Popular Central Texas zoo modifies, closes exhibits in response to bird flu outbreak

Published: May. 17, 2022 at 11:20 PM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - Some of the exhibits at Waco’s Cameron Park Zoo have been closed: it’s due to a virus, but not COVID-19.

Zoo officials say the spreading of a potentially lethal avian influenza has them concerned for their animals--and their visitors.

“When they first had a detected case in a wild bird, and then shortly after some commercial flocks, it really raised red flags for a lot of people, specifically in the zoo industry the worry is always that wild birds can spread it to our birds,” said James Kusmierczyk, staff veterinarian at the Cameron Park Zoo.

Kusmierczyk says the worry is over the highly pathogenic or “high path” strain of avian influenza.

“We typically have detections each year of low-path AI, but this year there was a particularly virulent strain of high-path AI which was detected,” he said.

But it wasn’t just detected--it was detected in Texas, and now, in Central Texas.

In April, the state’s first case of H5N1 was found at a commercial pheasant operation in Erath County.

Then last week, a bald eagle in rural Bosque County was also found to be infected and was euthanized.

“We’re along what’s called the Central Flyway, so we do get birds that migrate north this time of year, so there’s always a worry that them migrating will bring something into the zoo,” said Kusmierczyk.

The popular zoo, which has an open-air design, is vulnerable to outside bird species.

“With wild birds around there’s always a possibility something could happen,” said Kusmierczyk.

As a result, the zoo has closed some bird exhibits and modified others.

Signage around the zoo explains the situation.

“Very shortly after that initial detection we did two things: we met and discussed a basic plan, we do have plans and protocols in place for this type of thing, and then the second thing we did was trying to move our birds or modify their exhibits to try to decrease the amount of contact they could have with wild birds,” Kusmierczyk explained. “We have songbirds, we do have a resident black vulture population.”

To prevent contact with those wild birds, for example, the zoo’s macaw parrots are still on display, however, they have green netting surrounding their enclosure, the flamingos are still on-site at the zoo, however, they’re in a closed-off area out of public view, and the bald eagles have been taken to an off-site location for the time being.

The Jimenez family, of Round Rock, was disappointed they didn’t get to see all the animals, but were understanding of the situation.

“Yeah, she (her daughter) likes to see all the birds,” said Kaitlin Jimenez.

They said the bigger issue was trying to navigate around the closed exhibits.

”We have to navigate, figure out how to get through to the otters because you can’t get through the normal path because you’d go through the big bird gulf shore area, and so we’ll have to be creative in how we see all the animals today,” said Jimenez.

As Jimenez referred to, probably the biggest adjustment is the closure of the Aviary which is on a path that leads to other exhibits.

“People coming into the exhibit can track-in wild bird feces or other kind of fomites that can spread that infection to our birds,” explained Kuzmierczyk.

The precautions appear to be working as none of the roughly 300 exhibited birds at the zoo have been reported sick.

“So far we haven’t seen any suspicious signs in our birds of any type of infection,” said Kuzmierczyk.

The spreading happens when birds shed the virus from fluids in their saliva, mucus and feces.

Zoo officials warn: the virus can also spread to people, however, the risk is low.

“It’ something that the public should be aware of, but at least at this point it’s not a high point of concern,” said Kuzmierczyk. “They did have one case in Colorado where a man was infected but he was actually working with a flock that had been infected.”

He says the bird exhibits could reopen and return to normal as early as June when migration numbers typically start to drop-off.

“That would be the earliest, but we’re going to take the recommendations of the USDA and others before making that decision,” he said.

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