State bird flu restrictions hit students in 4-H programs

Thousands of Indiana children who raised and doted on chickens, turkeys and other poultry for 4-H projects are feeling the sting of a statewide ban on bird shows aimed at preventing the spread of a bird flu that's killed tens of millions of chickens nationwide.

The ban announced Wednesday means youngsters in grades 3 through 12 who compete in 4-H won't be able to bring their prized poultry to county fairs or the Indiana State Fair this summer to compete for ribbons or simply to show off their animal-raising skills.

Phoebe Beheler, a 13-year-old from western Indiana's Warren County, is among nearly 6,800 4-H participants across Indiana who raised birds — from chickens to pigeons — but who are now prohibited from showing their birds at 4-H events because of the state's bird show ban.

Beheler, who's been raising farm animals for years, used an incubator to hatch her current 70-plus chickens, including members of the rare Nankin bantam and Dominique chicken breeds. She said raising the birds is a lot of work and not without disappointments. She recently lost two chickens to nighttime raccoon attacks.

Her 44-year-old mother, Amanda Beheler, had prepared Phoebe for the likelihood that Indiana would ban bird shows after the deadly bird flu virus was found in a single backyard flock of mixed poultry in northern Indiana.

But the advance warning from her mother, who's a trained avian ecologist, didn't soften the blow of the news of the state's ban, even though Phoebe said she understands the virus is "a very dangerous disease" to birds.

"I was really disappointed. I just wasn't too happy because I'd already lost my two best birds to raccoons," she said.

The bird show ban imposed by the State Board of Animal Health is intended to protect both Indiana's commercial poultry industry and backyard flocks of chickens from the H5 avian influenza virus. Nearly 45 million birds have died, been euthanized or will be, mostly in the Upper Midwest, because of the outbreak.

Indiana's ban will likely remain in place through the rest of 2015 and includes county fairs, 4-H events, the Indiana State Fair, exhibitions and all events where live birds are commingled. The restriction extends to public bird sales at flea markets, swap meets and sale barns, but not to private sales of birds between individuals.

Indiana's summer county fair season begins in June and continues through the summer, with the first up being the Warren County 4-H Fair, which runs June 9-13 in Williamsport.

Warren County's Purdue Extension educator, Kelly Pearson, said the bird show ban will affect about 35 4-H participants who raised poultry and other birds for the 4-H fair in the sparsely populated rural county that abuts the Illinois state line.

"I know people are going to be disappointed," she said, adding, "But the rabbits will have more room this year."

Board of Animal Health spokeswoman Denise Derrer said the agency is creating an online page that should be ready in early June to solicit ideas about what innovative approaches might allow bird shows to proceed while still safeguarding the birds.

"We're trying to get some feedback from folks who can think outside the box about how we can we bring shows and public sales back in a way that's safer and provides a healthy environment for the birds," she said.

The state's bird show ban will provide protections to the state's large poultry industry if the virus were to spread. Indiana ranks first in the nation in duck production and is among the top five states in egg and turkey production.

"We have a large and diverse industry," said Paul Brennan, executive vice president of the Indiana State Poultry Association.

While ban is a disappointment for many 4-H participants who were eager to show off their birds, it doesn't affect the ability of participating youngsters to complete their 4-H projects, said Aaron Fisher, the youth development animal science specialist at the Purdue Extension's 4-H office.

"They're still caring for, feeding and maintaining their poultry on a daily basis. The only difference is they can't show the birds," he said.

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