By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
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By Jake Rossen
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By Kelsey McClure
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Dave Roth was so appalled by Avitrol's use on pigeons that he founded the Urban Wildlife Society in Phoenix, in 1989. "Pigeons don't scream," he enunciates deliberately. "They have no sound for pain. They just shudder and convulse until they burn their little hearts out."
That simple difference has escaped the Avitrol Corp. marketing materials for 28 years. Although pigeons have become one of their plumpest targets, providing roughly 50 percent of their business, Avitrol's fact sheets refer frequently and vaguely to "distress calls," and Avitrol spokesperson Eleanor Bodenhamer says the chemical "works to make them send out distress cries and makes them flap their wings and act like they're in danger."
Well, they're not crying, but they are in danger. "Avitrol causes a fairly dramatic death," observes Dr. Alex Bermudez, an avian-disease expert at the University of Missouri-Columbia College of Veterinary Medicine. "Systems are shutting down and the central nervous system is shooting off uncoordinated nerve signals." Swindle, of Avitrol, thinks "the way the product works is really kind of intriguing. The chemical causes the bird's brain wave to go flat." Oh. "It then causes impulses to go out to the motor system, causing muscle twitches that make the bird appear as though it is trying to communicate." That's the "distress cry."
Swindle calls it body language and insists his stuff's humane. He cites a 1979 study at the University of Ottawa, where pathologists fed White Carneaux pigeons Avitrol through a stomach tube (the birds wouldn't eat the poisoned corn chips) and concluded that, although Avitrol's effects were "visually repugnant," the convulsions were pain-free.
Avitrol Corp.'s fact sheet says most birds are "affected in a manner that will artificially cause them to emit distress and alarm cries." But if you're a pigeon, there's nothing artificial about seizures, regurgitation, disorientation, twitching, rigidity, loss of muscle coordination and cardiac arrest. And although a seizure may be technically pain-free, it's upsetting as hell, maybe more so for pigeons. Not only can't they scream, their acute sense of balance and orientation is
thrown into chaos. Pigeons are intensely tactile -- every feather attached to nerve and muscle -- and intensely orderly, upset by the slightest ruffle in their plumage. Veterinarian Karyn Bischoff, a toxicologist with the Oklahoma Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, says that "frequently the birds die from trauma due to the loss of muscle control."
Avitrol's makers are quick to note that, although "some mortality is inevitable," many birds recover. Activists such as Roth aren't rejoicing. "A lot of times it just scrambles their brains," he says from Phoenix, and the rescued birds squawking in the background add emphasis to his gentle voice. "With the seizure, their temperature goes way up and can cause brain damage."
In Canada, MacKay's seen consequences of even mild disorientation and loss of control. "The birds often get themselves into extremely compromising situations," he explains. "By the time they come out of it, they may be under the tire of a car or smashed into a window."
The West Port pigeon kill was well-intentioned, of course, and indirect: The property manager contracted with Massachusetts-based Ecolab Pest Elimination. Ecolab's safety manager, Chris Strand, says they've used Avitrol at West Port Plaza "on and off for about five years" and have quite a few other St. Louis clients, too. He recites the litany: Avitrol is not a poison but a "flight alarm" that gooses the flock onward.
If that's true, why was Avitrol banned in Britain as early as 1976? Why has San Francisco outlawed it; why is a New York senator trying to; why did the American Society for the Protection of Animals go to court to get it banned in New Jersey; why do vets and humane societies across the country oppose it?
In sum, because of the toxic and cruel way it works, and because it doesn't work in the long term. Year after year, people hire experts to poison away "pestbirds." If they overdo it, dead pigeons rain down on somebody's unsuspecting parade. Then Avitrol Corp. reassures the public that their product is just a deterrent, it's not supposed to work that way, and the flap dies down. Literally.
In this case, Marie Casey, who handles public relations for West Port Plaza, insists the chemical was a necessary last resort. "Avitrol is not supposed to be deadly," she points out. "It all depends on how much they ingest. If one would eat a whole lot, it would kill them."
Ah, but surely every pigeon heeds Aristotle's praise of moderation.
"It's very hard to track pigeons," Casey continues chattily, "because they don't try to. But they think the first flock left and another might have come in." So the Avitrol did work as a gentle alarm? And the newcomers just happened to stage a group suicide?
Finally, Casey says West Port Plaza was only trying to protect the health of their human guests (many of whom probably feed the pigeons from sidewalk tables and make the problem worse). Moved by her concern, we ask Strand at what point pigeon density becomes a human-health concern. "Pigeons become a problem when they are a problem to our customer," he replies cheerfully.