Avian Flu: 250,000 birds to be euthanized in Sonoma County

Animal disease experts are raising concern about the spread of the avian flu in the Bay Area after two farms in Sonoma County said they had to euthanize around 250,000 birds this week. 

The decision was made after routine testing came back positive for bird flu at a duck and egg farm in Petaluma.

"It’s just been devastating for us, nothing but devastating," said Mike Weber, a third-generation Sonoma County egg farmer, who co-owns Sunrise Farms, and had to euthanize more than 80,000 chickens after they tested positive for the latest strain of the flu.  

"We’re just trying to do what we can to eliminate the virus on our farm, so we don’t pose a risk to the other poultry farms in the area," said Weber.

Weber says his neighbors, a nearby duck farm, were hit far worse.

"They lost their entire operation, 170,000 ducks, and those ducks are coveted across the state," said Weber.

The positive cases were confirmed by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. 

Since the bird flu outbreak intensified last year, more than 68 million birds have been slaughtered nationwide. 

San Rafael-based non-profit, Wildcare, has been closely monitoring its spread.

"The problem is that the virus is carried by wild birds and so what we’ve seen is during migration seasons, it's been spreading," said Wildcare veterinarian, Juliana Sorem.

The new cases of avian flu in Sonoma County come just weeks after state wildlife agencies announced that a new vaccine being tested on California condors, has so far helped protect them from bird flu. 

Veterinarians are giving shots to condors bred in captivity at the main zoos in San Diego and Los Angeles. 

The vaccine has yet to receive formal regulatory approval. 

In the meantime, Sorem said, "The only way to really protect captive birds is to literally prevent all interaction with wild birds."

It was among the safety precautions Weber said his farm took before the discovery of the positive cases this week.

"We have footbaths, we have PPE, we wash everything down, we are just vigilant," said Weber.

Weber also noted that the positive tests for bird flu at both farms coincided with this week's sentencing of an animal rights group member in Sonoma County for his role in storming the farms back in 2018 and 2019. 

At the time, the group ‘Direct Action Everywhere’, described their member's actions as part of an effort to highlight animal exploitation taking place at the farms. 

Weber called the timing of the positive flu cases ‘suspicious’ on Saturday.

"We are concerned that this was domestic terrorists, and they’ve attacked our food supply," said Weber.

‘Direct Action Everywhere’ pushed back in a statement to KTVU on Saturday, calling the accusation an attempt to "deflect blame for bad practices onto the whistleblowers." 

Weber flatly denies that any animal mistreatment has taken place on his farm.

"We have inspectors from third parties coming in and doing animal welfare audits throughout the entire year," said Weber. "You can’t go in and mistreat animals and hide it and sweep it under the rug."

Weber says his focus now is on making sure his farm is flu-free and picking up the pieces. 

Weber added that he has been uplifted by the support he has received from those in the community.

Meantime, animal disease experts are urging the public to report any dead or sick birds spotted to the State Bird Hotline at (866) 922-BIRD (2473).