Amid avian flu outbreak, activists decry poultry-killing methods

Bird Flu
Farms that raise turkeys and chickens for meat and eggs are on high alert, fearing a repeat of a widespread bird flu outbreak in 2015 that killed 50 million birds across 15 states and cost the federal government nearly $1 billion.
Charlie Neibergall | AP

This spring’s outbreak of avian influenza has sparked renewed protests from animal welfare activists over the destruction of large numbers of poultry birds.

Several groups have raised objections to methods used to kill chickens or turkeys once they’ve been exposed to the deadly virus. In particular, they say a method called ventilation shutdown — recommended as a last resort — is cruel and inhumane.

The protests have generated media headlines here in Minnesota. During a Timberwolves’ April 12 game at Target Center a woman glued her hand to the floor of the court, wearing a T-shirt that read, “Glen Taylor Roasts Animals Alive.” 

On social media, she said the stunt was intended to bring attention to “mass killing” of chickens at Rembrandt Enterprises, an Iowa egg farm owned by Taylor, who also owns the Timberwolves. 

Since then, activists have disrupted two more games, including a Timberwolves playoff contest last Saturday when a woman rushed onto the Target Center court before security guards tackled her.

A California-based organization called Direct Action Everywhere says the protests are trying to raise awareness of poultry-killing methods used to prevent the further spread of H5N1, a strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza that already has affected more than 2.7 million turkeys and chickens in Minnesota.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

H5N1 avian influenza is highly contagious and is spread by wild birds. Poultry birds like turkeys and chickens that contract the virus quickly get sick and die.

When a positive case of the virus is confirmed, federal law gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to “depopulate” or kill the birds in that flock quickly — ideally within 24 hours — to prevent the virus from spreading to other farms.

“The virus travels so quickly from bird to bird,” said Dr. Beth Thompson, state veterinarian and executive director of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. And the mortality rate of this virus for poultry birds is close to 100 percent, she said.

“By depopulating, we end the suffering of those birds that are still in the barn, so hopefully, we don't extend that time period that they're alive and suffering,” Thompson said.

Euthanasia vs. depopulation 

While the terms euthanasia and depopulation are often used interchangeably, there are differences between the two.

Mass depopulation — what’s currently taking place in Minnesota and other states in response to the avian flu outbreak — is when a large number of animals need to be destroyed quickly due to an emergency, such as a disease.

Euthanasia, on the other hand, is helping an animal transition to death as painlessly and stress-free as possible. It’s a process many pet owners have experienced at a vet clinic.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, the guiding organization for veterinarians in the U.S., has published separate guidelines for euthanasia and depopulation. 

The 2019 guidelines state that depopulation is only to be carried out in response to serious emergencies, and that animals should not be depopulated under ordinary circumstances.

They state that depopulation techniques, unlike euthanasia, “may not guarantee that the deaths the animals face are painless and distress free.” 

However, every effort should be taken to ensure that the animals are handled humanely and experience a rapid loss of consciousness or brain function, the guidelines state.

Methods differ

In Minnesota, the main method used to quickly destroy poultry — usually turkeys — that are raised on barn floors is to pump in a water-based foam, which smothers them. 

In some barns where foam isn’t a feasible option, a small number of birds are put into a crate or cart, and carbon dioxide is pumped in, Thompson said.

The ventilation shutdown method currently facing criticism involves turning off the airflow in the barn, which overheats the birds. The USDA and AVMA also recommend adding additional heat or carbon dioxide to speed up the process, a guideline that Thompson said is always followed in Minnesota. 

The ventilation shutdown-plus method is used in the state only as a last resort, and only with the involvement of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Thompson said. 

It’s been used in a small number of Minnesota cases during the current outbreak in poultry-dense areas to prevent the virus’ spread to other farms, she said, or where no other options were available to destroy the birds within 24 hours.

The AVMA guidelines say the most compelling reason to use ventilation shutdown when all other methods have been ruled out is that when done properly, it provides a quicker death, “eliminating the chance for the birds to die over a longer period of time from distressing and devastating disease.”

Concerns raised

Matt Johnson, press coordinator for the group Direct Action Everywhere, called the method used to kill egg-laying chickens at Rembrandt’s Iowa farms “brutal.” 

He said media reports have shown that the animals languish for hours in excessive heat.

“We're raising awareness of this horrible abuse of animals, which is the inevitable result of factory farming when we mass-confine animals in this way,” Johnson said.  He said close confinement also promotes the spread of viral diseases and increases the risk of a mutation.

The killings highlight issues in an agriculture system “where animals are regarded as just profit machines,” Johnson said.

‘An awful disease’

The depopulation efforts are really tough on poultry farmers, farm workers and owners of backyard flocks, Thompson said. The only upside is eliminating the disease, she said.

“That's the ultimate goal here,” she said. “I feel for these farmers. This is just an awful disease, absolutely awful. And to have some of our cases be these individual families is just so tough.”

Thompson said she welcomes the discussion about the response methods. She said the latest outbreak likely will prompt an examination of the AVMA guidelines, which she called “a living, breathing document.”

“I think that veterinarians want to have that continuing discussion,” she said.