Culling the Chickens of Heishan

(Southern Metropolis Daily via By reporter Yu Chan (喻尘) (in translation)

On October 28, chickens began to die in Jiangtai village, Badaohao town, Heishan county, Jinzhou City, Liaoning province.

On November 1, Liaoning province made a preliminary determination that this was avian flu.

On November 3, the National Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory confirmed that this was H5N1 avian flu.

As of 3pm, November 5, the avian flu has affected the chicken farmers in 15 towns within Heishan county.  On 4pm, Liaoning county organized its government personnel to engage in culling all domestic birds within the areas affected by avian flu in Heishan county.  The process was completed by noon on November 6, with more than 6 million domestic birds culled plus the destruction of more than 15 million chicken eggs stored for the off season.

Heishan is situated along one path for migratory birds to go from East Asia to Australia.  On November 4, more than 20 dead birds such as magpies were discovered.  The experts believed that migratory birds may be the source of the avian flu outbreak.

Heishan is a big chicken-rearing county in western Liaoning province.  It is estimated that there are more than 15 million egg-laying chickens in the county, not including other kinds of birds.  Chickens form the main source of income for the people of Heishan; it is their livelihood.

During the past several days, a massive chicken culling has been taken place in Heishan.  Sorrow and pain, sadness and bitterness are taking place there.

On November 5, the villager Wang Feng grabbed a chicken that had escaped out of the chicken shed and threw it against the wall.  The chicken wriggled a few times, and then the sorrowful squealing stopped.  Wang Feng said nothing, and returned inside the shed to continue to grab chickens to stuff into the bags and throw them onto the truck.  Thus, he completed the steps required in the culling.  More and more bags filled with chickens were stacked out in the courtyard.  Soon, the courtyard was covered by the bags.  Male and female villagers looked at the bags filled with chicken.  

A young man went up to kick the chickens that were still struggling inside a bad, "They are still alive.  They are zestful," he laughed.  The silent male and female spectators also laughed, and the tense atmosphere appeared to be slightly warmed up -- half of the people in Dongla village are chicken farmers.  It was very difficult for them to laugh at this time.

It is now the morning of November 6, the third day after the avian flu situation at Heishan county was announced.  To the southwest of Heishan's county city lies Dongla village, a local village that did not even rely on chicken farming.  On the afternoon of November 5, the seldom-used village loudspeaker sounded up.  "There had not been any mass activity for some time.  The loudspeaker system in the village is only for show.  Something big must be happening when it comes on."  At the intersection, there were many villagers.  A woman appeared to be quite excited.  "I don't rear any chickens at home.  The loudspeaker is telling people to cull the chickens."  But her excitement did not appear to be one of glee; rather, she was watching other people going after and culling the chicken.

After it became dark on November 5, a group broke the stillness of Dongla village in early winter.  In the past, it was normal for the roosters to call out.  "The roosters are kept all over the place, whereas the egg-laying hens are kept inside the chicken shed.  When seizing the chickens in the sheds, many people forgot about the roosters."  The wife of Yin Dechun was awaken when the culling squad knocked on the door.  She opened the door with sleepy eyes.  "I don't want to watch them seize the chickens.  Afterwards, they asked me to verify the number.  I told them that it was correct.  I felt bad inside."  After the group took the chickens away, the shed became thoroughly empty.  On the shelves, there were only rows and rows of yellow cups from which the chickens used to drink water.  

The daughter of the Yin family took a walk through the chicken shed.  The little girl was quite despondent.  Where were the chickens that loved to eat and chirp?  Mom told her that the chicken had been sent to the field just south of the village, where the big pit would be their final resting place.

"Where is the place that they cremate the chickens?" the reporter asked a guard at a road block.  He moved aside a tree trunk that was blocking the road and said, "Just following that van.  Village director Zhao is going there."  Indeed, there was a van that was just turning into a road.  The reporter went down the road and then saw a huge pit in the ground that was already full of dead chickens.

"I have been working here the whole night without any sleep.  I don't get a cent.  I am a volunteer."  A villager in protective clothing used a stick to see if there were any chickens still alive; if so, he would beat them to death with the stick.  At that moment, village director Zhao got out of the van.  He wore blue protective clothing that covered his entire body.  He went up to the pit to check and then gave some instructions to another villager.  Then he got in the van and left.  "The village director is also very tired.  He is not going to get any sleep until all the chickens in the village are culled and all the chicken excrement are cleaned out," said a villager.

After more than 30,000 chickens were buried at this pit, the culling of chickens continued in Dongla village.  After culling more than 6 million chickens in Heishan county, the culling of chickens continued.  On November 6, the weather was clear in western Liaoning.  On November 7, the skies were cloudy and the atmosphere was heavy.

A Month Ago

Dongla Village is a village in Zhenan Manchurian town.  To the northeast is Jiangtai village where the avian flu first broke out, and between them is another village called Wopeng.  According to the villagers of Dongla Village, the avian flu also broke out in Wopeng.  Therefore, they began culling their chickens even though none of them were sick or dead.

After some twists, the reporter followed a small trail by the farm fields along a small river up to Jiangtai Village where the avian flu had been present.  The river is known as Yangchang River, and it is the most important river inside Heishan county.  From afar, there were sounds of chicken chirping.  On the river, a few ducks were afloat, having escaped the culling of birds during the preceding days.

The villager Old Ma boasted that he was smart, because he sold his more than 1,000 chickens before large number of chickens began to die.  This way, he made more money per chicken than those which had to be culled later.  "Actually, the chickens began to get sick more than a month ago.  At the time, we could not tell why they were sick."  Old Ma met some chicken buyers who came to the villager.  "At the time, the price of chicken was quite low, being about one yuan less than the usual 3 yuan per jin.  When I sold the chickens last year, I got 3.3 yuan per jin.  But not everyone in Jiangtai village was as fortunate as Old Ma.  "When they wanted to sell later, the roads were already blocked and the chicken buyers could not get in."

All the chickens belonging to Jiangtai Village's third brigade's Wang Jinpeng died.  Since his chickens were not culled by the government, he will receive no compensation at all.  "The ones that died earlier were said to be due to the Newcastle virus.  None of the 1,200 belonging to my family counted."  Wang Jinpeng was sitting on the bed, while his wife stood at the door.  Both all been heartbroken for days.  "I have reared chickens for seven or eight years.  This time, we have lost everything."  Wang Jinpeng was not too concerned about the money.  He was puzzled by how it took so long to figure out that it was the avian flu virus instead of the Newcastle virus.

"The chickens began dying more than a month ago."  Wang Jinpeng's wife prodded him in the side to indicate not to speak too much.  "They died so quickly.  On one evening, one hundred, two hundred died.  After a few days, they were all dead."  He was working outside the village.  When he got the news and rushed home, his own chickens were nearly all dead.  "When the chickens began to get sick, someone in the village took the sick chickens out to Shenyang, Jinzhou and other big cities for diagnosis.  They ran around without finding out what it was.  Usually, we are very careful about immunizing our chickens.  We feed them with greater attention than we bring up our children."  At the same time, some villagers called people in the provincial and city governments, but this sudden outbreak stomped them too.

In the words of Wang Jinpeng, "even the village children here are half a veterinian."  So when the chickens came down with this strange disease, all the villagers were worried.  "With any ordinary disease, we can tell from just taking a look."  This time, it stomped the local veterinian.  Although some people called the provincial and city governments to report the chicken disease outbreak, no avian disease specialist came out to Jiangtai village immediately.  By that time, all of the chickens belonging to Wang Jinpeng's family had died.  "You look.  I have converted the chicken shed into a pig sty.  I have been rearing these pigs more almost 20 days.  In order to reduce his losses, Wang Jinpeng decided to rear pigs after his chickens died.

"More than half a month ago, someone finally came down.  But it was too late."  More than a dozen villagers surrounded the reporter.  "After verifying that it was the avian flu, the culling began.  But the chickens that had died already did not count."

"My family is even thinking about selling the house."  The Lu family house in Jiangtai village is quite pretty.  The outer walls are adorned with ceramic tiles and there is a row of 10 or so houses, with a high tower in the middle.  It is relatively elegant compared to the surrounding houses.

Since 1990, the family of Lu Rongyu began to rear chickens.  "Under normal circumstances, our family has net profits of more than 40,000 yuan per year."  In previous years, the Lu family did not rear 4,000 chickens like it did this year.  "At the beginning of the year, I heard that the price of eggs would be rising.  I heard that after 2008, eggs would become even more expensive.  So our family invested all our savings."  Lu Rongyu said that everything is now gone.  When the Lu family's chickens were being culled, none had fallen ill yet.  But at the time, the order came out to cull all of the chickens in the village.  "It takes one or two years to rear a chicken.  The first four months, they are chicklets.  The return on investment does not emerge until they start laying eggs."  Lu Rongyu estimated the sum: "The sale of the chicken eggs is used for the chicken feed, vaccine, immunization and so on.  In the end, there is only the chicken itself left to be sold.  The net profit on each chicken is just 10 or 20 yuan."

All 4,000 chickens of the Lu family were culled.  On the evening of November 3, his family received compensation in the form of 5 yuan per chicken.  According to the rules, the total compensation is 10 yuan.  The other five yuan will be given to him at a later date.  So Lu Rongyu figured that he has lost several tens of thousands of yuan.

According to the villagers, Jiangtai village alone has more than 1 million chickens, including adults that are laying eggs and newly born chicklets.  Based upon the estimate of a loss of 10 yuan per chicken, the direct economic loss to the village is more than 10 million yuan.  The sum of 10 million yuan to a not-very-well-developed village with a population of only several thousand people in western Liaoning equals the total economic basis for everyone.  Jiangtai village is the trading point of chicken eggs, vaccines and feed of all the surrounding villages, and customers from places like Guangdong have set up distribution points in the village.  If these other businesses are considered as well, the economic losses are even bigger.  "I went to Jiangtai village to sell cabbage a few days ago.  A regular female customer told me, 'Why buy vegetables anymore?  All the chickens are dead.  I have nothing to buy vegetables with.'"  So said a woman named Jiang from Houtun village.

According to statistics from Heishan county, Badaohao town (in which Jiangtai village is situated) alone has more than 3 million egg-laying chickens with more than 4 million kilograms of eggs produced each year.  Through the distributors, the eggs from Badaohao reach Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Xiamen and other southern cities.  Some of the fresh eggs also go through the southern companies to reach southeast Asia and western Europe.  According to information, Heishan county alone brings in more 600 million yuan through the fresh eggs.  The Heishan distribution co-op has more than 200 points of collection throughout the county, and a team of more than 600 visit the various villages as well as other places in nearby Beining, Xinmin, Beipiao to buy chicken eggs.  Moreover, the Heishan distribution co-op has set up direct sales outlets in Guangzhou and Shenzhen for the brown eggs.

But in the face of this unexpected disaster, all those arrangements were shown to be frail and vulnerable.

"When the deaths of chicken in Heishan county was confirmed to be due to avian flu, our county party secretary began to cry right on the spot."  A Heishan county cadre said in a hoarse voice with a heavy heart at a Heishan hotel.  The reporter attempted to contact the county party secretary, but he was busy because the leaders from the national government and various levels of government in Liaoning were in Heishan.  "During the past few days, the cadres and the masses in the county don't feel too good.  We all feel bad."  After this interview was over, the Liaoning Provincial propaganda department, the Jinzhou City propaganda department and the Heishan propaganda department directors spoke to the reporter.  The Heishan propaganda department director spoke in a low voice; he paused for a long time before he could speak another sentence.

"Those who hauled the feed and handled the eggs were once laid off."  In Dongla village, the wife of Yin Dechun quoted a well-known saying.  This saying confirms the information from Heishan county: there were more than 80 workers who had once been laid off from their jobs, but had then found work with the Heishan distribution co-op hauling the chicken eggs and feed.  Even more laid-off workers began rearing chickens in their own villages, or invested in the buying/selling of chicken feed, or worked in other businesses related to the poultry industry.  "Some people sold off their stores in the county city, some mortgaged their houses with the banks, some used the entire family savings and they all joined the ranks the chicken-breeding army."  A taxi driver said that these retired workers who had no means of living before will never be able to get out of this.

The atmosphere of consternation continued to spread throughout the villages of Heishan county.  At certain roads leading into villages, old women wearing yellow armbands joined the volunteer groups to stop outsiders from entering the villages.  At daybreak, groups of villagers of every age appeared quietly at the entrance to the village and patiently waited there.  Sometimes, they stayed at their stations for the whole day and silently defended their village, their earth and their chickens, even though that they realized full well that in the days to come, the still healthy chickens that they are rearing will be culled without exception.

"If people from our village want to go out, they better not come back."  At Gengtun village, just four kilometers away from the epidemic zone of Jiangtai village, several villagers were digging a ditch in the middle of the road that leads to the village so that no cars can pass.  A young man said: "I have kept watch here for many days.  I watch this road twenty-four hours a day.  Outsiders cannot enter the village."  Gengtun village is a small village with only 50 or so families.  "We don't rear that many chickens here.  A family may have 200 to 300, but some may have 500 to 600."

This is a village in which the avian flu has yet to be found.  But the villagers spontaneously organized themselves to guard the entrance to the village in order to prevent the virus from getting in.  "Chickens are our livelihood.  I have been here four to five days already.  I have not yet been home," said the young man.  On the morning of November 5, on the way to the epidemic center of Jiangtai village, the reporter saw that almost every village has posted people on the roads into the village.  Every road has the sign: "Epidemic zone.  Temporarily closed.  Pass only after being disinfected."  There are even those like Gengtun village which strictly prohibited any outside vehicles or persons from entering.  "Can I look at the chicken shed of your family?"  The reporter asked a senior citizen guarding the road leading into a village west of Gengtun.  "No.  Nobody is allowed to enter."

"This is my first day on duty here.  For the last few days, I was at the entrance into Jiangtai village."  Said police officer Wei at the Weichengzi village.  "The epidemic zone has now been expanded, and the road block has been pushed out to here."  Within the area that has Jiangtai village and Jintun village in the center and a radius of four kilometers, the local villagers can come and go after being disinfected, but all outsiders are not permitted to enter.  At the entrance into Jiangtai village, the two police officers stopped the car carrying the reporter and ordered, "Turn around!"

Sadness has reached the bottom of the heart of every Heishan resident.  In this agrarian village in western Liaoning, from Beichangmen town at one end to Jiangtun town on the other end, from Badaohao town to Wuliangdian town, there are no smiling crowds.  There are only silent residents trying hard to help themselves.  Yet they are so dignified.  When the militia police arrived to cull the chickens and begin the merciless slaughter, the residents could either stand silently on the sideline and watch the chickens that they reared be sent out to the "killing fields," or else they would close the door and lay down on the bed, with the men smoking silently, the women sobbing and the children thinking about their "chicken companions."

As of noon of November 6, more than 6 million chickens have been culled in Heishan county.  According to the compensation scheme set by the Liaoning province to stop the spread of the avian flu, the compensation will be 10 yuan per chicken.  Therefore, the Heishan county government will have to pay out 60 million yuan.  If the epidemic area expands, the culling area expands too.  At around 8am on November 7, a Heishan county propaganda department called the reporter and asked the reporter to be prepared to evacuate to a safe area instead of going down into the villages.  The entire Heishan county is ready to go into general alert any time.  So it seems that an even larger culling campaign is about to come.

Of course, Heishan county does not have the financial resources to deal with this.  On November 6, the Liaoning provincial government sent 9.6 million yuan to Heishan, and the money was then distributed to those farmers for the chickens killed already.  "When my chickens were seized and killed, someone yelled from the outside: 'How many chickens do you have?'  I yelled out a number from inside the house, and that was the number that will count."  A villager in Dongla village said that the money was not distributed right then, but the number was entered into the books of the person sent down to cull the chicken.  "That was a 'white paper note.' (note: an official promise)"  But the villager is certain that the money will definitely arrive soon.

The culling was based upon the emergency plan formulated by the Liaoning province to prevent the spread of the avian flu.  According to the plan, all the birds within the epidemic area will be culled.  Based upon the national regulations, the epidemic area is within three kilometers of the center.  The ring outside of three kilometers and within five kilometers is the endangered zone that will be monitored.  After the poultry are killed and buried, the environment must also be cleaned up safely.

According to a magazine that appeared at the end of October, the consensus of public health experts is that the national government must financially compensate the chicken breeders for their economic losses.  This is the only way that the chicken breeders will voluntarily have their flocks culled.  Otherwise, they may not sacrifice their own individual interests for the public good and they may handle it privately, including attempting to sell off the sick birds.

Other than those chickens that died previously, the owners of all the birds that were killed under the culling order will receive compensation.  It is a prerequisite for the government to take the initiative to assume the bill in order to prevent the spread of the epidemic.