Opinion: Bird Flu is a Problem. The Way We Deal With it is Cruel - Modern Farmer

Opinion: Bird Flu is a Problem. The Way We Deal With it is Cruel

Not only have we not learned enough from past outbreaks of avian influenza, but we still don’t have humane ways to cull infected flocks. With bird flu outbreaks still a large concern for producers, we need to find a better way to deal with them.

Photography by author.

It’s hard to say what sparked my love for all things feathered—maybe it was my “dino kid” phase that started pretty much as soon as I could talk, which naturally evolved into endless requests for bird books and binoculars. My late Nana, with whom we lived  until her passing, encouraged this development because of her own love of birds. (I guess by association, I owe my love of birds to the parakeet she had in her childhood, “Tweety.”) When I wasn’t yet allowed to have a bird of my own, I stood stock-still in the tree from which we hung bird feeders, outstretched hand full of seed, until our backyard’s resident chickadees were comfortable fluttering to a landing on my arm and eating from my palm.

I’ve worked with birds in many different settings, which allowed me access to many different species. For the exotic birds, it ranged from rescued wild-caught African Greys who wanted nothing to do with me to aviaries full of friendly budgies and cockatiels clamoring for a little one-on-one affection. For domestic birds, such as poultry, I worked with total “mutt” chickens to Bourbon Red Turkeys to the coveted Ayam Cemani, a breed of chicken that is fully jet-black, inside and out. (No, I didn’t crack any open to check.) Aside from my own pet birds, I worked on a farm where I raised chickens, ducks, and turkeys, and I volunteered for years at an avian sanctuary primarily for exotic birds like parrots. Some of the exotics I’d worked with were abused, while some were treated like royalty. With the domestics, there was one sad consistency—nobody seemed willing to care about the birds as individuals, and some barely saw them as living creatures whatsoever.

Patrick Kuklinski.

Birds are some of our most underappreciated species. Despite America’s love for birding and bird feeding (it’s estimated that the US alone had over $3 million in sales of bird food and supplies through 2023), we often underestimate their importance both to humanity and to the natural world. In the wild, birds are often keystone species (animals that have a disproportionately large impact on their surrounding environments). By spreading seeds, controlling insect populations and providing prey for larger birds and mammals, birds contribute to their ecosystems. In addition, their sensitive nature means that decreases in bird populations can often be a warning sign for impending danger to other species.

Sometimes, it seems problems the agricultural industry faces could have been avoided by simply looking ahead. Bird flu is one such circumstance that has many gritting their teeth—especially the researchers who sounded the alarm in 2022, when the same strain of bird flu that devastated farmers in 2015 re-emerged. Now, in 2024, we’re still deep in the throes of a bird flu pandemic (so far, mostly contained to animals)—and we have no signs that infections will slow. From January 2022 to June 2024, the USDA found 96.5 million infected birds—and there’s more to come. With so many years of research, loss of animals and stress to the public, one might expect that we would be closer to solving the bird flu crisis, but we’re lagging on actionable answers.

Photography via Shutterstock/IWall

A problem of our own making

Sadly, as it stands today, bird flu isn’t being handled humanely, which should be our bare minimum for epidemics like this. A common method is ventilation shutdown, which is exactly what it sounds like. The ventilation of an enclosure is shut off until the birds die “naturally.” Ventilation shutdown plus (VSD+) is a method where ventilation shutdown is combined with additional heat or gas in attempts to make the process more efficient; there’s no doubt that the birds subjected to this method still suffer excruciatingly. 

According to Ben Williamson, director of Compassion in World Farming, the leading methods of euthanasia for infected birds is “ventilation shutdown, which involves killing birds by an excruciating combination of asphyxiation and heatstroke, is inhumane, contrary to WOAH (World Organisation for Animal Health) standards and should be banned.”

According to the Animal Welfare Institute, about 77 percent of birds infected with bird flu, or 44.9 million birds, were killed via ventilation shutdown from February 2022 to March 2023. In these situations, the WOAH recommends the use of inert gasses, such as nitrogen or carbon dioxide, to be pumped into enclosures, which is a more humane method of slaughter. 

Learn More: Are your grocery choices supporting inhumane conditions? Get the facts behind the labels.

AWI’s analysis of USDA records indicates that operations with large flocks (at least 100,000 birds) were much more likely to employ VSD+ as a mass-killing method. Even with the widespread use of VSD+ in such situations, however, the USDA’s depopulation timeline was not met in a majority of cases. Of the 37 large flock depopulation events that involved VSD+ during a 16-month timespan between 2022 and 2023, nearly two-thirds took at least three days to complete. That’s far from a humane end for birds who were already potentially infected and suffering. In the most extreme cases, in which at least one million birds were involved, depopulation took more than two weeks. 

The USDA has requested that organizations only deploy VSD+ as a last-resort method of culling—and yet, in cases of such large populations of birds, humane options are rarely efficient, and so they are ignored. In addition, turning the ventilation off within a farm is essentially a free method of euthanasia, even if it’s slow and painful. More humane methods are associated with costs for which farms might not want to foot the bill. Chickens are already one of the least protected species when it comes to slaughter. They are exempt from the Humane Methods Of Slaughter Act, largely due to industry lobbying, and are instead given a provision in the 2005 Treatment of Live Poultry Before Slaughter notice by the USDA that they should be handled and slaughtered in a way that “is consistent with good commercial practices.” What this means, however, is not clearly defined. 

No easy way forward

Despite factory farms supplying the majority of the world’s poultry supply, growing concerns are also mounting over their inability to efficiently manage or stop the spread of disease. As of 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 164,099 registered poultry farms in the US, and the majority of them are factory farms.  According to analysis by the Sentience Institute, 99.9 percent of America’s broiler chickens live on factory farms, only slightly higher than 99.8 percent of America’s turkeys. 

“Factory farms create the ideal conditions for the spread of the disease, as they give viruses a constant supply of genetically similar hosts in close proximity to each other—allowing infections to spread rapidly—and for highly harmful new strains to emerge,” says Williamson. “Most worrying of all, keeping large numbers of immune-suppressed birds in close proximity also increases the risk of viruses mutating, perhaps with the risk of evolving into new more pathogenic strains, which can then multiply and spread.” Not only are factory farms a breeding ground for diseases, but stress suppresses the immune system in poultry, and there’s data showing that poultry in factory farms are indeed stressed. Many environmental factors that we’d find unpleasant—heat, crowding, light, noise—all negatively impact chickens, too.  

Photography via Shutterstock

When a farm has hundreds of thousands of birds per shed (or tens of thousands of birds per shed in some cage-free systems), rapid disease spread is unavoidable. What’s more, on a policy level, the government and farms are not treating these outbreaks as something that can be mitigated within a farm—if disease is detected, the entire flock is killed,” says karol orzechowski, from Faunalytics, an organization that collects data and research to improve animal welfare. “In this framework, mitigating disease within a farm becomes a moot point.” While there is no cure for HPAI in chickens, there’s no efficient way to test large flocks, meaning uninfected birds are culled along with their infected shedmates. 

There’s no easy answer here. There are plenty of expedient ways to cull chickens without prolonged suffering—cervical dislocation by hand, throat slitting, individualized gassing—that produce much less suffering. But these methods take additional time and money, leading many corporations to opt for the easier method, regardless of  the torment the animals endure.

Read More: Find out more about the proposed solutions to Bird Flu.

The Better Chicken Initiative, headed by Compassion in World Farming USA, is a program intended to improve the lives of chickens in factory farms, as well as breed healthier chickens that produce better-quality meat for consumers. Launched in 2014, the organization estimates that with corporate partnerships through the program, the conditions and lives for over 100 million chickens have been improved. Meanwhile, some farms are taking matters into their own hands, such as Kipster, a Dutch egg farm (that has just opened its first US location), prioritizing humane conditions and carbon-neutral farming. 

Whether or not we’re ready to accept it, there’s probably one answer that’s far more humane than any proposed alternatives to bird flu—restructuring not only how factory farms operate but how we treat farmed poultry. Until we have conditions for farmed birds that don’t actively promote the spread of illness, we’ll have to keep fighting. We may not see immediate solutions to the bird flu crisis, but strengthening our animal welfare practices now will help animals and consumers for generations to come.


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Sue Mason
10 days ago

Heartbreaking for the millions of birds that suffer in factory farms during their life and then during their death and people just complain about not getting enough eggs. I wish they would educate themselves and also show some compassion.

Karen Hirsch
10 days ago

Thank you so much for writing about this issue! The animals we use for food deserve so much more than lives and deaths of agony so that people can have cheap eggs and meat. Please visit http://www.thehumaneleague.org if you want to help end their suffering.

1 day ago

This was hard to read, the whole issue of factory farming is upsetting, and I’m even more disturbed to learn of VSD as a commonly used method to cull birds that are possibly infected. It seems like operators are afraid to think of chickens as living animals instead of production units. They can be raised and slaughtered humanely, it just has to be prioritized by the corporations who own these farms. I only buy eggs from farms where they are exclusively raised on pasture, and I seldom buy chicken meat anymore, because I don’t want to contribute a dime to… Read more »