Charly Haversat and her husband, Jack Matheson, love the flock of 25 friendly chickens and ducks they raised in their Cushing backyard.
So last Monday, when Haversat went down to the coop and saw that a chicken named Salt had died, they were saddened. Later that day, alarm set in when they found another chicken dead. The death of a third chicken the following day prompted full-scale panic.
“These were our pets,” she said.
The couple talked to their veterinarian, who asked if they could send one of the dead birds to be tested and said that avian flu was a remote possibility. By the time the test results came in at the end of the week, seven more chickens had died.
The culprit? The bird tested positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza, marking the first time that the H5N1 virus had been confirmed in Maine. The discovery has put the state on high alert as state and federal animal health officials try to keep the contagion from spreading. For Haversat and Matheson, it’s meant the end of their flock.
Avian influenza is carried by flying wild waterfowl like ducks, geese and shorebirds, which are all abundant on Maine’s coast. Avian flu does not sicken wild fowl, but causes severe symptoms in domestic fowl including chickens, turkeys, ducks, pheasants, geese and guinea fowl.
The disease doesn’t present a food safety risk, according to state officials, who said that poultry and eggs are safe to eat when handled and cooked properly. In addition, there appears to be little risk of the influenza spreading to humans, as no cases of this particular strain of the avian influenza virus have been found in people in the U.S.
Still, the consequences of an outbreak can be tragic and costly. A widespread bird flu outbreak in 2015 killed 50 million birds in 15 states and cost the federal government $1 billion. Dr. Michele Walsh, Maine’s state veterinarian, said that if Mainers act appropriately and quickly, there’s “a chance of getting ahead of it.”
But that might depend on the actions of people like Haversat and Matheson.
When their birds started dying, they wanted to know why. Early symptoms in their chickens looked like lethargy, or sleepiness, with death usually coming within 12 hours. Other symptoms can include swollen heads, blue coloration of combs and wattles, lack of appetite, respiratory distress and diarrhea with a significant drop in egg production.
Getting the diagnosis meant that Haversat and Matheson had to cull the rest of their flock, even the birds that didn’t seem sick, because it’s so contagious.
A team came from the state to do that hard thing on Saturday, the day after the diagnosis came in. Walsh and another veterinarian euthanized the remaining 15 birds.
“They were compassionate. They were humane. They were very, very understanding of the fact that these were our pets,” Haversat said.
It was a tough day for the couple, who always looked forward to seeing their birds’ antics.
“Whenever I would go down to the coop, or Jack would go down to the coop, we knew the day was going to start with a little snippet of joy,” she said. “The ducks were super personable and they’d go zooming around outside. It was this little guarantee of joy that’s gone.”
It was perhaps hardest to euthanize Stevie, a Pekin duck who was full of personality. He was their favorite duck, and acted as the elder statesman of the flock.
“He was the last one to go in, and he was the one that nearly killed us,” Haversat said. “We’ll recover, but we have a new normal. We won’t have the morning joy.”
If euthanizing the flock would solve the problem, that would be one thing, she said. But she believes the only way to get ahead of avian flu is for all people with backyard or commercial flocks to treat the matter with urgency. So far, that hasn’t been the case, she said.
The couple took a proactive approach to alerting the community, but some questioned why they called the state in the first place.
“If one of your chickens gets avian flu, you’re going to lose your whole flock, even if you don’t tell the state,” she said.
On social media, she has noticed some people react to articles about the outbreak with flippant humor and sharp distrust of government and media. It’s hard for her to see the posts joking about mask or vaccine mandates for chickens, or suggesting that the outbreak has been made up to keep people scared.
“It both angered and saddened me,” she said. “I feel that one of the reasons why Jack and I are speaking out is that people need to understand how serious this is, and that it isn’t a joke.”
Haversat hopes people will understand that and do their part to stop the spread of the disease. A second case of H5N1 was detected in a backyard flock located less than two miles away from their home on Wednesday.
“If we’re not willing to work together, we’re not going to be able to fix this,” she said. “I think the part that really is frustrating is that people aren’t taking this seriously. This could wipe out the poultry industry in the United States.”