CHARLOTTETOWN — The Atlantic Veterinary College hospital in Prince Edward Island needs to be expanded so it can manage the effects of avian influenza, which are expected to be around for a long time, says a wildlife technician who works at the clinic.
The animal hospital, part of the University of Prince Edward Island, hasn’t admitted wild birds since March because of the highly contagious virus, Fiep de Bie said in an interview Wednesday.
“It’s been a very strange year,” de Bie said. "We are very much missing the (wild) birds.”
De Bie said the clinic made the difficult decision in order to protect exotic pets — like rabbits, parrots and guinea pigs — that are vulnerable to the highly contagious virus. The hospital space isn't big enough to isolate infected animals, she explained, adding that a bigger space is needed before the clinic can care for wild birds again.
The H5N1 avian flu appeared in Newfoundland and Labrador last December, when it was confirmed at a farm in the St. John's area. Officials said at the time that it was the first case of avian flu detected in Canada since 2015. The disease has since been found in wild birds, occasionally in mammals like foxes, rats and weasels, and on dozens of poultry farms across the country.
The first case of avian flu on P.E.I. was detected in a bald eagle in March, and hundreds of sick or dead seabirds were found washed ashore in the province over the summer.
“We knew that we couldn’t take in birds because the virus was all over the island,” de Bie said.
She said she is hopeful the university can raise enough money to expand the hospital so that wild birds can be admitted next spring. De Bie said creating extra isolation space with high-quality ventilation will be needed in the years to come because “avian flu probably will be around for quite a long time.”
Veterinarians at the clinic continue to care for animals that are not birds, but de Bie said she and her colleagues have not been caring for as many animals as they normally are able to. Wild birds represent about 85 per cent of her department’s caseload, and the veterinary college admitted about 425 wild birds in 2021.
De Bie said that with the fewer animal patients, her team has devoted time to research projects and public awareness campaigns, all “while trying to navigate the future of how we deal with avian influenza.”
Staff have also kept busy working with the veterinary college’s one resident wild bird: an eagle named 450 who has been in their care since October 2021.
The bird, who was the 450th animal patient in 2021, was presumably hit by a car and suffered head and spinal injuries. Thanks to surgery and rehabilitation at the veterinary college, 450 is recovering and will soon be moved to an enclosure at the animal rehabilitation centre Hope for Wildlife, in Seaforth, N.S.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2022.
— By Lyndsay Armstrong in Halifax.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Hope for Wildlife was in Musquodoboit Harbour, N.S.