She left the contaminated birds in the locked quarantine room, then went to the front of the sanctuary and locked that door as well. Donning a pair of gloves and a mask she went to help Perry.
“Have any other volunteers arrived yet?”
“No, two are coming in at noon.”
“Don’t let them in yet,” Mattie said. “Don’t let anyone in.”
“What’s going on?”
“How many birds are we caring for?”
“Have the mosquitoes been bad in here?” The question was rhetorical.
“Once we’re finished here, we’ll take the birds in their cages and put them in the exercise pen as far apart as possible.”
“Then we’ll need as many of the volunteers as you can get, gloved and masked, and have them clean the living areas in the same manner. Once that’s done, we’ll re-cage the birds in sanitized cages.”
“Is this some kind of contagious disease?”
“I don’t know, yet.” But she did.
A half hour later they began moving the caged birds into the exercise pen. Mattie visually examined every bird. The symptoms were hard to spot. The bird could appear to be healthy and be dead an hour later.
Back in the quarantine room, another cockatiel had died. She placed the three tiny carcasses in heavy-duty zip-lock bags, then wrapped the bag in several sheets of newspaper and placed it in another sealed bag. In the storage room she found a small box, placed the double-bagged cockatiel corpses in the box and sealed it with duct tape. Then she called the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative regional office in Abbotsford. After a series of frustrating prompts someone finally picked up.
“CWHC, Pritchard speaking.”
“Glenda, it’s Mattie Saunders. Thank goodness you’re working.” Glenda Pritchard was an avian pathologist. She’d been a guest at one of Mattie’s lectures, the ideal person to speak to.
“Hey, Mattie, what can I do for you?”
“I’m sending by courier three carcasses of cockatiels that have died in my care.”
“All three of them?”
“What do you suspect killed them?”
Mattie didn’t want to admit it, as if not acknowledging what she already knew would prevent it from happening.
“West Nile virus.”
“WNV? You’re sure?”
“You’ll be the one to determine that,” Mattie said, but she was sure.
“Okay, I’ll give it top priority.”
“How many birds are in the sanctuary?” Pritchard said.
The pathologist was silent. She was probably thinking about the sanctuary in Alberta that lost thirty-five birds to the virus last year, only this could be worse. The victims of that outbreak had been local wildlife rescues, mostly large raptors. The only report Mattie had seen about how the virus affected exotic birds was chilling. Every bird infected died quickly and without apparent symptoms.
Her next call was to Delta Windows and Screens.
“How soon can I have exterior screens installed on all the windows and doors at Saunders Bird Rescue and Sanctuary?”
“I can send our estimator out tomorrow and we could have them installed in a week.”
“A week! I’ll get back to you.” In a week she wouldn’t need them.
Mattie recruited the students who had come to work at the rescue and rehab, and by dinner time the sanctuary had been disinfected. So far there were no more deaths, but it was impossible to identify and isolate sick birds until it was too late. And then there were the mosquitoes. The pond beside the sanctuary had become a breeding ground, but destroying the larvae meant poisoning the water and killing or putting at risk all the other life that depended on it.
Mattie called Jonathon at home and told him what she suspected.
“We need to let the public know the sanctuary and all its programs are closed indefinitely,” Mattie said.
“Including the bird boarding service and gift shop gallery?”
“Everything,” Mattie said. “We need to focus all our energy on saving the birds in our care and preventing the spread of the virus.”
“Why don’t we wait until the lab confirms it's West Nile virus?”
“Because that could take days during which time people could be taking precautions.”
“Like notifying authorities about sick and dead birds, like telling people not to handle them, like quarantining birds brought to other rescue facilities, like draining standing water on their property like we should have done.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, Mattie, a good portion of Delta is still under water. There’s no way–”
“If we don’t go public, the GWHC will.”
“Then let them.”
“What’s the matter with you, Jonathon? If they do it before us it will look like we’re trying to hide something?”
“We’re not trying to hide anything, but we don’t want an overreaction.”
“I’ve got three dead cockatiels and I don’t know how many more corpses I’ll find by tomorrow morning and you think I’m overreacting?”
“You always overreact, Mattie, but it’s not you I’m concerned about. People will think if birds get infected and die from West Nile, it might spread to humans.”
“There’s no evidence of that.”
“It’s a mosquito borne illness with an exotic name, like malaria, the public doesn’t need evidence.”
“What are you saying, Jonathon?”
“If we put out a press release saying we’ve shut down our bird facilities because of a deadly outbreak of West Nile virus I guarantee you every event booked at Birds of a Feather will cancel. That will cost us thirty-five thousand dollars this week alone, and who knows how long it will take to build business back up again?”
“If a hawk kills a pigeon that has West Nile, the hawk could get sick. Someone could take that hawk to Orphan Wildlife Rescue and all the birds they’re caring for could become infected and die.”
“Not all birds die from West Nile–”
“If we let them know, they’ll quarantine incoming birds to prevent that from happening.”
“I’ll call an emergency board meeting,” Jonathon said.
“Why? I’ll send out the release myself.”
“No, you won’t. It’s a board decision. I’ll convene it for Tuesday. Those who can’t attend in person can phone in.”
“That’s forty-eight fucking hours. If I make the call now, it might make the late news.”
“If you undermine the board, you’ll get kicked off,” Jonathon said. “You won’t have a vote, you won’t have the opportunity to address the members, you won’t have any input as to how any of the facilities are run.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Read the society’s bylaws.”
Mattie took deep breaths. She needed to calm down, to think beyond this horrible tragedy unfolding and the betrayal of her best friend to the consequences this might have for the employees, the board members, the reputation of the sanctuary and her.
“The meeting has to be held tomorrow,” she said.
“Impossible. These are busy people who–”
“I couriered the carcasses to the CWHC lab three hours ago. They’ll have the results sometime tomorrow.” Mattie was lying. She had no idea how long the lab would take to make a diagnosis and what the protocol was once they had. “We need to stay ahead of this, Jonathon. You don’t want the board members embarrassed by being blindsided. And our bird boarding clients need time to make other arrangements.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
They’d need eight for a quorum. She was hoping the busy people wouldn’t attend the meeting and the bird lovers would. They’d understand the urgency of the situation and support full transparency, including immediately going public.
Simon arrived home at 7 p.m. and found Mattie in the sanctuary.
“Sorry, I’m late, I... Mattie, what’s wrong?”
“West Nile virus. In the sanctuary.” Mattie was so exhausted she couldn’t complete an entire sentence.
“Is it contagious?” Simon began backing out the door.
Mattie disposed of her gloves and mask, locked the sanctuary door and followed him to the house. There was nothing more she could do.
“Have you notified the health authorities?” Simon was keeping his distance.
“Not airborne, spread by mosquitoes. People infected don’t get sick.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course, I’m fucking sure.” Mattie regretted her outburst. Simon’s caution and insensitivity was borne out of ignorance. This was how the public would react, so she’d better get used to it.
“Eight out of ten people infected with the virus show no symptoms at all,” she said.
‘What about the other twenty percent?”
“It’s like a mild flu, lasts a couple of weeks.”
“But I heard people died from it.”
“One percent get seriously ill. Of that one percent, one in fifteen hundred die,” Mattie said. “You’re far more likely to die from influenza.”
“I’m sorry, Mattie. How many birds are sick?”
“No idea, but three are dead.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Do you know anyone who can install screens on the sanctuary windows and doors immediately?”
“Sure. All you need is a roll of screen, clip frames and hardware. Most building supply stores carry that stuff.”
“And you can do it?”
“Anybody can do it,” Simon said. “I mean anyone who doesn’t live in a big city. Have you already forgotten how bad the bugs are up country?”
“Tomorrow’s my first day on the job, but I can pick up the supplies on the way home and get them up before dark.”
Mattie hugged him. Simon didn’t pull away, which she imagined took courage. She never knew he was such a germophobe.
“It was my fault,” she said
“How was it your fault?”
“I should have insisted the pond next to the sanctuary be drained or drained it myself.”
“There are hundreds of ponds in Delta just like that one, Mattie. Look across the road, the blueberry field is still underwater.” They stood on the front porch. Simon put his arms around her. “It’s not your fault, those mosquitoes could have come from anywhere.”
“I’m going to have a shower and get back out there.”
As soon as she entered the house, Pickles began to shriek. There were far fewer mosquitoes in the house than in the sanctuary, so the macaw was probably safe, but not her mate. Mattie had separated them a week ago to prevent them from mating and inadvertently may have saved her parrot’s life.
Pickles flapped her wings, rang her bell, tipped the water dish and scratched gravel from her cage onto the floor.
Simon offered the bird a macadamia nut. She pecked his finger. “Ouch. What’s wrong with Pickles?”
Mattie went in the bathroom, shed her sweat-soaked clothes and stepped into the shower. Simon could say what he wanted, but she knew the death now stalking the inhabitants of the sanctuary was because of her–and so did Pickles.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish