After the decade of Newcastle disease outbreaks in the 70s, things settled back to the routine, with emergency diseases popping up only once every five or six years. Emergency meaning a disease that called for immediate eradication. There were brief episodes of vesicular stomatitis, avian influenza in turkeys, anthrax. But these were quickly brought under control and weren’t big enough to require federal intervention. Then the bomb dropped. Two bombs. In quick succession we had exotic Newcastle Disease all over Southern California in fighting cocks that spread to some large commercial layers, and TB in three dairy herds in Central California.
The Newcastle started with a fighting cock submitted to the San Bernardino Diagnostic Laboratory. Within days of the diagnosis, tracebacks of contacts with the initial flock found over 70 infected flocks in three locations: Compton, Montebello, and Norco. And new cases were found on a daily basis.
A meeting of all available state animal health personnel was quickly held and assignments given for surveillance, depopulation, indemnity, etc. I was assigned to surveillance. The center of the survey was a tract in Compton that was still zoned for animals. Besides chickens there were horses, cows, pigs, all on small residential lots. One house had stalls for six horses and we daily saw someone in Mexican vaquero gear exercising them by riding them down the street.
Only about a third of the houses answered the door, and the ones that did all denied having any chickens or knowing anyone that did, even when we could hear crowing in the back. At one house a young boy answered the door and said, yes, they had chickens. The father came to the door and promptly said “We just ate them.” One place had hundreds of chickens in full view of the street. Couldn’t hide that. At the end of two days we had identified a total of four places with chickens. Then we ran across a county animal control officer and asked him if he knew of any dead chickens. Sure, he’d been picking up hundreds of dead chickens but hadn’t bothered to notify the state. In addition to the area we had just been canvassing he identified two new areas not yet on our maps.
The next day I was asked to help with indemnification. Dr. West was the only pet bird specialist doing indemnification and he asked me to help with some ostriches and pigeons. I had no idea what an ostrich was worth, but Dr. West filled me in on the difference between red neck ostriches and ordinary ones.
First I had to go back to Compton and ask to see the backyard of one place we knew had chickens. They had denied having any, but this time we talked them into letting us see for ourselves. What a zoo! Besides 70 chickens they had five steers, a pot-bellied pig, and about 30 rabbits. Once in the backyard we could see into all the other backyards. Every house on the block had chickens!
Then I drove to Alhambra to look for the owner of the ostriches and pick up some roller pigeons. No one was home and the phone number I was given was wrong.
Every day new people were arriving from all over the U.S. to work on the task force, until we had over 1,000 people. We quickly outgrew the office space at the Ontario District office and moved to larger quarters at a National Guard base. The brass had their own offices in a separate building but most of us were squeezed into the large gymnasium. Each team had their own table with a computer. One end of the gym was filled with supplies. A secretarial staff occupied one corner. The depopulation and disinfection crews weren’t allowed in the gym because of their contact with the disease. The state quickly ran out of emergency funding and the federal government stepped in. A new director arrived from Washington.
In the meantime I was still looking for my ostrich man and the owner of some racing pigeons that had been condemned. I drove to Montebello where the pigeons were. From the street it just looked like an ordinary housing tract, but a river ran behind the houses, about forty feet below street level. Along the river were a hundred horse stalls, all rented out to different people to keep chickens, pigeons, peacocks, whatever. The depopulation crew was in full swing and dust was flying everywhere. But no one had seen my pigeon owner. No address. No phone number. As long as I was there I might as well look at the pigeons. They were on a little knoll above the stalls. When I went up there, there was the owner, grieving over his pigeons. They were his life. He had spent 10 years developing a line of champion racers. It didn’t take long to work out a deal on the price and the depop crew had them all dispatched in minutes. My next job was to take them to the San Bernardino lab.
I got lucky again. The ostrich guy called and arranged a meeting at an empty warehouse in Alhambra. He gave me a sob story about losing his shirt on ostriches and these were the last he had. He wanted $1500 apiece for them. It took some dickering but we finally settled on a more reasonable price for the ostriches and his roller pigeons. We went to his home and he gave me the pigeons. I took the two sets of pigeons to the lab and headed home to Bakersfield.
The next week I was asked to go back to Compton and take swab samples from the few flocks we had found. They were all on the same block as the original flock that started the outbreak and I figured it would be a miracle if the other flocks didn’t have it, too. We took all the precautions to keep from spreading it ourselves with disposable coveralls and shoe coverings, changing and disinfecting between flocks. The disinfectant ruined a good pair of shoes. At the last flock a neighbor told us his chickens were sick, so I had him bring one out to us to take to the lab along with the swab samples.
The task force control center called and asked me to investigate a report of chickens dying in Corona on our way to the San Bernardino lab. By now it was four o’clock, just in time for rush hour. It took us four hours to go 50 miles. By the time we finally found the place it was eight o’clock at night. I rang the bell and asked about the report. They replied, “Just look around you.” As my eyes adjusted to the dark I could see dead and dying chickens all over the yard, under the bushes, in the driveway. A massacre. I had already called the lab and told them I would be late. Now I had another sackfull of dead chickens for them. We didn’t get to the lab until 10 o’clock that night, but someone was there waiting for us.
The next day a new person from Sacramento had taken charge of the record-keeping department and he read me the riot act for not getting a task force accession number before submitting samples to the lab. I tried to explain that there was no one to give out accession numbers at 8 P.M. but that didn’t satisfy him. Then I was told that one of the places we had swabbed yesterday now had chickens dying and the owner was blaming me for bringing the disease. And he claimed we entered without his permission. Never mind we waited an hour before the guard dog was chained and the chicken pens were unlocked. And the Colorado vet who had accompanied me refused to go with me again because he didn’t like my freeway driving. Some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed.
I was asked to return to Corona to finish the job. – establish a quarantine, get a full history, and settle indemnity for the birds still alive. In the daylight I could see the place was actually a compound of five houses plus a few other buildings surrounded by a wall. The person with the dead chickens lived in the front house. She had gotten a special deal the week before from someone she only knew as Penney. Penney had already been quarantined for Newcastle Disease. So much for quarantines. The owner of the compound lived in one of the other houses. She had a large aviary in back filled with chickens, turkeys, and peacocks. She was devastated that we were planning to kill them all. I explained to her that she had already seen the devastation to the chickens in front. In less than a week the same thing would happen to her birds, or at least 90 per cent of them. And it would continue to happen to any new birds she bought unless we killed everything, disinfected the property, and started over. She understood, but she was still heartbroken.
The next day the depopulation crew was there bright and early, but the aviary was locked and the owner was nowhere to be seen. She didn’t want to be there when her pets were all killed. She returned two hours later to find us waiting. She watched the whole thing. They even grabbed her cockatiel out of her living room.
I turned all my paperwork in and headed back to Bakersfield. On my way I got a call from a cattleman in Caliente saying his cows would be ready to test next Wednesday. One of his cows had tested positive for Brucelosis at slaughter, but the only time we could test his herd was at roundup once a year. I had a crew ready to go Wednesday and I was out of the chicken wars.