What is bird flu?
Avian influenza (bird flu) is a virus that can spread directly (i.e. through contact) or indirectly (i.e. through faeces) between birds. It is potentially transmissible to humans although the risk of this is very low. Because it is so transmissible between birds, however, it is classed as a notifiable disease, which means that any cases have to be reported to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra).
How many birds were ill at Paignton zoo?
We have had 2 positive cases of avian influenza at our zoo: 1 in a pelican and 1 in a peafowl. We have been monitoring all of our birds since those first cases and have seen no sign of anything else since.
How did a zoo bird get bird flu?
The most likely way that our birds caught the avian influenza virus is through contact with an infected wild bird. There have been numerous cases of infected wild birds both nationally and locally, and as visitors will be well aware, Paignton Zoo is located in a lush, wooded river valley that provides a haven for countless wild animals. This means that wild birds frequently visit or set up home, which in turn means that any diseases that are present in the local wild bird population can potentially find their way into our zoo. Although many of our birds are in enclosed aviaries or indoor exhibits, some of them are kept in larger, open areas (such as the lake) or in the case of our peafowl, roam freely around the site.
What changes can visitors expect when they visit?
Because of recent events, we have had to catch up some of our birds, and visitors will certainly notice the absence of some of them. Our peafowl no longer roam freely and we have removed all of our captive birds from the main lake. Our birds were often joined by wild waterfowl, so you may still see ducks and geese on the lake.
Some of our birds have been moved off show for the time being. They are currently living in bio secure quarantine facilities and we are carrying our regular surveillance monitoring and testing in accordance with APHA/Defra requirements. Currently, the birds that are off show are:
- Dalmatian pelican
- Sarus crane
- Red-crowned crane
- Bar-headed goose
- Greylag goose
- Black-necked swan
Some of our birds have been moved. They remain on show but in order to keep them safe we have moved them into covered aviaries. Our flamingo have moved to the large aviary up by the spider monkeys and red panda. Our Oriental white stork were living here, and these have been moved into the scarlet ibis aviary at the ABC.
In order for us to make these changes, we have had to repurpose several areas of our zoo to use as quarantine holdings. The most noticeable of these is the Ranch, which has been converted into bio secure quarantine and is closed to visitors. Visitors can still see our meerkats and goats from the rear pathway, and ‘JD’ our pot-bellied pig can still be seen from the main Ranch entrance (although the side pathway is closed).
Visitors may also notice staff wearing white overalls as part of our biosecurity measures. This does not mean that visitors are at any risk, it just allows us to maintain the highest standards of prevention and mitigate risk as staff move around the site.
We would also reiterate that the risk of bird flu being transmitted to humans is very low indeed, however sensible precautions should be taken regardless of whether you are at the zoo or not. We would advise people to avoid contact with birds and bird droppings, and to wash their hands thoroughly if any contact accidentally occurs. Please pay particular attention to this if you are eating or drinking.
How big a problem is bird flu?
Bird flu poses a very serious risk to both wild and captive bird populations, and this risk is increasing every year. Already this year, there have been more than 5 times as many outbreaks as there were in the whole of 2021 and scientists suggest that this is the worst outbreak of the disease ever seen in the UK. In previous years, bird flu tended to be seasonal, appearing occasionally over the winter period. This year however, the disease has never really gone away and cases have been reported in all seasons.
Bird flu spreads easily among birds when they are in close contact. This is why it is such a serious concern for poultry farms, and is also why there have been such devastating outbreaks around the UK in seabird colonies. It’s not just the UK where this is happening, substantial outbreaks have also occurred in other countries in both wild and captive settings.
What does it mean for Paignton Zoo?
This situation will have far-reaching implications for how we look after our birds at Paignton and Newquay Zoo. The number of avian influenza cases in the UK increases every year and it now poses a year-round threat to the health of our birds. This means that as we plan the long term transformation of our zoo, we need to be sure that our captive birds are provided with safe environments where we can protect them from this risk.
Thankfully we were already making changes to our zoos before this outbreak. One of the reasons we removed the Brookside Aviary and added the new lakeside pathway, for example, was because we had a main visitor path running through an aviary. Our new entrance means that visitors can now enter our zoo even if we have to close an aviary for precautionary measures. Similarly, our decision not to reintroduce free-flying birds into Tropical Trails means that we can now keep this exhibit area open for visitors without worrying about the risk to our birds. In the past we would have had to close the building and prevent our visitors from seeing the many amazing reptiles and amphibians that live there.
One of our key organisational aims is to highlight the importance of living with nature. These recent events illustrate some of the complexities of this, but also show just how important the need for conservation is. The threats to nature are many and varied and we need to recognise the urgent need for action on this, and many other challenges.
Were birds culled?
Because it is such a serious disease, affected birds are required to be humanely culled. Our aim throughout all of this has been to prevent the unnecessary killing of our birds. APHA and Defra required that it was necessary for free-roaming birds that could not be captured and placed in quarantine to be culled to prevent the risk of any further spread. Thanks to the efforts of our staff, the number of culled birds was kept to a minimum, but their specialist team did humanely remove a small number of birds.
Why weren’t more birds culled?
Paignton Zoo was the first zoo in the UK to be affected by avian influenza. Zoos are very different to the farms and private holdings where most previous cases of avian influenza have occurred and, although we are subject to the same legislation in terms of notifiable disease, we have been able to respond in a slightly different way in order to comply fully with APHA and Defra. The key to this has been the rapid creation of bio secure quarantine facilities which allow us to maintain potentially at-risk birds in secure environments, along with intensive monitoring and testing of each individual bird.
Has avian influenza affected the planned lion move?
As many of you will be aware, we were expecting to imminently welcome three African lions from our sister zoo in Newquay. With our efforts being focused upon our birds at this time this has resulted in a delay to our planned lion move. We hope to welcome the lions as soon as practicable but we will keep you updated on this. For all of our latest updates please ensure you give our Facebook page a follow.
How can people help?
We have been overwhelmed by the many messages of support that we have received during this period. We have had numerous offers of practical help, and we would like to say a huge thank you to everyone that has offered to assist. Unfortunately, the biosecurity and quarantine measures that we are implementing mean that we can only allow experienced and essential staff to undertake these tasks. If you would like to look at offering your time to the zoo in the future, our Volunteers Manager Hazel would love to hear from you: Volunteer At Paignton Zoo • Paignton Zoo.
Other people have offered to make donations to the zoo and we again say a huge thank you to those that have done so. The summer holidays are a vital period for the zoo in terms of income and the fact that we have had to close for the last week of the summer season has had a significant impact on our revenue. As a conservation charity, we do not receive any government support to fund our zoo or our conservation projects and it is inevitable that this knock to our finances will impact our plans for the coming year. If you would like to make a donation, you can do this online through JustGiving: Making A Donation • Paignton Zoo.
Any other questions?
If you have any further questions about avian influenza at Paignton Zoo, please direct them via email to [email protected]