/The threat from above

The threat from above

From Shaman’s Rock

By Jim Poling Sr.

I’m eating my cereal and staring out the kitchen window when M arrives at the bird bath, now filled with seed for feathered friends not gone south.

M is Marnie, a cute and friendly pine martin who regularly stops by to check the bird feeders and to sniff out any snacks spilled at the compose bin.

Usually, I am pleased to see her. She is an endearing critter with silky fur – mostly brownish black, but grey-tan on a face featuring soft dark eyes that give her a loveable look.

 I’m not so pleased to see her today. She has arrived as I am reading some alarming news.

The morning newspapers are reporting that the H5N1 virus – commonly called a bird flu – is galloping out of control. It is killing millions of chickens worldwide, and now is infecting more and more wild birds, especially waterfowl and shorebirds.

The virus led to the deaths of 52 million birds in the United States last year. 

More alarming is the news that a mutant H5N1 strain is infecting mink, which continue to be raised by the millions on fur farms. 

Mink are excellent virus mixing vessels. They harbour both human and avian viruses and can produce mutant strains transmissible to humans. They carried the COVID-19 virus and are believed to have generated two new Covid variants that spread to humans.

Mink belong to the weasel family and so does my pine marten friend Marnie. So, there is concern that if H5N1 goes unchecked in mink farms it could spread to similar animals like pine marten and other mammals such as we humans.

H5N1 has been around for two or three decades but rarely is found in humans. That’s a good thing because the virus is deadly. There have been fewer that 900 human cases worldwide in the past 20 years, but 53 percent of those have been fatal.

Medical researchers are worried that H5N1 strains produced by mink will spread like wildfire through wild birds, small mammals and into human populations. They warn of an H5N1 pandemic that could take tens of millions of human lives.

One way to help curtail H5N1 spread is to stop fur farming. Animal rights groups say more than 100 million animals a year are raised and killed for their fur. Most are mink and fox. They cite abuse as one reason for ending fur farming.

Mink are crowded into small cages until they are ready to be killed through gassing or electrocution. Some are fed food containing poultry, which can contain avian flu viruses.

Their skins are used to make coats. winter boots and mittens that keep people warm. Mink fur is dense with thousands of hairs per square centimeter, making it one of the densest and softest furs available.

The fur also is used to decorate purses, hats and even keychains.

However, pressure from animal rights groups, plus more evidence of zoonotic diseases have been hitting fur farming hard. Production of fur in the European Union fell from 38 million animal skins in 2018 to about 11 million in 2021. 

Technology has given us alternatives to animal fur, and more people are accepting them. Revenue from the global faux fur market was estimated at 24.7 billion dollars U.S. last year. It is forecast to grow at 4.8 per cent annually, reaching $28.4 million by 2025.

Roughly two dozen countries now have banned fur farming. Fears over new virus strains coming from fur farms are expected to lead to more bans.

Canada still has fur farming but it is a business in steep decline. In 2011 there were 347 Canadian fur farming operations. Last year the number had dwindled to 97.

Meanwhile, the chances of avian influenza appearing in backyard bird baths or feeders is considered low. The federal government, however, recommends precautions such as removing feeders that are open to poultry or waterfowl.

Also, feeders should be cleaned every two weeks and disinfected with a solution of one part household bleach to nine parts water. They should be rinsed well and thoroughly dried before being reused.

Regular cleaning and disinfecting hopefully will keep all our feathered visitors, and  Marnie the pine marten, H5N1 free.