The collapse of Pigeon King International last June has helped identify the gaps in the Ontario’s livestock and poultry industry is preparedness for a major disease outbreak.
Al Dam, poultry specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), says he worked 16-hour days, six days a week for six weeks after Pigeon King owner Arlan Galbraith of Waterloo declared bankruptcy last June.
Dam and many others in the poultry industry were swamped by the crisis, phoning for information and being phoned by others. “I had a land line in one ear, a mobile phone in the other and people were passing notes to me,” Dam recalls.
Two days after Galbraith’s surprise decision, the Ontario Farm Animal Council (OFAC) organized a conference call that involved the key players, such as OMAFRA, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA), the poultry-marketing boards and Brian’s Poultry Services Ltd.
This team eventually helped 13 barn owners euthanize about 180,000 pigeons. They drew on the equipment and expertise of the poultry industry, developed over several years of preparing to deal with an outbreak of a foreign animal disease.
Even though this was not a disease emergency, and therefore there were no quarantine zones and not much news media attention, the team involved was swamped.
OFAC’s Crystal McKay said the experience has demonstrated that the industry will need more people to deal with a disease outbreak, and they will need thorough training and some practical experience.
The industry needs to go beyond tabletop exercises and to get people out to farms to deal with the practical realities, said several speakers at a meeting organized by OFAC to explain what happened with Pigeon King.
One lesson is that the owners are traumatized and need counselling. Dam said it took more than one visit to explain options, then get the barn owners to sign a contract before the team could get to work helping them euthanize the pigeons.
Dam said he learned that it would be better to get the owners off the farm during euthanization. One owner broke down and cried. Another went into a panic, then into a drinking binge and ended up passing out.
Dam and the others agreed that counselling ought to be available to farmers before and after a depopulation; some of the staff involved in these situations also need counselling. He said every member of the team on Pigeon King got sick at some point during the six weeks, but not with the same symptoms or disease.
Dam said the trials Egg Farmers of Ontario did with euthanizing flocks of spent hens proved valuable. “You could tell they knew how to do things.”
That included catching pigeons in the dark and loading them into the mobile euthanizing chamber, about 2,000 birds per lot. It took about 15 minutes to kill them, then they were dumped out of the pullet carriers and left for the farmers to dispose. About half of them chose to bury their birds and the other half composted them.
McKay congratulated OMAFRA for quickly posting technical information on its website, and updating it as quickly as new and better information became available.
The OSCPA had the role of being the first contact with the 14 barn owners involved. These were birds owned by Galbraith, many of them gathered from farmers working under contract. They were being held in these barns until Galbraith and his sales staff could line up new buyers.
Bird ownership and responsibility was a key issue at the beginning. The OSCPA advised that the barn owners would be held responsible for animal welfare and on that basis said those barn owners had the right to dispose of the birds. That settled the issue of legal liability.
Galbraith phoned each of those barn owners when he declared bankruptcy, telling them the birds were now theirs – and their problem.
Dam said the team decided these 14 barns were the priority, and in the end they were the only ones the team euthanized. Owners of breeding flocks were on their own.
The OSPCA exercised a search warrant on PKI headquarters in Waterloo and seized the names of 250 PKI flock owners, but because of privacy laws, did not and will not share that information.
But from that information, Dam’s team knew there were 14 flocks that required high-priority attention.
While Dam was working flat out to determine how to deal with these flocks, others at OMAFRA were researching potential markets. Although there is a thriving squab industry in the province complete with custom slaughtering plants, few of the Galbraithbred birds would qualify.
There is also a thriving racing pigeon community, and another for homing pigeons, but they weren’t interested in what were basically mongrel pigeons. There is a tiny market for pigeons to feed falcons hired to patrol the skies near airports.
McKay said it was extremely helpful that the egg board had lined up liquid carbon dioxide suppliers long ago in developing its emergency-preparedness plans.
The egg board was, for example, able to line up delivery over the July 1 holiday weekend for a truck to be at a farm Tuesday.
The emergency-preparedness planning that had gone on before also helped line up equipment and people, Dam said.
“Logistics and communications. Everything comes down to that,” Dam said.
“It demonstrated the value of our emergency preparedness efforts,” said Pam Bolton of the egg board.