Image of land area in San Bernadino County
Backyard Exhibition Chicken
Backyard Rooster

*The following post is an opinion piece by the author.

An outbreak of virulent Newcastle Disease (vND) has been affecting domestic poultry in California since May 17, 2018, when the first case was confirmed. This disease keeps the owners of large-scale commercial egg laying operations awake at night because past incursions of the disease into these operations have not only proved deadly for millions of birds, but put their business viability at risk. After outbreaks of Newcastle disease in commercial operations in California in the early 1970s, California was no longer the number one egg producing state in the country.

A California Outbreak

In the current outbreak, the greatest number of affected premises have been located in the southern California counties of Riverside and San Bernardino, which are near Los Angeles and San Diego. Both counties extend from urban western boundaries all the way to the eastern border of California with Nevada (San Bernardino) and Arizona (both counties). The County of San Bernardino is the largest county in the continental United States, and has a larger land area than nine US states. The population, however, is largely concentrated in its southwest corner. The county seat and its largest city, San Bernardino, is directly east of Los Angeles, and adjacent to and north of the city of Riverside. About 50 percent of the population identified as Hispanic or Latino in the 2010 US Census.

Backyard Exhibition Chickens

In reviewing the USDA listing of premises affected by vND, the majority are identified as having backyard exhibition chickens. What is a backyard exhibition chicken? This is a type of bird that is not kept for its eggs or meat, but for its money-making potential in cockfights. Isn’t cockfighting illegal, you may ask? Yes, it is. However, passing a law to ban something is the easy part. Actually getting the practice to stop is quite another, especially when you are dealing with a sport that is culturally acceptable to those involved. Related to that point, I refer you to media news regarding the ban of cockfighting in Puerto Rico that was incorporated into the 2018 Farm Bill. Also, think about how much illegal drug use there is. Criminalizing a practice does not always stop it.

The Challenge of Eradication

This is the challenge: eradicating an introduced foreign animal disease in a population of backyard exhibition chickens using the standard response of regulatory veterinary medicine, which is to euthanize infected birds and all that may have been exposed to those birds. If you have a bird of value, are you going to want to turn it over to the authorities to be killed or are you going to try to hide it or send it to your friends or family in the next neighborhood? Probably the latter, which is likely contributing to the spread of the disease. Despite outreach efforts targeted to Hispanics and Spanish-speaking populations, the disease continues to propagate and infect additional susceptible birds. Occasionally, small backyard flocks of laying hens, hobby turkeys, or pet chickens have been affected as well (meaning they were killed by the virus or its control). Several small commercial laying operations have also been affected.

What is to be done? Reading comments to news articles and poultry forums reveals a lack of consensus. According to Randolph Brek (a June 2, 2019, comment to the SOB-Save Our Birds Facebook group), “The ND battle is incompetency at its best and sadly it may be doomed to fail. You cannot successfully wage this battle based on force, coercion and deceit/lying. The battle against ND should of [sic] been waged on education, cooperation, openness and transparency.” Rosland Skif commented to the San Bernardino Country Wire (Feb 27, 2019), “I am appalled this has gone on so long and can’t believe it’s not eradicated yet. Almost a year and millions of birds destroyed. It’s about time the Government gets involved and gives California a state of emergency status for additional funding to track down and eradicate this insidious epidemic.” One supports cooperation, the other supports a government crackdown. Both recognize what has been happening isn’t working well.

Finding the Right Incentives

Private interests do not necessarily align with the public good. When there is a gap, as is evident in this situation, an incentive is needed to bridge the gap. Finding the right incentive not only requires bringing private and public interests together, but might be cheaper in the long run, too.

*As of June 4, 2019, no new cases of vND have been detected: surveillance for the disease will continue indefinitely.

About the Author: Julie M Smith

Julie Smith DVM, PhD, is a research associate professor at the University of Vermont. Julie received her B.S. in Biological Sciences, D.V.M., and Ph.D. in Animal Nutrition at Cornell University. Since joining the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences in 2002, she has applied her veterinary background to programs in the areas of herd health, calf and heifer management, and agricultural emergency management. She is responsible for teaching the undergraduate Animal Welfare class required of majors in her department. Julie has conducted trainings for Extension educators, livestock producers, and community members on the risks posed by a range of animal diseases, whether they already exist in the United States, exist outside of the United States, or pose a risk to both animal and human health. In all cases, she emphasizes the importance of awareness and prevention. As a veterinarian and spouse of a dairy farmer, Julie is well aware of the animal health and well-being concerns of dairy animals. She is currently leading the ADBCAP, a multi-species, multi-state project looking at the human behavioral aspects of implementing practices to protect animal health and food security.