What You Need to Know about Avian Flu

By Susie Coston, National Shelter Director

Three states — Minnesota, Wisconsin and now Iowa– have proclaimed a state of emergency, with millions of commercial birds believed to be infected by avian influenza. The death count is multiplying by the day and it’s estimated we’ll see 20 million birds destroyed overall as a result of the worst bird flu outbreak to strike the U.S. since the 1980s. Here’s what you need to know about this disease.

Chickens raised for slaughter

What is avian influenza?
Avian influenza (AI), or bird flu, refers to a number of viruses that infect birds. The viruses are classified as either low pathogenicity (LPAI), which causes a relatively mild illness, or high pathogenicity (HPAI), and results in severe illness.

Beginning in December 2014, HPAI was found in ducks in the Pacific Northwest, marking the first time in years that it had been detected in the U.S. Since then, multiple HPAI strains have infected flocks of domestic birds in multiple states. Strains H5N8 and H5N1 infected flocks on the West Coast, where the disease now appears to be dying down somewhat due to hot, dry conditions. Strain H5N2 is currently raging through the Midwest and making its way east.

The CDC reports that the strains of AI currently active in the U.S. pose a very low risk to humans. Among birds, however, they are highly contagious and in most cases fatal.

Where has AI spread?


Note: Detected refers to non-commercial findings. Estimates as of May 1, 2015.

As NPR reports, Minnesota has been hit hardest, with close to 50 flocks affected, but the disease has struck many other states as well.

Wherever the virus is found, USDA and state officials kill the entire flock in order to contain the disease. The standard culling method is to fill the housing buildings with a water-based foam that suffocates the birds to death.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) designates this method as an appropriate means of “mass depopulation,” defined as “methods by which large numbers of animals must be destroyed quickly and efficiently with as much consideration given to the welfare of the animals as practicable, but where the circumstances and tasks facing those doing the depopulation are understood to be extenuating.” This endorsement tells you much less about the type of death delivered by the foam — which is undoubtedly horrid — than it does about the abysmal standards of welfare that pass as acceptable in an industry predicated on mass confinement and slaughter. By raising birds in groups of tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions, producers create conditions in which humane euthanasia, or humane treatment of any sort for that matter, is impossible. The circumstances are “extenuating” by design.

In the U.S., more than 15.1 million domestic birds have been killed due to AI detections since the beginning of March 2015. Here’s a state-by-state breakdown of reported detections and cullings:

Minnesota: As of April 27, the virus has been detected in at least 46 turkey farms, and at least 2.7 million turkeys have been killed. The virus also has been detected in a facility raising chickens for meat and a laying hen facility, resulting in a total of over 500,000 chickens in Minnesota being killed. Additionally 150 turkeys belonging to a backyard flock were killed.

Iowa: There have been eight detections resulting in a total of almost 10 million deaths. At two turkey farms, a total of 61,000 turkeys were killed. At each of two egg facilities, 3.8 million hens were killed, and at another three egg facilities and a pullet farm a total of 2.3 million chickens were killed.

Wisconsin: There have been eight detections. At two egg facilities, a total of 980,000 chickens were killed. At five turkey facilities, 467,500 turkeys were killed. In a backyard flock, 40 mixed-breed chickens were killed.

South Dakota: AI was detected at six turkey farms, and 285,000 turkeys were killed.

North Dakota: AI was detected at two turkey farms. At the two facilities, 109,000 turkeys were killed. An additional 2,000 chickens also were killed at one of the facilities.

Arkansas: AI was detected at one turkey farm, where 40,000 turkeys were killed.

Missouri: AI was detected at two turkey farms, where 52,000 turkeys were killed.

Kansas: A low pathogenic strain of AI was detected in a commercial poultry facility in Kansas. The species and total number of birds affected were not released. An unknown number of ducks and chickens in a backyard flock also were killed.

California: There have been five detections including two wild ducks. At two turkey farms, 206,000 turkeys were killed (at one of these facilities, only a low-pathogenicity strain was found; nonetheless all of the facilities’ turkeys were killed). At one “broiler” chicken and duck facility, 114,000 birds were killed.

In addition to the states listed above, AI has been detected in the following states in wild migratory waterfowl, captive wild birds (such as falcons), and/or backyard flocks:

New Mexico

AI has also been found in Ontario and in British Columbia, where it was first detected in December 2014, before we were tracking the spread of the disease. The total number of birds affected at turkey and chicken facilities in British Columbia is reported to have been 250,000. In Ontario, the virus has been found in two turkey facilities and one facility raising chickens for meat with a total of 52,800 turkeys killed and 27,000 chickens killed.

Please check our Farm Animal Adoption Network (FAAN) Facebook page for updates. We continue to track new outbreaks. The disease is still spreading. This is an epidemic.

How has AI spread?
AI is spread in two ways: 1) directly from bird to bird, and 2) through contact with the manure of an infected bird. AI can be spread by equipment, vehicles, clothing, and other materials that have come into contact with the manure of infected birds. This includes, for instance, the shoes of someone who has walked by a lake where infected ducks have left droppings. (Additionally, some researchers have speculated that strong winds blowing infected debris into animal housing may have contributed to the broad reach of HPAI in Minnesota; however, biosecurity failures are still believed to be the primary cause of the Minnesota outbreak.)


The spread of the virus has been linked to wild migratory birds, especially ducks and geese. Typically asymptomatic, these birds are able to carry the disease from area to area and shed it in their droppings. In domestic birds, especially turkeys, HPAI induces a ghastly and highly lethal disease.

Why have so many birds died?
While the migrations of wild birds help account for the broad geographical reach of this epidemic, it is industrial farming practices that account for the staggering mortality. The reason 3.8 million birds fell victim to AI in a single Iowa facility is because there were 3.8 million birds in a single facility.

Keeping large numbers of animals together, especially in the intensely crowded conditions characteristic of factory farms, leaves those animals highly vulnerable to disease. (In fact, these conditions may even create breeding grounds for new strains of diseases. Learn more about factory farming and disease.)

Battery Cages

Ironically, factory farm proponents have long cited biosecurity as a justification for keeping large numbers of animals confined in buildings with no outdoor access. As we’ve seen in this epidemic, biosecurity at these facilities is failing, and the confinement practices that ostensibly enable tight biosecurity are instead dooming millions of birds to disease and culling.

What is Farm Sanctuary doing to protect its shelter birds?
When HPAI appeared in California, we took immediate action to protect the birds at our shelters in Orland and Acton. We suspended visitor access to bird areas and instituted a “no birds in, no birds out” policy at both shelters. This means, unfortunately, that we cannot perform any bird rescues involving these locations while the HPAI risk remains high.

We have isolated our shelter birds from contaminants using tight-weave shade tarps, which keep wild fowl out of our bird areas and also prevent their feces from dropping into those areas as they fly over. We have also had to close off our ponds to the birds — ponds are the areas that pose the greatest risk of infection from wild waterfowl, who often land on open water to swim and eat.

All staff members at these shelters must now don special ISO gear and use foot baths when entering any bird area, and they are advised to change into different shoes upon entering the shelter in general from the outside, as an extra precaution. Additionally, all staff members are trained to identify signs of disease, both in our resident birds and in any wild birds in the area.

New York
As yet there have been no reported cases of HPAI east of Wisconsin, but it has reportedly been found in wild birds and/or backyard flocks. That said, the disease could spread further as waterfowl continue their spring migrations. We are following the movement of the disease closely and remain in constant contact with our vets. Currently, we are working with our avian vet at Cornell to review and update our AI protocols.

The Watkins Glen shelter has a large population of chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese belonging to many distinct flocks that must be kept separate. Implementing the strict biosecurity measures necessary to protect them all from AI would be a massive effort. We want to allow the birds to have a semblance of the life they enjoy at our sanctuaries while still being safe from this disease.


We are dedicated to maintaining the strictest biosecurity at all of our shelters in the path of HPAI. These measures are crucial not only to safeguard our birds from disease but also to avoid giving the USDA any grounds for demanding that our shelter birds be culled if the epidemic continues to spread, worsen, or spread to other species.

Farmers have a strong economic incentive to protect their flocks, but for us this is personal. We know each turkey, each chicken, each duck, and each goose at our shelters as an individual with a name and a personality. They are our friends. The millions of deaths resulting from HPAI, like the billions of deaths resulting from the consumption of meat and eggs each year, are catastrophic. But HPAI also represents a catastrophe for each individual bird: the ultimate devastation of losing one’s life. To us, the cause of each bird in our care is urgent and worthy of our very best efforts.

What Can I Do to Protect My Birds from AI?
We’ll say it again: This is an epidemic. Proper biosecurity is crucial for the protection of your own backyard flock and the birds in your area. If you care for any birds such as turkeys, chickens, ducks, or geese, please stay updated on the spread of the disease and be prepared to implement quarantine measures if it nears your area. You can check our FAAN Facebook page for the latest on AI outbreaks.

PreventativeMeasures_AI_IG_blog-01 (1)

Read more on AI from the USDA.

* According to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), birds infected with AI may exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:

  • sudden death without clinical signs
  • lack of energy and appetite
  • decreased egg production
  • soft-shelled or misshapen eggs
  • swelling of the head, eyelids, comb, wattles, and hocks
  • purple discoloration of wattles, combs, and legs
  • nasal discharge
  • coughing and sneezing
  • lack of coordination
  • diarrhea

How can I help?

Donate now-blogWe’ve already incurred costs from securing our California shelters against avian influenza. If the disease nears our New York Shelter, the expense of protecting our birds there will be much greater. With your help, we can keep them safe. Please donate now.

Humane Meat: A Contradiction in Terms

By Bruce Friedrich, Director of Policy and Advocacy

People have become increasingly aware that virtually all of the 9 billion land animals slaughtered in the United States each year for their meat are terribly mistreated. In fact, routine farming practices are so abusive that they would warrant felony animal cruelty charges if they were done to cats or dogs.


As a result, more and more compassionate people have joined the ranks of those who choose to eat a vegan diet. Some, however, have looked instead to meat from animals treated less badly, which is often stamped with a “humane certified,” or other such label, and may be referred to as “humane meat.”

This raises two questions in my mind. First, is there such a thing as truly “humane meat”? And second, even if we agree that some meat involves better conditions than conventional meat, should animal advocates promote it? I will address both questions in turn.

Is there such a thing as humane meat?
Let’s pose a question: Would you be willing to eat “humanely raised dog meat” or “humanely raised cat meat”?


I suspect not, and yet there is no rational difference between eating a dog or a pig, a cat or a chicken. All of these species are made of flesh, blood, and bone. And they have interests and personalities, as everyone who has spent time at Farm Sanctuary knows so well.

In fact, scientists have shown that pigs and chickens outperform dogs and cats on scientific tests of behavioral and cognitive sophistication. For the same reason that there is no such thing as humane dog meat, there is also no such thing as humane chicken, pork, or beef. Simply put, killing an animal in order to eat her cannot be called humane.

Let’s pose a second question: Would you be willing to cut an animal’s throat? For most of us, taking an animal’s life is abhorrent; we just wouldn’t do it. Of course, all of us could spend an afternoon participating in every aspect of getting plants to the table — picking them, packaging them, etc. But there is no aspect of slaughtering animals that is similarly pleasant, no aspect that any of us would enjoy doing.


If you’re like most people, you would not slice open a chicken’s throat for something as inconsequential as a meal. But this is precisely what we’re doing if we’re eating meat. Although we’re not personally killing the animal, we are paying someone to do it for us. And if we wouldn’t do it ourselves — if we wouldn’t even want to watch it — we should ask ourselves, where is the basic integrity in paying someone to do something we are opposed to?

Should animal advocates promote “humane meat”?
We should also understand that our decisions can have a strong impact on other people, and our decision to eat any meat at all (even if the meat is from producers that are less abusive) may influence others to eat factory farmed meat.

I’ve been a vegan for 27 years, and, in that time, I’ve convinced many friends and acquaintances to follow my lead. Each one of these individuals saves just as many animals through their veganism as I do through mine. Every person I convince to choose a plant-based diet increases my lifetime impact as a vegan.

But the reverse is also true: By not advocating veganism, all of those animals who could have been saved will instead suffer terrible lives and die horrible deaths.

Most people observing someone eating “humane” meat simply see a fellow meat-eater. They are not likely to change their own diets, because what they see is simply meat. Beyond that, eating “humane” meat is far more difficult than eating a vegan diet. Every restaurant in the country has something for vegans to eat, and it’s almost always cheaper than the meat-based alternatives. The vast majority of cities don’t have even a single restaurant that serves meat from animals who have not been factory farmed.

Obviously, working for improved living and dying conditions for farmed animals is a critical element in the animal rights movement. We should be fighting to ban gestation crates and battery cages. We should be working to ensure that the Humane Slaughter Act is properly enforced. The vast majority of Americans explicitly support banning abusive systems and decreasing abuse at slaughter, and we should strive to align our laws with our national values.

It’s important for the animals involved that we take steps toward ending the cruelty they endure every day. We cannot ignore the animals who are currently suffering.

But for anyone who truly cares about animals, veganism is the only choice that aligns our values — our opposition to cruelty and killing — with our actions.

It’s not that much to ask, and lives are depending on us.



Postcard From the Road – Hawaii

By Gene

The Vegetarian Society of Hawaii, with the support of Down to Earth™, a vegan-friendly health food store chain on the islands, recently welcomed me to their beautiful homeland. I spoke to several groups and attended events on Oahu and Maui. As I’ve seen in many other places, vegan awareness is thriving there!


Sharing our message
Three events on three consecutive days drew strong attendance, and our message was magnified in news reports on two popular morning news programs with special segments promoting plant-based eating. One of these programs also included an interview with Justin Young, a talented musician and Farm Sanctuary supporter who performed at a Valentine’s Eve benefit for Farm Sanctuary at Govinda’s vegetarian restaurant in Honolulu.




Justin Young performing at the Valentine’s Eve benefit.

During my visit, I met Patricia Bragg (of Bragg Liquid Aminos), whose father, Paul Bragg, inspired the beginnings of Jack LaLanne’s life-long devotion to encouraging fitness and nutritional eating, and Jay, a vegan athlete who ran the Honolulu marathon (26.2 miles) carrying an impressive 100-pound log to demonstrate both the endurance and strength that plant foods can support. I also saw old friends like Ruth Heidrich, a six-time ironman triathlon finisher who beat cancer on a plant-based diet, and Dr. Bill Harris, a former fighter pilot who founded the Vegetarian Society of Hawaii and who is keeping active into his 80s by parachuting out of planes, among his other pursuits! Members of Hawaii’s vegetarian community are actively demonstrating the short- and long-term benefits of eating plants instead of animals.


Gene with Patricia Bragg and Matt Jisa.

Animal agriculture operates in Hawaii on a relatively small scale, with the exception of the Parker Ranch, one of the oldest and largest cattle ranches in the United States. It was established in the 1800s, alongside the whaling industry, and comprises roughly 250,000 acres. As on the mainland, Hawaii’s animal agriculture industry also includes chickens exploited for egg production and pigs exploited for meat who are kept in cramped, filthy enclosures. Exploiting animals for commercial gain here presents animal welfare problems associated with shipping animals to and from the mainland. To contest these practices in Hawaii, members of the vegetarian society and animal activists are speaking out and demanding reforms.

Special opportunities
I especially enjoyed whale watching — from a bluff, not a boat — during my visit. Mothers and their babies swim, dive, and breach in the waters around Hawaii as part of their annual migration for birthing and mating. In the past, killing whales was a significant economic activity in Hawaii, but thankfully times have changed. A more humane and sustainable economy has now developed around watching and appreciating these whales.

During my time on Maui, I visited Leilani Farm Sanctuary. This shelter for abused animals shares a kindred spirit with Farm Sanctuary. Laurelee Blanchard, their director, is a dedicated animal advocate who I’ve known for many years. She moved to Hawaii in 1999 and now lives in the middle of her sanctuary, surrounded by rescued animals. We toured the grounds together and then enjoyed a tasty vegan meal prepared by Laurelee’s boyfriend, Barry. It always delights and inspires me to spend time with other committed, passionate advocates.


Gene at Leilani Farm Sanctuary. Photo credit: Leilani Farm Sanctuary.

All of these individuals who are supporting animal causes, choosing more plant-based diets, and speaking out on behalf of suffering animals show me that we can make a positive difference in our world. I just love watching our movement grow!


A Foul State of Affairs: The Hidden Harm of Factory Farms in North Carolina

By Gene

Factory farms have a lot to hide. We’ve all seen undercover footage exposing the horrendous treatment suffered by industry animals that a few brave individuals are able to bring light (as with the recent case involving dairy cow abuse by Central Valley Meat Co. in central California). Perhaps less obvious to the general public is the insidious environmental destruction that results from the massive amounts of waste produced by these operations. This waste degrades the surrounding land and surface waters in what most of us consider to be distant places. To local communities, however, the reality of factory farming is anything but hidden — the smell, the flies, the foul brown water all seep through the land they call home.

View from above: a factory farm and manure lagoons.

I recently had the opportunity to view firsthand the negative impact that factory farms have on the environment and their communities in eastern North Carolina. Farm Sanctuary’s Bruce Friedrich (senior director for strategic initiatives), Nick Ugliuzza (our photographer and videographer), and I were invited as guests of Robert F. Kennedy’s Waterkeeper Alliance, which provides support for communities standing up for their rights to clean water and for the wise and equitable use of water resources, both locally and globally. Among other laudable activities, Waterkeeper Alliance works to enforce Clean Water regulations by documenting water pollution and holding factory farms accountable.

Shocking Sites
Waterkeeper staff member Larry Baldwin and volunteers Rick Dove and Joanne Somerday were our guides to some shocking sites. North Carolina is second only to Iowa in the number of hogs raised for meat in the United States, and it ranks second to Minnesota in slaughter of turkeys for meat. The chicken industry is also significant and expanding there; in fact, another large scale chicken facility is slated to be built in the state. The waste produced by these Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) — more aptly described as animal factories — is overwhelming and destructive, and what we saw on our tour deeply saddened us.

We flew over expansive manure “lagoons” on the properties of pig farms; we saw these operations spewing liquid pig manure onto fields, which then flows into surface water and pollutes the environment. Near a road outside one animal factory, we witnessed a cow standing chest deep in water laden with pig manure. We also observed sprinklers spraying liquid manure away from a farm, murky brown water flowing into a ditch, and miserable turkeys crammed into sheds almost the size of a football field.

No Trespassing
When we tried to speak with several “farm” owners about their methods and expansion plans, we were rebuffed. The local city council members who were called to meet with concerned citizens were either poorly informed, claiming ignorance about the chicken farm expansion plans, or worse, trying their best to curb any community-wide discussion about the issues. Case in point: The “heads-up” information on plans for expansion of these operations that should have been the starting point of an open dialogue with citizens was posted on a sign declaring that a new slaughterhouse was coming soon and that a meeting would be held to approve it. It’s clear that agribusiness enjoys an imperious influence over town leaders and government policies wherever factory farming sets up shop.

So that’s the bad news.

Row after row of expansive buildings housing tens of thousands of animals.

See Something, Say Something
But the good news is that community activists are beginning to motivate their neighbors to take action. I was struck by how much courage the folks in one community had to speak up about the devastating effects of these animal factories. We spoke to two community activists who grew up in an area that includes factory farms, and they are fighting a chicken farm expansion. We also attended a town meeting with other members of the community who showed up to voice their opposition to a new factory farm. Big Agriculture is entrenched in North Carolina and in other states, and some people are clearly afraid to speak out. But these neighbors challenged the assumptions of local leaders that new (undesirable) jobs or perceived economic gains trump any concerns about the environment or quality of life. Not only are these folks noticing the problems and thinking for themselves, but they are taking the time and energy to voice their concerns to us and to local authorities.

Small Conversations, Big Results
We also met a charismatic former pig farmer named Don Webb, whose neighbors confronted him about the air pollution caused by his pig-farming operation. One person after another spoke to him about the flies, the stench, and the fact that they could no longer enjoy being outside their homes. He told us that he thought of his parents: If something like this were happening to them, he realized that he would absolutely do his best to protect them from the problem. His neighbors effectively educated him about the harm he was causing, and he decided to get out of the business. His story is a testament to the fact that one person can make a difference by starting a conversation.

Thousands of turkeys packed into one building.

Uplifting and Inspiring
This trip showed me that people in any community adversely affected by factory farming must gather their voices, stand up, and be heard! It takes courage and fortitude to challenge assumptions and educate your own neighbors, local business owners, and local government leaders. I was inspired to see people in North Carolina stepping up and taking a stand. This type of activism is never easy, but it’s the only way local governments may begin to understand that the factory farming devastation must stop.