A wildlife rescue in the Comox Valley, on Vancouver Island, is closing its visitor centre starting Monday due to the spread of avian flu in B.C.
The Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS) Wildlife Rescue Centre, in Merville, B.C., announced it would be limiting visitors due to the risk that the disease poses to its captive birds, which include owls, eagles, and albino crows.
The decision comes after a small poultry flock in the Comox Valley tested positive for the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus last week, the first such case on Vancouver Island.
It is part of a rapidly-spreading outbreak of the flu throughout North America, with eight cases recorded in B.C. since April 13.
Location of flocks infected with avian flu in B.C.
The concern is that a visitor could inadvertently bring the virus to the MARS centre on their vehicle, shoes or clothing.
"All of the species that we have in permanent captivity here ... they are especially susceptible to the avian flu," said Gylaine Andersen, manager of wildlife rehabilitation at MARS. "They are more likely to get severe symptoms, and actually die from the flu, than other types of animals."
"It was a really difficult decision to close the visitor centre because we need the visitor centre to support the wildlife rehab program. But we just had to do it for the safety of our resident birds."
The centre hosts two bald eagles and multiple owls that were previously rescued, as well as a red-tailed hawk. MARS also has two albino crows in residence named Nimpkish and Kokish.
Andersen said the temporary closure comes at the busiest time of year for the centre. It might struggle to weather the loss of income without public donations, she said.
"At this time of year, we're getting lots of little baby birds and baby mammals at the hospital," she told CBC News. "Over at the visitor centre, this is when we would have the most visitation from the public."
The MARS wildlife hospital remains open, according to the rescue's website, but Andersen said it would be "an expensive time of year" without funds for PPE and other medical equipment.
Andersen asked poultry owners to be extra vigilant as avian flu continues to spread in the province, and also reiterated a call to take down bird feeders to stop the spread among wild birds.
Avian flu cases have been confirmed in several other provinces, but no infections have been detected in humans.
Officials say the illness is not considered a significant concern for healthy people who are not in regular contact with infected birds.