Avian influenza (“bird flu”) returned to the United States in 2017, two years after the disease was responsible for the worst animal disease outbreak in US history, with the loss of 50 million chickens and turkeys. Thus far, the 2017 outbreak has been far more limited, affecting birds at approximately one dozen poultry operations in the South and upper Midwest.
Birds exposed to avian influenza are typically ordered killed by the US Department of Agriculture. The most common methods used to “depopulate” flocks are carbon dioxide gas (for killing caged egg-laying hens) and water-based foam (for killing floor-reared birds, including chickens and turkeys). Both methods are known to be stressful to animals and can lead to a prolonged time until death. Following the 2017 outbreak, the USDA approved the use of an even more inhumane method—ventilation shutdown—where producers turn off the ventilation system and turn up the heat to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The birds die from heat stress, likely after experiencing extreme suffering lasting up to three hours.
This truly gruesome method of killing animals is not sanctioned by any veterinary authority. That may change. In January, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) released draft guidelines for the depopulation of animals. Because the USDA generally relies on the AVMA for guidance, it is likely that these guidelines will determine the methods used to kill animals during future disease outbreaks. Not only do the guidelines allow for the use of ventilation shutdown to kill birds, they also permit ventilation shutdown for the killing of pigs, and live burial of birds.
Even though this is a matter that impacts all Americans, comments on the proposal were only accepted from AVMA members. Therefore, AWI worked with other animal welfare organizations to generate comments from veterinarians in opposition to the proposed guidelines. These veterinarians are telling the AVMA that the lack of understanding of the methods’ effect on the welfare of animals should rule out their use, and that less inhumane methods exist.