WASILLA — Sheila Pontier spends much of her time taking care of rescued animals — mostly pigs, but also birds that she nursed back to health.
So when the chickens at her Wasilla home started dropping dead in November — including five in a single day — she was very concerned.
A few lab samples later, Pontier learned her flock of 14 chickens had fallen prey to Alaska’s continuing outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza. She thinks the culprit may have been wild mallards landing in her yard and mingling with her birds.
State officials say Pontier’s backyard crew of about a dozen chicken and ducks marks the sixth domestic flock in the state to become infected with H5N1, a strain of the avian flu virus that’s killed thousands of domestic poultry and wild birds around the world.
Pontier is the executive director of a Valley-based nonprofit called the Alaska Potbelly Pig Rescue, dedicated to providing sanctuary to pigs in Alaska whose owners can no longer care for them. Her home is brimming with life — in the garage, a small black dog slumbers next to a row of snoozing pigs with names like Willy Wonka and Calvin Klein. In the backyard, ducks and chicken peck and squawk.
Pontier found out Friday that her chickens were infected with avian influenza.
“I love my animals. I love my ducks. I love my chickens,” she said this week. “It’s extremely heartbreaking.”
Alaska’s state veterinarian, Dr. Bob Gerlach, arrived at her home early Wednesday morning to euthanize the infected birds, dressed head to toe in hazmat gear to avoid contamination.
Gerlach has been busy.
Since the first case was detected in Alaska in May, 1,000 domestic birds and dozens of wild birds in the state have either been euthanized due to exposure or died naturally — and often quickly — from the deadly strain, he said Wednesday. His office has tested nearly 800 birds for the virus since the spring; about 100 came back positive.
Gerlach said he’d expected that cases would be on the decline in Alaska by winter based on historic trends, but so far, that’s not happened.
“This is totally unusual,” he said.
H5N1 is highly contagious, much like COVID-19 or influenza strains that can infect humans. Key spreaders are migrating geese and ducks that leave highly contagious droppings as they move across large areas. Symptoms in infected birds include neurological symptoms, fatigue, swollen comb or wattles, difficulty walking, nasal discharge and decreased egg production.
While the risk to human health is low, there’s no treatment for birds that are infected, and the mortality rate for poultry and raptors like hawks, eagles or owls is especially high.
In Southeast Alaska, a black bear cub at Glacier Bay National Park became the first bear in the United States known to contract avian flu and was euthanized this month after becoming sick and testing positive for the virus. A red fox in Unalaska also died of the illness.
Nationwide, nearly 53 million birds have died from infections or exposures in 276 commercial and backyard flocks in 46 states so far this year, according to the USDA. At least 3,700 wild birds in 47 states have also been infected, according to the CDC.
A recent change to federal protocols, at least, allowed Pontier to keep some of her ducks alive.
Within the last two weeks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture amended a policy calling for entire flocks to be euthanized when even one bird is infected to allow individual states to set their own procedures.
When Gerlach arrived at her home, Pontier asked him to spare her ducks, which are typically more resilient than chickens and had not yet displayed any signs of illness.
Most of her ducks were rescues given to her because they were found injured.
“So I brought a lot of them back to health,” she said.
The state vet agreed, and told Pontier she’ll have a 120-day quarantine period where she won’t be able to bring any other birds on or off the property. He swabbed the ducks to test them for avian influenza, and euthanized three chickens who hadn’t yet succumbed to the virus.
She’s sad about the chickens, but relieved, too: her ducks are safe for now.
Precautions for owners of backyard flocks
• Keep chickens or ducks away from ponds that could contain waterfowl.
• Keep feed protected from wild birds or other wildlife.
• Keep poultry under cover or otherwise limit free ranging to prevent contact with wild birds.
• Change clothes and boots before going to another farm or area with birds.
• Do not share equipment and supplies with other bird owners.
• Isolate new birds for 30 days before adding them to your flock.
• Wash hands thoroughly after handling or working with birds. Wear clean clothes, and disinfect cages or equipment that come in contact with birds and their droppings.
Alaskans can report suspected avian flu cases, whether in wild birds or their own animals, to Alaska state veterinarian Dr. Robert Gerlach at 907-375-8215 or by calling the Alaska Sick or Dead Bird Hotline, 866-527-3358, which is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.