Avian influenza (bird flu) is a virus that can spread directly (ie through contact) or indirectly (ie 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 of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra).
How did a zoo bird get bird flu?
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 the 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. The most likely way that our birds caught the avian influenza virus is through unfortunate contact with an infected wild bird.
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 x 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 amongst 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 measures have been implemented?
The work we have been doing with the the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) and Defra has been to make sure we have suitable measures in place to prevent any further spread of the disease within the zoo. This has meant the introduction of additional biosecurity across the zoo site, as well as the construction of new quarantine and isolation facilities to allow us to separate and monitor those birds deemed to be particularly at risk Most notably from a visitor perspective, people will see that we have had to remove our captive birds from the main lake, and we no longer have peafowl free roaming around the zoo. The main reason for this is that these birds were in regular contact with wild birds, and it will have been these wild birds that brought the bird flu infection onto the site.
Have birds been culled?
Because it is such a serious disease, affected birds are required to be humanely culled. At this point in time, we are working on confirming which birds APHA and Defra consider as affected.
What does it mean for the zoo?
Bird flu is a problem that will never go away completely so it’s a challenge that we will have to contend with as we move forwards, and in fact we were already making changes at the zoo before this outbreak. One of the reasons we removed the Brookside aviary and added the new lakeside pathway was because we had a main visitor path running through an aviary. Our new entrance means that visitors can now enter the zoo even if we have to close an aviary for precautionary measures. Our long term plans for how the zoo changes and develops will be influenced by the need to ensure that our birds are not at risk from diseases from outside.
It also affects our conservation work outside the zoo gate. Alongside habitat loss and the climate crisis, disease poses a huge risk for wildlife populations, so our field projects in the UK and overseas are also likely to be impacted.
How can people help?
We have been overwhelmed by the many messages of support that we have received this week. They mean a great deal to us and we look forward to being able to report more positive news soon.
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 on site at this time. If you would like to look at offering your time to the zoo in the future, contact our Volunteer Manager Hazel.
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, via the button below. You can also support Paignton Zoo by sponsoring your favourite animal or becoming a member.