Authorities work to contain bird flu at Henry animal sanctuary

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Cases at Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary are the latest cluster during what has been an active year for the virus nationwide

A number of birds have been killed in an outbreak of bird flu at the popular Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary, south of Atlanta, state officials confirmed Monday, the latest cases in Georgia during what has been an active season for the virus nationwide.

Bo Warren, the policy director for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, confirmed that multiple black vultures have been found dead at the facility in Henry County. Noah’s Ark said in a statement that initial tests shows that the H5N1 strain of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) was the cause of death.

HPAI poses little threat to humans, but birds infected with the virus should not be handled, experts say.

Three Henry County Sheriff’s Office SUVs were parked outside the entrance to the facility on Monday. Inside, two people wearing masks and white hazmat suits with yellow boots were spotted walking along a path at the site. A peacock roamed in the grass.

Neither Warren nor Noah’s Ark were able to confirm the number of deceased birds on site so far, but the sanctuary said the vulture population is still experiencing deaths as the virus runs its course.

The facility said state officials are monitoring other birds on site and that any others found to be infected will be culled. No parrots or other exotic species have shown symptoms of the disease, Noah’s Ark said.

Birds infected with HPAI can show a range of symptoms, including lethargy, tremors and seizures.

Noah’s Ark said that on August 13, staff members noticed an unusually large number of dead black vultures on premises and notified state authorities. Samples were collected later that day from affected birds and sent off for testing.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

On Saturday, the sanctuary says it was informed that the birds tested positive for HPAI. Since then, it has been under a state Department of Agriculture quarantine, as work to sanitize the facility and contain the spread continues.

“We appreciate the timely and professional response of our state and federal officials,” the sanctuary said in a statement. “Noah’s Ark is committed to the safety and health of its people, animals, and community.”

A post from the sanctuary on its Facebook page said the park would remain closed through Saturday.

Noah’s Ark was founded in Ellenwood in 1978 by Jama Hedgecoth to care for injured, abused and orphaned animals. It moved to Locust Grove in 1990 to its current 250-acre campus.

The animal rehabilitation center is home to more than 1,500 animals from 100 different species, including wild birds, farm animals, bears, primates and exotic cats, according to its website.

Entrance to the sanctuary is free, and Noah’s Ark largely depends on donations. In 2019, the sanctuary reported $2 million in total revenue, including contributions and grants, and nearly the same amount in expenses, according to its most recent Internal Revenue Service financial disclosure reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

The sanctuary has been popular with school and volunteer groups for years. But recently, some with ties to it have expressed concern about the facility’s management.

The founding family has been partly sidelined from operations as a new board and management has taken over.

Some of those issues were aired at a meeting last week attended by Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, State Sen. Emmanuel Jones (D-Ellenwood) and Henry County Commission Chairwoman Carlotta Harrell.

“I am deeply saddened at the news of the latest developments unfolding at Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary,” Jones said in a statement. “The animals and staff deserve the highest level of care during these difficult times and I fully intend to do all I can to continue to bring awareness and support to this life saving sanctuary.”

In a statement, the management of the sanctuary said “In the past six months, Noah’s Ark has added more animal care staff than ever before and have tripled the number of veterinary staff consulting with our staff and treating animals.”

Warren said the agency is working with partners at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and federal agencies to assess the extent of the outbreak and determine next steps.

According to USDA data, bird flu has affected more than 400 backyard and commercial flocks across 39 states this year. There have also been more than 2,100 detections in wild birds in the U.S. so far in 2022.

In June, the state Department of Agriculture announced that the highly contagious variant had been detected in a domestic flock in rural Toombs County. A total of 490 birds died or were euthanized in that case, which at the time was the first outbreak of 2022 in a Georgia backyard flock.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

The virus has also been detected in wild birds, including three dead bald eagles back in April along the Georgia coast.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says HPAI poses little risk to humans and infections are rare. One case was reported earlier this year in Colorado in a patient involved in culling birds suspected to be infected with the virus. Human infections have also occurred in other countries, typically after long periods of unprotected contact with infected birds, the CDC says.

Georgia’s commercial poultry industry has not reported any cases connected to this outbreak.

Chairwoman Harrell said the county is working with state officials to ensure the virus is contained to the sanctuary. She said that the county has not received any calls from citizens worried that they have come in contact with affected animals.

”We are taking it seriously,” she said, adding that health officials with the county are working with the state.


What you need to know about bird flu

  • Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) has been found in backyard or commercial flocks in 39 states this year. More than 2,000 wild birds have also tested positive in the U.S.
  • The CDC says HPAI poses little risk to humans. There has been only one confirmed case in the U.S. this year.
  • Symptoms of HPAI in birds include lethargy, tremors and seizures.
  • Dead or sick birds should not be handled. Instead, officials say the public should report suspected cases to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.