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Poultry disease sparks a battle of philosophies in southeastern Manitoba

A case of the deadly infectious laryngotracheitis virus in a small flock of chickens near Steinbach has put the birds’ owners at odds with the province’s commercial poultry industry.

Owner Raelle Schoenrock says she will not be euthanizing her flock of about 50 birds because this goes against the farm’s mission as a sanctuary for neglected and abused animals.

“We have a family, a business, just like the poultry farmers do,” Schoenrock told the Manitoba Co-operator. “We are not trying to adversely affect anyone’s livelihood, just as we hope no one will try to adversely affect ours.

Why it matters: The owners of a farm animal sanctuary are obeying the letter of the law regarding their ILT-carrying chickens. That raises the question of whether the regulations are adequate and what happens when philosophies collide.

“We have taken all precautions necessary to make sure one of our hens does not cause another farm to suffer as we have,” said Schoenrock. “If only the farmer who brought infected birds to the local auction mart had done that, we would never had gone through this nightmare to begin with.”

Raelle Schoenrock with two residents of her sanctuary farm.
photo: Facebook

Schoenrock said most of their birds are bought at a local auction mart, or given to them by farmers. This makes it likely that the disease came from another, unknown farm.

The case of infectious laryngotracheitis (ILT) was detected in late May or early June. Schoenrock reported it to Manitoba’s chief veterinary officer.

ILT is an acute respiratory disease of chickens. It’s caused by a herpes virus that usually kills 10 to 20 per cent of infected birds, but mortality can reach 70 per cent in some cases. Birds that do not succumb to the disease can remain carriers long after.

According to Manitoba Agriculture’s website, it’s not uncommon to see one or two cases diagnosed every year in backyard flocks. ILT has not been detected in a commercial flock in many years. Much of the research literature suggests there are few, if any, wild reservoirs for the disease.

Southeastern Manitoba is a noted production region for laying hens and broiler chickens.

“Our producers are very concerned,” said Wayne Hiltz, executive director of the Manitoba Chicken Producers. “This case is in the heart of the poultry industry area, and we have several commercial flocks within five and 10 kilometres of the flock.”

Hiltz said a commercial flock found to carry ILT would be eradicated within 48 hours.

For Schoenrock, this is unthinkable. “Our job as a sanctuary is to provide safe haven, protect and love them. Just as we do for all the other species here.”

Schoenrock, a veterinary technician, said she spent days nursing the sick chickens. At the time of writing, she had lost three birds, one of which died in her arms.

The Schoenrocks are complying with a disease management plan set out by Manitoba’s chief veterinary officer, said a departmental spokesperson in a statement.

“The premises’ veterinarian implemented a voluntary quarantine with the farm owner immediately after the flock tested positive,” said Bergman. “Manitoba Agriculture staff attended the premises, investigated the current and ongoing risks, and expanded the voluntary quarantine with a thorough disease management plan. This plan will be the basis of a long-term quarantine, that, based on the assessment of the flock and its management, will address risks over the longer term.”

The farm receives visitors who come to interact with the animals. The affected birds have been completely quarantined and shut off from visitors, according to posts on the farm’s Facebook page. Visitors coming from other farms have been advised to change shoes and clothes to prevent the transfer of disease.

Hiltz said traffic in and out of the farm increases the risk of spread “exponentially.”

“There is a risk to a $300-million-per-year industry that 145 farmers rely on for their livelihood,” said Hiltz. “If their current actions result in spread of the ILT, and commercial flocks are affected, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses, saying, ‘I am sorry, I guess we should have put down our flock,’ really won’t help.”

The Manitoba Chicken Producers has advised farmers within 10 kilometres of the affected flock to increase their biosecurity to “Level 3” from the usual “Level 1.” This would mean restricting farm access to essential personnel only, keeping movements on and off the farm to a minimum, avoiding other farms and common gathering places, installing a vehicle wash area and disinfecting all vehicles, as well as other precautions, Hiltz said.

He said increased security would have financial implications for the producers.

“All our farmers practise bio­security measures on a daily basis,” said Hiltz. “These standards are a significant reason why we haven’t seen diseases such as ILT in a broiler flock in decades, or more recently, even when avian influenza was ‘right next door’ in northern Minnesota a few years ago, we never had a case in (Manitoba).”

“No one knows where the chickens are that infected ours,” said Schoenrock. “No one is trying to find them, go after that farmer.

“If another farm tests positive for ILT, it will be because the disease is more common than people realize. Not because our sanctuary spread it.”

The Manitoba Co-operator asked a departmental spokesperson from the CVO if it was investigating where the disease came from, but at the time of writing, it had not responded.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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