Nancy Nunke says she was the first person in Ramona that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) called after the Virulent Newcastle Disease infected bird was confirmed on Griffith Rd. on August 30.
“Shortly after I got the first call, two small backyard chicken populations were killed in the area directly surrounding the facility where the diseased chicken was found,” she said on the morning of September 9. “A third person refused to allow the veterinarians entry onto their property, and a document was posted on her gate demanding that her birds be destroyed, or that she would need to allow them in within 24 hours to destroy her birds. Ultimately she complied.”
Nunke has lived in Ramona for 20 years; she is the one of the founders and the executive director of the non-profit Hearts and Hands Animal Rescue, Conservation, Education and Wellness Center.
“The reason I was called initially was because as a non-profit rescue, we were easily found online and we were within the one kilometer perimeter,” she continued.
Because her rescue is right at the one kilometer mark of the northeast side of the circumference drawn by the USDA, from where the sick bird was located — her birds were tested (negative) for the disease.
“At any given time we could have five roosters and five hens, a few African guinea fowl and we are visited daily by wild peacocks from Ramona,” Nunke said.
On Labor Day, two days after the Ramona press release went live on the California Department of Food and Agriculture site — Nunke says she agreed to have her rescue birds tested.
“It was done very professionally by two veterinarians and four techs,” she said.
Online videos have surfaced of Riverside County bird owners resisting against the response teams, and not allowing them on their properties; then law enforcement had to intervene. Since the Newcastle outbreak in May of 2018, reports are saying that over 1.2 million birds have been euthanized — 120,000 from backyard-type residential coops, and the remainder from industrial areas — in the San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside, Los Angeles, Ventura, Alameda, Coconino (Arizona), and Utah (Utah) counties.
Many of the owners of the chickens that were euthanized are still grieving, and many say that their chickens are/were considered “family members” and that the response teams were “unprofessional and heartless” when doing their euthanization procedures — which is reportedly done by putting the birds “into bins filled with carbon dioxide or shot by certified wildlife biologists.”
19-year-old Theo Neilson in Ramona said he owns around 150 birds, which includes chickens, ducks, turkeys and guinea fowl. He saw the September 9 town hall meeting invitation, where residents will discuss the bird disease, but said he wasn't going.
“Sounds like a bad idea to me,” he said, “if anyone attending unknowingly has [the disease] on their property they could be bringing it to that meeting and there’s a possibility they could spread it to everyone else who attends."
Neilson says that he’s been raising chickens for about six years as pets; he has a “small breeding operation of Bantam Old English Game Fowls.
“Based on what I’ve heard and read, the disease was brought to Ramona by a research facility that purchased birds from a quarantined area in Riverside,” he said. “No one has been allowed on my property since the disease first showed up in California, I have not bought or sold any birds, and I always make sure my clothes and shoes are clean before leaving or entering the property.”
Neilson, like other concerned poultry owners, are following USDA’s suggestions to “follow good biosecurity practices to help protect their birds from infectious diseases including: washing hands and scrubbing boots before and after entering a poultry area; cleaning and disinfecting tires and equipment before moving them off the property; and isolating any birds returning from shows for 30 days before placing them with the rest of the flock.
“So far my flock has been healthy and showing no signs of illness,” Neilson said. “I have been keeping my eye out for sneezing and other symptoms of respiratory distress (gasping for air, nasal discharge, coughing), swelling, lethargy, diarrhea, and sudden deaths.”