Getting the Bird

West Nile keeps animal control officers hopping to collect dead birds

Ever since a dead bird in Dallas tested positive for West Nile virus in the early summer of 2002, local animal control offices and health departments have been in bird-call hell, especially during the warmer, mosquito-breeding months.

Residents all over the place apparently have been calling their respective dead-animal handlers to pick up deceased birds, no matter the bird type or circumstance of death, those stiffed with collecting the carcasses say.

"There's just a giant assumption out there that every time a bird dies, it died of West Nile virus. A bird can die from hundreds of things," says Dennis Wooten, animal services manager for Richardson.

The West Nile virus is harbored in some wild birds, primarily crows and blue jays locally, which pass it on to mosquitoes. Mosquitoes can spread West Nile to humans. Less than 1 percent of people who are bitten and become infected get severely ill, the Texas Department of Health says. Most people infected with West Nile show no symptoms. Some experience a fever, headache, body aches and swollen lymph nodes. And in very rare cases, the virus causes encephalitis. According to the health department, 185 people in 45 Texas counties have contracted West Nile this year; seven of the cases were fatal.

Despite the low risk involved, the fact remains that Dallas County leads the state in the number of confirmed West Nile cases with 33 so far this year. Harris County is second with 24 cases, according to the department of health.

Local West Nile tension (some would say hysteria) is running high as a result. Irving animal control officer Robert Wright, one of eight in the city, says he responded to about 20 dead-bird calls in August. He dealt with half that number at the most before West Nile's arrival. Many calls come from residents wanting an offending bird removed from their yard, he says.

"Usually somebody's shot them with a BB or something," he says. "They call and say, 'Could y'all come and pick them up? We don't feel comfortable handling them.'"

From May through the first week of September, the city of Dallas alone logged about 3,250 calls reporting dead blue jays and crows, says Karen Bradford, director of environmental health services. The number of Dallas County birds that tested positive for West Nile was 21, according to county records.

Dallas residents are supposed to call the city information line, 311, to report dead birds. Operators route these calls to the sanitation department, as Dallas' animal control department handles only live critters. Before the state wrapped up Dallas County bird testing about a month ago, blue jays and crows that didn't die of trauma and had been dead for fewer than 24 hours were tested.

Now all dead Dallas County birds are treated equally. That is, if a caller refuses to pick up a bird with a plastic bag, turn the bag inside out and toss it in a garbage can, a sanitation department officer goes and gets the bird, which ultimately is buried in the dead-animal section of the city landfill.

"It's not pretty, but it's pretty common," says sanitation department director Jodi Puckett.

The dead-animal collection routine for Farmers Branch seems typical of the area. One of the city's two animal control officers responds to a call. (Other than birds, squirrels are often the unfortunate subject in Farmers Branch, as the city has lots of oak and pecan trees.) Once the critter is gathered up, the officer drives it to the city animal shelter, which is equipped with a special storage freezer for dead animals. Once a week, the shelter empties the freezer contents into a designated deceased-animal trash bin in front of the building. The shelter usually dumps the animals the night before their scheduled pickup.

"We don't want an odor problem. That's why we keep them frozen," explains shelter director Joe Tilger.

The remains are then buried in the city's landfill, actually located in Lewisville.

Some cities incinerate dead animals, although burying is more common.

Richardson's animal shelter has a top-of-the-line incinerator, which "literally turns the animal to ash in half an hour or so," manager Wooten says.

Some perils exist in having such an efficient animal disposal method, however. Wooten hadn't been working for Richardson Animal Control long when an officer responded to a call to pick up a dead cat, which was promptly placed in the shelter's incinerator. Not long afterward a man came by looking for a pet cat that matched the description of what had become a pile of ashes. Based on pickup location, they concluded the pile was the man's former pet. The pet owner promptly threw a fit, Wooten recalls.

"Turns out he wanted to stuff the cat for his mantel," Wooten says. "I wondered, 'What have I gotten myself into?'"

The kitty's biodegradable ashes likely wound up as fertilizer.

Several area cities have set up West Nile hotlines to field dead-bird and other virus-related calls. Collin County's West Nile information line instructs callers to press 3 "to report a sighting of a dead bird," for example. Callers are then told to record their name, location of the dead bird(s), number of birds and species.

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