The following is a post by guest-blogger, Dr. David Waltner-Toews.
For North American veterinarians, the term “companion animals” covers a wide territory, from dogs, cats, and caged birds, to a variety of rodent and porcine escapees from barnyards and burrows. But when does a companion become something else? In my work with Veterinarians without Borders/ Vétérinaires sans Frontières – Canada, I find that I sometimes have to change my ideas of what companion animals are.
We have all heard about bird flu, and the fear that it might become a global pandemic. We know that wild water birds are the main reservoir for all the different kinds of influenza viruses that emerge every year from Southeast Asia and circle the world. The viruses are unstable, and historically haven’t caused many problems in birds. The disease in people can be serious, especially in older people, but large scale vaccination programs have helped. The big concern is that a new variation of the virus has evolved and has spilled from water birds into domestic poultry. A virus that not only kills birds, but also kills a high percentage of people – and other animals such as cats. Fortunately, it is difficult to contract – you pretty much have to be the one killing and cleaning the bird.
To some people, the way to stop a global pandemic is easy. If you suspect bird flu on a premise, kill all the birds and disinfect the area. Easy, isn’t it? They are, after all, “just chickens”. Or are they?
When my wife and I recently visited a part of the island of Java, Indonesia, where this new virus is thought to be endemic, that is, a lot of birds are carrying it, I already knew it was more complicated than just killing chickens. Often, poor people will “salvage” sick, dying or even already-dead birds by cooking them up and eating them before the authorities discover them. If you are hungry, it seems such a waste not to. As a result of such situations, about 120 people in Indonesia have died of bird flu since 2003.
But, we discovered, poverty is not the only “complication”. We held a town hall meeting in one village, in the middle of this endemic area, to explore how they were coping with the disease. They told us that they didn’t have any bird flu. Certainly, sometimes, they had some sick birds, which they threw into the river, but no bird flu. They attributed their disease-free status to the fact that they fed their birds a warm porridge made from snails and papaya leaves.
After our town hall meeting, we trundled through the rain to one of the nearby chicken-owners. When we entered the well-kept concrete-walled yard, a young boy proudly showed us his pet pigeon. His father, however, did him one better. It turns out that this family raised singing roosters, so-called Ayam Pelung, beautiful birds, about a metre high. I knew that wild jungle fowl had first been domesticated in Southeast Asia tens of thousands of years ago as fighting birds, now referred to in Indonesia as Ayam Bangkok.
I had heard about the singing birds, and had seen them in their cages at a competition at the veterinary college in Yogyakarta when I worked there in the mid 1980s, but this was my first close-up view. The men who owned them proudly crouched next to them for pictures. Periodically, one of the roosters would stand still and give a long, drawn out, low, throaty call, an avian version of some sultry lounge singer. These birds, if they win competitions throughout the country and region, apparently bring in up to 500 to 1000 U.S. dollars each. In a country where the average annual income is between $3000 and $4000, a few birds can represent a huge investment. Are these birds companion animals? Are they friends, workers, threats… or just chickens?
When is a dog or a cat or a bird more than a companion? When they sing? Race? Fight? When they are worth lots of money? In Thailand, where fighting cocks are common, and are valuable, the authorities have issued “vaccination passports”, with pictures of the roosters, indicating vaccination with a reputable influenza vaccine. When, in trying to control a disease, do we cross the line from “culling” economically important “units” to killing companions? When do we hand out passports?
If you had an amazing purebred dog worth tens of thousands of dollars, and the public health authorities threatened to kill it if it was found to be harbouring some virus which might or might not make you sick, what would you do? What if that dog was not only your companion, but your retirement investment?
Suddenly controlling a bird flu pandemic is a lot more complicated than killing “just chickens”. Welcome to the real world.
David Waltner-Toews is the founding President of Veterinarians without Borders/ Vétérinaires sans Frontières – Canada (www.vwb-vsf.ca) and a Professor in the Department of Population Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College.