In July 2020, Mercy For Animals joined a federal lawsuit challenging the United States Department of Agriculture’s inadequate response plan for highly pathogenic avian influenza (“bird flu”). Now, two years later, the USDA has finally settled this lawsuit! This is a huge win for both animals and people.
The lawsuit—originally filed by the Humane Society of the United States before including both Farm Sanctuary and Mercy For Animals—aimed to prove that the USDA’s current bird flu response plan is shortsighted and dangerous and to force the department to do a full environmental impact assessment before developing a new plan. In March 2021, the USDA tried to have our lawsuit dismissed. But a judge denied the USDA’s motion, and the lawsuit moved forward.
How we respond to dangerous pandemics could make all the difference for both people and animals. Three out of four emerging infectious diseases in people are zoonotic, passed from nonhuman animals to humans. Industrial poultry facilities and other factory farms are perfect breeding grounds for disease. With so many animals kept in crowded, filthy conditions, viruses can more easily mutate into deadly forms and spread, circulating among the animals or carried by workers, insects, and rodents.
Preventing the development and spread of dangerous pathogens should be a top priority for the federal government. The USDA could help reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases by limiting the confinement of animals in factory farms, such as requiring cage-free environments for laying hens, increasing the space available per animal, and lowering the number of animals allowed to be kept in the same facility.
Instead, the department’s current response plan essentially subsidizes cruel and dangerous factory farming by using taxpayer dollars to reimburse poultry farms that lose chickens to disease—disease the farms’ terrible conditions help promote. While its current plan includes encouraging farmers to consider reducing the number of birds in poultry houses, there is no evidence that this “encouragement” has actually had any impact.
The USDA’s plan also permits “depopulation,” or mass on-farm killing. This year alone, almost 38 million chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese have been killed in an attempt to stop the virus. Approved methods outlined by the American Veterinary Medical Association include a variety of agonizing techniques, such as ventilation shutdown. This brutal method involves killing all the birds in a barn at one time by turning off the ventilation system and increasing the heat. The terrified birds flap their wings and jump around, eventually collapsing and succumbing to heatstroke. This horrible death often takes up to two hours.
In settling our lawsuit, the USDA has agreed to go back to the drawing board and rework its avian flu response plan. This will involve assessing the plan’s environmental impacts—something the department should have done in the first place. Mercy For Animals and our partners will be watching closely to make sure the USDA does a better job protecting both people and animals in the future.
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