real birds, but they're better than nothing, said Kristina Byrne, chairwoman of the small animal advisory committee for San Diego County's 4-H program.

At most fairs, young poultry show participants compete in showmanship events, where they show judges how they hold their birds and how well they can control them.

"They have to walk the birds the length of a table using a little pointer to guide them. It takes practice. A lot of times, birds will fly away, so that's points off," she said.

The 12 plush puppets she recently purchased obviously won't move on their own, but children still will be able to use them at a March fair in Ramona to point out the birds' parts and demonstrate holding them.

In Ventura County, fair officials usually have a costume contest in which children and teenagers take their birds to the fairgrounds decked out in hula skirts and tutus. This year, they'll have to dress them at home and take snapshots.

"They'll still be able to participate in the fair -- just without birds," said Katie Zack, chairman of small livestock for Ventura County 4-H clubs.

Julie Kirby, an FFA member at Canoga Park High School, fell in love with ducks as a young girl the first time her mom took her to feed the birds at the park. Last year, she raised 28 Muscovy ducks, making sure they maintained a consistent weight and ample breast and leg meat so that they could be sold. She's disappointed that she won't be able to do it this year for the summer fairs.

"I'm going to have to do my research now and find out what this disease is," said the 11th-grader, who plans to sit out the fair season.

For Nancy Kobert of Ramona, near San Diego, sitting out the season isn't an option. For the last seven years, Kobert, an animal trainer, has made her living touring fairs across the West with her Amazing World of Birds, a bird show featuring an Amazon parrot named Lola which sings and does impressions of dogs and cats, and a kookaburra, a hornbill and a giant East African crowned crane.

Now, she says, "I can't do a thing. It's really daunting because this is how I pay my bills."

To keep her birds healthy, she's posted signs outside her property, telling most people to go away. Delivery people know to leave packages in a box by the gate. Those who must drive in have to get out of their vehicles and disinfect their shoes before doing so.

Stuck without a way to do her day job, Kobert is working on a birdless alternative. She's planning a new interactive exhibit on the disease, whose spread will be demonstrated using thousands of neatly lined up dominos. She's hoping she can get it ready in time to hold onto her fair bookings.

"The way the virus spreads is a lot like dominos toppling. It just takes one person bringing it in and suddenly it's everywhere," she said. "That's why these quarantines are happening. That's why we're all so scared. If we take this lightly, this won't just pass in a matter of months. We could all be devastated."

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Times staff writers David Pierson, Jennifer Mena and Amanda Covarrubias contributed to this report.

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