[chick1]The chicks are nervous. Transferred by the students into plastic boxes to be weighed for ANS 252, Introduction to Management of Avian Species, they chirp loudly and crowd over each other for space. These hens are White-Rock Cornish mixes, the fastest growing animal on earth in their first six weeks of life. At three-weeks old, they’re in their awkward teen phases now.
Getting the chicks on the scales is a difficult matter at first. One chick is literally scared shitless, and relieves herself on the scale. After the students get her weight, they weigh the poo. “8.4 grams!” Another student replies, “isn’t that more than when we first weighed them?” Everyone in the smelly coop laughs, and the chicks become easier to handle.
“One reporter was asking me all these questions, like, ‘should people stop eating poultry?’ The answer is of course not,” says Richard Balander, associate professor of animal science and teacher for ANS 252. “As far as I can tell, it’s extremely, extremely unlikely that any of our commercial birds would come down with [avian influenza].”
Thanks to the media, bird flu has become synonymous with the word pandemic. The justification for the claim generally comes from three main talking points: 1) the H5N1 strain of the bird flu is similar to the virus that caused the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918, including the high fatality rate 2) the virus needs only to gain the ability to transfer from human to human in order for the disease to become dangerous, and 3) we’re, um, about due for a pandemic anyways. Well, it certainly sounds serious.
“In the pandemic of 1918, I believe 40,000,000 people died…it traversed the whole globe,” Willie Reed, director of the diagnostic center for population and animal health at MSU. The MSU Diagnostic Center actually has the equipment used to track the H5N1 strain of the bird flu. “The virus is spreading to more bird populations. And so the key for us in the US is to have a good surveillance program which means we are routinely testing birds…so that if we find [the virus]…that flock would be depopulated as quickly as possible.”
[chick2]The depopulation efforts were used as preventative measures in China, Vietnam, and other countries in Southeast Asia where the virus is thought to have originated. The lack of efforts to control the virus in Indonesia, however, has brought the country under fire by Western nations. Indonesia is reluctant to kill off flocks of chickens for economic reasons, but also as a defiant gesture.
“Owning chickens is a sign of wealth and well-being to many of [the Indonesian] people. So many of them may have twenty, thirty, fourty chickens running around,” said Balander. If you can imagine, this is a major contrast to the United States poultry. “Most of our birds in this country are completely environmentally-housed, being all indoors.” Free range birds are fairly uncommon and are unheard of among large chicken producers like Tyson. And while many animal rights activists take issue with these large companies’ treatment of the chicken, the measures poultry producers have taken will severely limit the possibility of the virus entering the country through chickens.
There is so little one can say for certain about the virus, though, except that it has caused one big panic worldwide. We aren’t completely certain how the virus is transmitted and we don’t know when or if the virus will be able to pass from human to human and we don’t know if the virus will continue to mutate further to become more or less dangerous than it is now and we don’t know whether the little viruses are actually magical radioactive space creatures dropped onto the planet by a comet, only to be discovered by a group of wacky, mismatched teenagers. What we do know is that both Indonesia and the rest of the world are overreacting a bit. The Russian response to an outbreak in their country was to send men in protective health suits in to kill chickens in mobile gas chambers and then wrap them up and then bury the bodies under lime. Meanwhile, countries from America to Europe to Asia have all been trying to stockpile the drug Tamiflu, which may or may not even be an effective means of dealing with the H5N1 strain of the virus. On the other hand, you have the Indonesian people who have been, even somewhat recently, denying the viruses’ existence (in spite of the Indonesian government’s recognition of the problem) and blaming the illness on “the wind.”
If the bird flu has done anything (besides kill about 60 of the 121 people it has infected), it is to highlight the differences between the Westerners and Indonesians in general. A general sense of fear and hypochondria (remember SARS?) is beginning to take over the population; people claim to have already caught the virus in the United States. These people are perhaps forgetting that regular old flu that seems to come around, once a season or so. It doesn’t help when the President gives speeches that allude to massive, military-controlled quarantines as he did early in October. The Indonesian response is mixed, with many fearing that destroying bird populations would ruin the agriculturally dependent economy. The possible financial disaster could also be exacerbated by the end of gas subsidies in the country which, until September, kept Indonesian gas prices far below even America’s. Worry about the virus itself tends to fall by the wayside.
The avian influenza is both far in the future and right in our face. We should remain cautious, but realistic. As of right now, the timid little birds in ANS 252 are only a worry if you’re a PETA member. So enjoy them while you can.[chick3]

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