Last fall, an employee at Bio Corporation, a small company in Alexandria, lowered a huge crate of live pigeons into a vat of water.
This was a standard procedure at Bio Corporation: death by drowning, so they could be sold to high schools, colleges and professional schools as dissection specimens. What they didn’t know was that an animal rights activist who had secretly gotten hired was taking video of the whole thing.
PETA released the clips, claiming that research has shown birds can survive up to 10 minutes underwater -- 10 minutes of hyperventilation, struggle, inhaling water, vomiting, aspiration of the vomit and chest spasms before they finally die.
Police investigated, and the City of Alexandria ended up charging Bio Corporation with 25 counts of animal cruelty. All were eventually dismissed. PETA puts the blame squarely on a statement sent by the University of Minnesota’s Carol Cardona.
Cardona is the chairwoman of avian health for the U of M’s College of Veterinary Medicine. She’s an expert in bird flu and interested in the role poultry plays in human health. Another of her disciplines is animal welfare, working with the poultry industry to make sure animals live well and die well before they become burritos.
“The public looks to veterinary professionals in their communities for guidance, and on a day to day basis, veterinarians are the guardians of animal welfare,” her bio says.
However, when Cardona was called to put in her two cents on the drowning pigeons case, she sided with Bio Corporation. She wrote a statement saying that she doesn’t believe birds underwater can live up to 10 minutes.
“It is my understanding that non-aquatic birds, including pigeons, do not hold their breath when they enter water and that death by drowning would be nearly instantaneous,” she wrote. And that doesn't constitute animal cruelty.
PETA wasn’t about to take this lying down. The organization insists, based on a pair of veterinary studies published in 2010 and 2013, that it can take a bird five to 10 minutes to drown. Besides, Cardona called drowning a technique a pest control company might use, and Bio Corporation isn’t a pest control company. It’s an animal dealer, licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture to sell animals and their parts. Federal law dictates they be killed humanely, and drowning, they say, is not a humane way to die.
The group sent a letter to the U of M’s compliance officer, the director of the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine and the vice president of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians. They want Cordona investigated.
Julia Wilson at the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine says she couldn’t even confirm she got a notice about the investigation, and Karen Grogan of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians says they're carefully reviewing all the documentation. Chuck Tombarge, U of M spokesperson, says the university is aware of PETA's concerns, and no decision has been made yet as to what the next steps will be -- if any. Cardona thinks she did the right thing anyway.
She remembers getting the call from Bio Corporation. No, she told them, it’s not animal cruelty, but that doesn’t mean you should be doing that stuff.
“So stop drowning the pigeons, and let’s work on another system for the humane killing of those birds,” she told them.
She helped Bio Corporation set up the same system the U of M uses to dispatch pigeons: a chamber filled with carbon dioxide, which renders the birds insensible before it kills them. With the problem solved and a better system in place, she felt comfortable telling the city of Alexandria that Bio Corporation wasn’t being intentionally cruel.
If she had been there when Bio Corporation was drowning those birds, she says, she would have immediately told them to stop. But she wasn’t there. Someone from PETA was, and they didn’t do that. Instead, they put it all online.
Time will tell what comes of the investigation.