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Micke Grove zookeepers say they're ready to battle bird flu

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Posted: Thursday, December 1, 2005 10:00 pm

Animal experts at the Micke Grove Zoo are ready to fight against avian influenza, even though the chances of the flu coming to San Joaquin County are remote.

Zoo officials announced that their plan to combat the virus, commonly known as the bird flu, has been approved by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. The association accredits zoos and other wildlife habitats.

Avian influenza is a viral infection that occurs naturally in birds. Some birds merely carry the virus and can stay healthy. But others, particularly chickens, ducks and other water fowl, can become infected, often fatally.

"I think Micke Grove Zoo is very prepared for this," said Jackie Gai, a private zoo veterinarian who spends one day each week at Micke Grove to make sure all of the animals look healthy and to give them physical exams. "No one in the country knows exactly what to expect, but the Micke Grove is very ready."

The zoo's defense plan includes the disposal of biological waste, which can harbor the virus, regular surveillance of all animals, vaccinations for most animals and special procedures that go into affect as soon as there is a report of the virus in the area, Zoo Curator Matt McKim said.

Staff at the zoo take many regular precautions to guard against the bird flu and other diseases, he said.

Food and water bowls are disinfected every day, and some animals get the same bowls day after day.

Whenever an animal dies at the zoo, it gets a necropsy - the animal version of an autopsy - to identify what killed it. That way, if there is a disease, it gets identified right away.

"We would want to know why our animals died," McKim said.

Every year, veterinarians vaccinate all birds at the zoo against West Nile. A chemical solution, referred to as a footbath, lets workers disinfect their footwear before leaving or entering some parts of the zoo to stop the spread of a disease if one exists.

And animal waste is quickly removed from cages to prevent the spread of the virus.

"We have to keep that separate from the animals," McKim said.

In general, cleaning everything is the key to stopping the bird flu. But if many animals get sick or die at the same time, staff will be tipped off that something is wrong.

Gai, who also cares for animals at the Oakland Zoo and at the PAWS animal sanctuary in Galt, said Micke Grove staff takes appropriate care of its animals.

"New arrivals are quarantined, where they are tested for disease and general health," she said. The quarantine lasts at least 30 days.

The zoo also doesn't accept donated food to make sure animals don't get sick.

"If there is an outbreak, we are ready to partition the zoo and isolate all of the animals," McKim said.

If the bird flu or any other serious disease was found in the zoo, all of the animals would be quarantined, the zoo would be closed to the public, and as a last-case scenario, some of the animals would have to be euthanized, he said.

"That's the last step," he said. "We do everything we can to stop the threat by treating the animals if possible."

Gai said if the bird flu entered the zoo, the exotic birds would be the most at risk.

"We have Canada Geese, and they could also be susceptible," she said.

In the event of an outbreak, a pond at the zoo for birds would be closed - because the pond is accessible to wild birds - and the zoo's birds would be moved to another area.

It is unusual for humans to get the virus, and in most of the human cases in Southeast Asia, the infected people lived in close proximity to infected birds.

Zoo staff said there is little chance of people contracting the virus from zoo animals, because they are always separated by windows or by distance.

Contact reporter Roman Gokhman at romang@tracypress.com.

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