Flu-wary Singapore deploys chicken guards at bird park

Flu-wary Singapore has deployed a team of unconventional guards at its national bird park to detect any avian diseases, chickens. Nineteen "sentinel chickens" are stationed at open-air exhibits in the Jurong BirdPark to protect thousands of their feathered friends by alerting authorities to the presence of bird flu or other infectious diseases, executive director Wong Hon Mun said.

Singapore has so far reported no infections among birds or humans of the deadly H5N1 strain that has killed 63 people in Southeast Asia since 2003.

The 20.2-hectare (50-acre) bird park, Asia-Pacific's largest, has more than 9,000 birds of 600 species in its collection. Lakes are a feature of the sprawling open-concept park where water birds and other large birds such as ostriches and flamingoes are on display. "The water birds are more susceptible to viral diseases because they're exposed to free-ranging birds that could pick up the virus from other birds," Wong said on a tour of Swan Lake, an open exhibit where dozens of black-necked swans swam and fed under the watchful eye of a caged chicken on duty at the pond's grassy bank. Wong said the chickens had been bred without immunity and so are highly susceptible if they are exposed to a viral disease. The chickens are monitored for signs of illness, and blood and stool samples are taken every month for testing. Kept in their own cages, the chickens are not likely to infect the park's birds if they do fall ill, he said.

"If anything happens, the sentinel will be the one who will get the infection first," Wong said. "But they're always in the background of the exhibits because they're supposed to be the secret police."

Wong said all the park's birds were vaccinated against the flu and staff check them daily. The park has also placed disinfectant mats for visitors entering walk-in aviaries.

Business has not been affected by bird flu fears, Wong said, adding attendance this year has been 20 percent higher than last year, when the park received 830,000 visitors. But he added if the park found any bird flu infections it would cull all birds in the affected exhibits.

Experts fear the H5N1 virus could mutate into a human strain that sparks a global pandemic capable of killing millions of people, reports the AP. I.L.

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