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Pets could spread new infections: researchers

By Alissa J. Rubin and Elisabeth Penz, Times Staff Writers

May 15, 2006

VIENNA — Year after year, undaunted by winter ice or the weak sun of Central Europe's spring, elderly Viennese have flocked to the water park on the Danube with bags of stale bread crumbs.

They came to feed the wild swans, the ducks and geese, migratory stragglers that alight on the river in Vienna's outskirts. They came to feel needed and to find a little companionship on a solitary city afternoon.

This year, Johanna Lehmann, an 85-year-old widow who used to feed the birds, could not have reached the water — she did not even try.

An 8-foot-high fence of closely woven wire net barred her way, a response to the bird flu spreading across Europe.

"You hear it all the time, on the radio, on television, and you know you should not feed the birds, but, you know, I feel so sorry for the birds — it's not their fault, and they also have to live on something," Lehmann said.

A well-dressed woman with light brown hair and a quiet voice, Lehmann takes her walks now along a small brook near her home, but because of the warnings no longer feeds the birds. A group of ladies used to meet here to feed the waterfowl, she said, but she doesn't see them anymore.

Like other Viennese pensioners, Lehmann stopped bringing crumbs after the city got serious about the bird crackdown. It had put up a low wire fence to prevent people from handling dead birds, the main cause of human infection from the H5N1 virus, the strain that causes avian flu. But after health authorities found that some pensioners had cut holes in the fence and climbed through, they built the barrier higher and issued stronger warnings, though they instituted no penalties.

Discouraged, the bird lovers drifted away.

"It was so nice when the birds came and were happy if you fed them. It's nice to care for somebody," Lehmann said. She looked with hope at a reporter. "Do you have anything to feed them with?"

The effect of bird flu policies on the elderly, many of whom, like Lehmann, live alone, is one of many unexpected consequences of the disease in Austria. The flu, which has killed 124 birds here — most of them swans, ducks and geese — and hundreds in the rest of Europe, has rippled through society, making its presence felt in ways large and small.

Sociologists point to it as a modern-day example of how diseases, such as the Black Death plague in the 14th century, touch all of society, changing politics, medicine, art and social life.

A Gallup Poll found that one-third of Austrians thought stray cats should be shot to stop them from contracting and spreading the bird flu. A quarter believed the flu could be readily transferred from live animals to humans.

"Looking at the history of epidemics, people always tend to look for someone to blame. For instance, during the Middle Ages, Jews were seen by Christians as guilty for everything … [even] for epidemics," said Roland Girtler, a professor of sociology at the University of Vienna. "If people now act hysterically and put away their animals or say that stray cats should be shot, this is exactly the medieval way of thinking about disease: to try to exterminate the things that they believe are to blame.

"Of course this is irrational. Think about, for instance, car emissions. People are not worried about them at all, but they are much more dangerous to human health at this point than bird flu."

Social changes brought about by bird flu have been subtle. It is in its infancy and far from the pandemic it could become. Yet in this small, rural country of about 8 million people, the influenza has cut a broad swath: in agriculture, sparking fights between free-range chicken farmers and factory farmers; in social life, adding to the isolation of the elderly who used to meet to feed migratory birds; and in society, bringing to the fore the primitive fears of disease that have long troubled civilizations.

The first case of confirmed bird flu in Austria came with the death of a swan in a village near Graz, a university town better known for its recent tiff with hometown celebrity Arnold Schwarzenegger. With the death of the swan, the Austrian Health Ministry called for domestic birds such as chickens to be confined indoors, and it put up the wire netting in parks to prevent people from feeding wild birds.

The animal shelter in Vienna, the largest in the country, was besieged by phone calls. "People were terrified. They wanted to bring us their domestic birds that lived indoors in cages," said Alexander Willer, the shelter's spokesman. "We had to explain to them that they could not have the bird flu because they had been indoors."

People's reactions were amplified by Austrian authorities, apparently worried that they would be accused of not having done enough to protect the public.

An animal shelter in the stone-paved streets of Graz hardly seems a likely setting for a raid, but on a cold February night, 50 veterinarians and assistants dressed in protective clothing burst in. Their target: 170 cats possibly infected with the H5N1 virus. A diseased swan had died in the shelter a few days earlier, and word went out that some of the cats might be infected. In fact, they had been separated from the other animals, but health authorities were worried anyway.

"It was terrible, terrible," said Herbert Oster, president of the shelter, called Noah's Ark.
"I was walking my dog that afternoon and I got a call from the chief veterinarian in the Health Ministry that we had two choices: to kill all the cats or to let the ministry take them away for inspection. I told him I wanted to meet with the staff, but he said there wasn't time for that."

Staff members wept as the howling cats were put into carriers, bundled into the equivalent of armored trucks and taken to a compound in southeastern Austria near the Hungarian border. It was a month before the cats were returned to Graz.

Willer, the head of Vienna's animal shelter, shook his head as he retold the story, which had been widely broadcast because the media were invited to watch the raid.

"Where did they think the cats were going to go?" he asked. "They were in a shelter, not roaming around…. And taking them to the border, what was that about?"

The most acutely affected by bird flu fears were farmers, who were told to keep their chickens indoors or in cages. Such a regulation would have relatively little effect in the United States, where most chickens are raised on large farms in chicken houses with small, stacked cages.

In Austria, half of the 2.2 million chickens are free-range, and most farmers run small family operations. Many families in the countryside keep a few chickens that roam free.

"It's a traditional way of life still here," said Kurt Kotrschal, a behavioral biologist at the University of Vienna who is on the board of the Health Ministry's animal protection division. "You have your chicken running around your yard, and it's really a heavy burden to shut them up…. The enclosures people have are really only fit for keeping them in overnight."

Toni Hubmann, who runs Toni's Free-Range Eggs, a cooperative of 300 farmers, said his chickens began to snipe, tearing out one another's feathers.

"Of course, the chickens were different when they were cooped up. It's like with dogs — when they are used to daily walks, they always wait for them," Hubmann said. "The chickens always seemed to be waiting, crowding close to the exits, expecting to be let out."

The bird flu emboldened factory farmers, who said birds in their facilities were less likely to be victims of the flu.

"There was a bit of schadenfreude toward the free-range chicken farmers, and they tried to take advantage of the bird flu hysteria," Hubmann said.

Austria, which is committed to organic food and free-range chickens, decided to allow farmers who lived in areas far from waterways to release their chickens this week so that they would not suffer economic hardship.

Hubmann jumped the gun. He was so eager to let his hens walk around unimpeded, he opened their cages and let them out at the beginning of the month. A local paper called him as he mucked about with his feathered friends outdoors, and the reporter noted that he could hear them clucking as Hubmann answered questions.

But still bereft are those city dwellers whose link to the natural world is through feeding birds and watching them alight on water and shore. The fence will remain along the Danube, especially in Vienna, an area deemed by health authorities to be vulnerable to avian flu.

Lehmann, the bird lover, watches for the migratory spring waterfowl, hoping they will not be put off by the fence.

"You know, in past years, even in the winter," she said, "they came all the way up the banks, although it is very steep," just for a few crumbs.

"They were so sweet, so dear," she said.

"There are people in Vienna who would rather go to jail than to not feed the birds," biologist Kotrschal said. "It's psychologically important for them … if they think the birds depend on them."

But he acknowledged with a sigh, "When it's a matter of economics and disease control versus animal protection and people who are connected with animals, well, they lose."

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