Molon labe. Come and take it.
From defiant Spartans fighting off the Persian advance to Second Amendment defenders fretting about gun regulations, these are time-honored fighting words, passed down through the ages. And this summer, when the N.C. Department of Agriculture asked the state’s backyard chicken owners to register their birds, Nicole Revels had the same reaction: Molon labe.
Revels is the creator of the Facebook group NO to NC Chicken Registration, but she’s not currently a bird owner. Rather, she’s a homeschooling mother in Caldwell County who hoped raising chickens would teach her children about animal care and self-sufficiency. Now she’s having second thoughts.
“It feels like we’re being targeted for tracking,” she explains.
She may sound paranoid, but she’s not alone. The more than 1,600 people who’ve liked her Facebook page since she launched it in July feel the same. They’ve banded together to protest an emergency declaration issued this summer by State Veterinarian Doug Meckes and Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler calling for the mandatory registration of all backyard chickens.
In a press release announcing the mandate, Meckes wrote: “The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is requiring all poultry owners, regardless of the number of birds, to register for an NCFarmID number. This will facilitate the department in alerting poultry owners about an outbreak [of bird flu], especially owners in close proximity to a positive farm.”
Until now, there has been no statewide effort, voluntary or otherwise, to track backyard birds in North Carolina. This initiative asks all owners, even those with just one bird, to sign up for the same identification program that commercial farmers use.
State officials say they need to know where birds are kept so they can warn nearby chicken owners should the bird flu hit North Carolina this fall. The disease migrated from Asia to the United States earlier this year, decimating flocks in 15 states, the closest being Arkansas. Nearly 50 million birds have died as a result, either from contracting bird flu or being “depopulated” to stop its spread.
In North Carolina, many people are scared of bird flu, but for quite different reasons.
Libertarians like Revels, the founder and director of the Carolina Liberty PAC, worry the registration mandate is a false flag, a premise for the government to seize birds under the guise of an epidemic. She and others on her Facebook page say backyard birds are the cornerstone of a growing self-sufficiency movement, one so successful that it threatens to undermine Big Agriculture. And that, they argue, is what the state really wants to protect.
“Eggs are considered a staple product, and many households purchase them every single week,” she says, “so for each individual now owning their own chickens, that is a customer that is taken out of the marketplace of Big Agriculture. After a while, that’s a loss of customer base that can add up enough to threaten the industry’s very existence.”
Big Ag is, in fact, threatened by backyard birds, but not in the way Revels imagines, says Joe Reardon, assistant commissioner for consumer protection at the N.C. Department of Agriculture. Instead, the free-range chickens represent a disease vector the poultry industry can’t control. And there’s already much about the bird flu that the industry, which accounts for 109,000 jobs and generates $34 billion statewide, can’t seem to figure out.
It’s not yet clear, for instance, how the bird-flu virus is transmitted to captive populations. Epidemiologists say it’s carried by wild waterfowl, which migrate seasonally. Scientists surmise that the virus is shed in feces and spread to backyard birds that share watering holes with the transient travelers. But how tightly controlled commercial farms keep getting infected remains a mystery.
It could be that humans are tracking the disease into barns on dirty work boots. It could be hidden away in contaminated corn. A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that farms closer to main roads were more likely to be infected, and some infected farms shared feed trucks or other equipment. More worryingly, infection has been observed to move through enclosed spaces along ventilation routes, suggesting the virus can become airborne.
“We’ve learned that this virus can last in the environment over 100 days,” says Reardon. “They’ve done studies up in Minnesota that [show] the virus can be aerosolized and then spread for another mile in the air. That’s how the virus can be a risk to the commercial industry.”
The death toll throughout the Midwest is roughly 48 million, making the bird flu the deadliest agricultural epidemic in U.S. history. Farmers in Iowa, the state hardest hit by the disease, lost 31 million birds in just two months. While the death rate leveled off in June, a new surge could be coming as wild fowl migrate south for the winter.
And if it comes, North Carolina will be in the crosshairs. The statewhich boasts the second- and third-largest turkey and poultry industries in the United States, respectivelyis sandwiched between two branches of a common migratory path for waterfowl, one stretching across the western tip, the other hugging the coastline. Ducks are thought to be asymptomatic carriers of bird flu. When they stop off at ponds along the Atlantic flyway, they can leave the virus behind. Free-range chickens that come into contact with infected droppings could spark the next wave of the epidemic.
“If we get this virus, it may last in our environment for three to five years or more,” Reardon says. “So it may be something that we struggle with for many, many, many years to come.”
The registration push, he adds, is aimed at helping owners know the status of nearby flocks so they can protect their birds. “We’re implementing an emergency provision, which is provided for by law, but our goal here is not to take regulatory action on anybody,” he says. “We want voluntary compliance, and we hope if we can get our message out there, [chicken owners] will understand that this is about our ability to communicate so they can preserve their birds and keep them safe.”
Revels, however, is suspicious of the state’s motives.
“There’s been some speculation that perhaps they’re wanting to register everyone’s backyard chickens in order to exterminate them,” she says. “They’d set up a kill zone. If there’s one case of avian flu, they’d set up a radius of so many miles and every bird registered within that area would need to be exterminated.”
This fear permeates bird-flu discussions on social media. As Dave Carter, an Orange County Republican who’s run unsuccessfully for state House and Senate, posted on Facebook: “Of course they want mandatory compliance. It’s easier to get the ‘chickens’ to be volunteered for the extermination process.”
On backyardchickens.com, one of the largest forums for small-scale poultry owners in the nation, a Raleigh-area ex-Marine who goes by the handle SemperChicken writes: “If the government can ultimately control the food and what we’re allowed to have on our property, it can and will control the people. Let me put it this way: I’ll register my pets when I finally decide to register my guns … which is never. … If people are that naive to think this is just to ‘help poultry owners be informed and one step ahead if there’s an outbreak,’ they are sadly mistaken.”
The state Agriculture Department promises testing to diagnose any suspicious symptoms and monetary compensation from the USDA if owners lose birds to depopulation. Flocks near an infected site would be monitored and possibly quarantined, but not slaughtered unless they test positive for the virus.
Agricultural officials say they’ve been surprised by the pushback.
“We’ve certainly heard from everyone loud and clear about some of the concerns they have about this, so what we’ve done is taken that to heart,” says Reardon. “What we hope here is that the backyard bird owners would realize our only interest is to educate and communicate with them.”
The rhetoric of the anti-registration crowd may have hurt efforts to spread the word, as only about 2,500 bird owners have signed up so far. While that might seem like a good start, there are at least 1,600 people on Facebook actively protesting the registration, as well as untold others who remain oblivious to the threat of avian influenza.
Spokesperson Jen Kendrick says the department never had a registration target number in mind, or even a clear idea of how many backyard birds there are in the state: “One of the problems we had, we know a lot of people have backyard poultry or small operations, but we really didn’t know how many.”
The outcry did prompt state officials to tone down their language, shifting from the “requirement” referenced in the emergency order signed in July to an emphasis on “voluntary compliance” in subsequent press releases and interviews. The department also offered a series of information sessions intended to ease fears. Kendrick says those sessions involved a lot of “myth-busting. We explain we’re not doing this so that we can inspect your farm or just so we can kill birds if [bird flu] comes into your county.”
Still, that shift in tone has done little to assuage Revels. If anything, she sees it as further evidence of the unreliability of state officials and the slippery nature of the “voluntary” registration.
Heidi Perreault can sympathize with both sides. For the last five years, she and her husband have run the 32-acre Sunrise Oak Farm in Hillsborough, which has 150 free-range chickens. They sell heritage breeds like Barred Rock chickens, along with a few of what she calls “Easter-eggers,” the Ameraucana hens popular for producing blue-green eggshells.
Perreault is a farmer and a veterinarian, so she’s particularly attuned to the bird-flu threat. She buys her birds from certified flu-free vendors and participates in North Carolina’s sentinel flock program, which includes quarterly testing and regular feedback from poultry experts on the health of her birds. But she gets how some people would be uncomfortable with such oversight. And she knows firsthand how attached owners can get to their birds.
“North Carolina needs [the mandate] because we’re a very heavy agricultural state,” Perreault says. “Unfortunately, it is the big producers that are threatened, in a sense, by us, the small farms. They need to know where these free-range chickens are.”
The mandate, she continues, will help agriculture officials “do their job better instead of having to go door-to-door to track down any vulnerable populations. It’s to protect the food supply for the greater good.”
But this is exactly the kind of reasoning that sets off red flags for the anti-registration crowd.
“The Department of Agriculture is indicating that large factory farms need to be protected from backyard chicken owners, when in actuality, backyard chicken owners feel like they should be protected from the large factory farms,” says Revels. “If they wanted to track every potential threat of avian flu, they would have to register every bird in the sky.”