Each morning, once the kids were off to school, Kerri Hand would slip out to her backyard, sit in a lawn chair and hang out with her feathered family.
There was Delores, a young turkey she got her 13-year-old son for his birthday, who would sit in her lap and beg for treats. Her family loved Delores so much they stopped eating turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.
Hand, 48, would laugh at their black silkies Queen Coconut and Bambi, fluffy chickens that look as if they had a fun time at a blow-dry bar, and Michael, a leghorn rooster who once overheated because he was running around so much to check on hens.
In watching the colorful birds parade around her yard, Hand felt at peace. Life was good — until it wasn’t. Her family’s birds are now dead.
For the past year, Southern California has been plagued by an outbreak of a highly contagious viral disease that can affect all species of birds but is most deadly to chickens.
Known as virulent Newcastle disease, the virus poses no food safety concerns and essentially no human health concerns. Only people who spend a lot of time close to infected birds are at risk of pink eye or a mild fever.
But for owners, the outbreak has been devastating: 444 homes, farms and businesses in California — the majority in San Bernardino, Riverside and Los Angeles counties — have had birds test positive for the disease since May 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There is no cure or treatment.
All of L.A. County and parts of San Bernardino and Riverside counties have been under quarantine for months, with no one allowed to move their birds without facing steep penalties.
To stop the spread of the virus, more than 1.2 million birds, mainly chickens, have been euthanized in heavily affected areas, some of which weren’t showing symptoms or hadn’t been infected yet.
And that’s the root of the outrage from a small but vocal group of backyard bird owners, led by Hand.
Before her birds were euthanized, Hand was a stay-at-home mom and retired law enforcement officer who used social media to share photos of her kids and pets.
But now she’s become something of a poultry activist, organizing protests at homes where the euthanasia teams are scheduled to be and raising money to sue the state.
When she learned in April that her birds might be euthanized, she started a Facebook group with about 30 friends and family members called “SOB save our birds.” Now, it has more than 4,700 members.
That’s because on April 19, when Hand came home to find a euthanasia team with a court order to destroy an estimated 70 birds at her home, she was holding arguably the most powerful tool of protest in 2019: her cellphone.
Over the next few hours, Hand broadcast live on Facebook from her backyard, showing the team grabbing her family pets and killing them. Hand’s one video has garnered 225,000 views on Facebook, far more eyeballs than any of the educational videos the state agriculture department has produced about Newcastle disease.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture has tried in vain for the past year to educate the public about the outbreak. But there is no central database of the estimated 100,000 backyard chicken owners in California.
Instead, agency staff has visited almost 150,000 homes and dozens of feed stores and community events. They’ve given more than 100 presentations at churches and held almost 20 town hall meetings.
But only after Hand’s viral video did the outbreak start to gain significant attention.