Bird ban is sad but sensible

The Way I See It Jason Hawk, editor

At first blush it might seem like a sweeping statewide ban on showing birds this summer at all Ohio state and county fairs is overzealous.

After all, we love seeing the colorful peacocks, friendly ducks, downy geese, and strutting chickens each year at the Lorain County Fair just as much as anyone — and we have the photos to prove it.

We’ve also met plenty of bright 4-H kids from Amherst, Oberlin, Wellington, and other areas who have poured their hearts into raising birds.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture’s seemingly knee-jerk reaction to avian flu fears is anything but. Rather, this is a prudent step in protecting the public health. Once this highly-contagious virus is loose in our state, there is no putting the lid back on Pandora’s box, as farmers in Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa can attest. Those are the states where the virus is already out of control.

Most avian flus do not hurt humans. This one can, the ODA warns, though no people have been infected to date in the United States. But more than 700 have contracted the H5N1 strain internationally, according to the World Health Organization.

The larger risk (and the real concern, speculation aside) is to Ohio’s bird population itself. We produce the second-most eggs of any state in the nation. As our love of fairs attests, agriculture is very much at the heart of the Ohio economy and self-identity. And no one wants to see living things suffer needlessly. More than 44 million chickens and turkeys across the Midwest have already been killed by the virus.

This is no hypothetical situation. And it’s important to remember that there is precedent for health concerns at fairs, especially ours.

In September 2001 there were 23 cases of E.coli at the Lorain County Fair, traced back to contamination at the Cow Palace. Then in 2012, the swine flu forced our fair and others to again take precautionary steps. Pigs were nixed entirely at the Cuyahoga County Fair.

Whenever large numbers of animals and people come into close proximity, it creates a vector for disease. And it’s only responsible to try to limit contagion whenever possible, even if it cuts into good ol’ fair fun.

There is nothing short of total quarantine, really, that bird-raisers can do to prevent this virus from spreading once they hit the fair. Even the best-cared-for birds are susceptible because the avian flu is spread by contact with wild birds. The most-loved, cleanest, best-groomed show bird still likely lives in barn, and that means any passing infected stranger that flaps in could be a vector for the flu to spread.

All this adds up to one inescapable conclusion: The Department of Agriculture’s preventative measures are harsh but necessary. They are a reminder that every animal can carry dangers, no matter how domesticated.

At the same time there is a need to temper our worries. With common sense, caution, hand-sanitizer, clothes-changing after contact with birds, and this ban, we can all stay healthy.