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Deadly Flu Threat Shutters Zoo Bird Exhibits

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File Photo
Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Gardens Executive Director Erik Beck stands before the currently empty Penguins of Patagonia exhibit Monday, Nov. 7. If a case of highly pathogenic avian influenza is detected within 150 miles, the zoo will follow biosecurity protocols and move not only penguins, but all birds inside. This could last about 30 days, depending if more cases are detected.

Mesker Park Zoo closes Penguins of Patagonia, Amazonia exhibits as Highly Pathogenic Avian Flu detected in southern Illinois; prompts biosecurity measures for up to 30 days

The staff at Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Gardens have moved all birds inside where only certain workers can see them.

They’re following bio security policies because of a case of deadly, highly pathogenic bird flu in southern Illinois in a wild pelican.

The quarantine will likely be about 30 days, assuming no further flu cases are reported, said Erik Beck, executive director.

“And so every bird at the zoo, whether the penguins or cranes or ostriches and emus, they're all inside for now; Amazonia is also closed because of a number of free flight birds that we have inside of Amazonia,” he said, adding that droppings from migrating birds can transmit the disease.

“What we would expect is, as the fall migration pattern happens for these ducks and geese, and pelicans, they're going from north to south for the winter, they're going to pass right over our heads. So we expect, honestly, to see more cases popping up, not less cases popping up.”

The last time they had to protect the birds was this spring — the last migration period.

The staff also has to be careful with their shoes when working with the penguins.

“Before they enter into these back holding areas that contain the birds, we have disinfection systems,” Beck said. “So they either soak their shoes or put on new rubber boots, where before they go into those areas that are disinfected. So we're not taking any chances of carrying this virus from the outside world to our inside holding areas.”

Some penguins are pairing up to possibly produce offspring — or try to — which he hopes won't be disrupted by the move.

In the meantime, zoo tickets are discounted during the fall and winter and the zoo is offering a free carousel ride to children while the birds are away.

He said guests are warned about the changes at the gate, and a notice appears on the zoo website.

Of course, the red panda, camel, tiger and other animals are still outside to see.

The zoo has never had a case of avian flu — though other zoos have. “So again, and we're all taking the same precautions … we're doing everything we can to prevent it,” Beck said.

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Erik Beck
Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Gardens
Humboldt Penguins swim safely in their inside facilities while being quarantined from the public.