Plane rides not for the birds

Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2001

SEWARD (AP) -- Raising 100 baby chicks isn't something homesteader Penny Hardy usually does this late in the year. But Hardy is concerned her opportunity to continue raising her own fryers may soon be taken away.

Animal rights activists have been leaning on airlines and other transport companies for the last couple of years to abstain from shipping poultry and other live animals, according to Diana Taplin, owner of Cad-Re Feed in Soldotna.

Taplin said she's been trying to get people excited about the threat of Alaska being cut off from the chicken market for a couple of years.

''Hatcheries and feed companies will go out of business,'' Taplin said. ''No live creatures will be shipped. Not even meal worms.''

Taplin said half of her feed sales relate to poultry. About 25 percent of sales between March and August have to do with chickens.

Local feed store owner Becky Dunn agreed.

''We're going to be in big trouble up here,'' she said.

The situation came to a head in August when Northwest Airlines, a major shipper of day-old chicks, announced they would no longer ship poultry and other live animals sent via the U.S. Postal Service.

The airlines said shipping live animals through the mail was not lucrative, and they needed more money to help subsidize the shipments, according to Mike Lubbers, co-owner of Murray McMurray Hatcheries in Iowa, the oldest and largest hatchery of rare breed poultry in the United States.

The airlines said they would ship the birds as air cargo, but shipping costs are about 10 times higher than through the mail, Lubbers said.

Mail has priority over cargo, and newly hatched chicks must be shipped quickly. Chicks are born with enough nutrients in their bodies to sustain them for three days.

And to complicate the issue, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration ruled no parcel over 16 ounces can be shipped as mail on passenger planes with 60 or more seats, said Nancy Cain Schmitt, Postal Service spokesperson. Instead, larger mail must travel on mail charters, she said.

That ruling particularly hurt residents of Bush Alaska.

Alaska Airlines obtained an exemption from the ruling and can now fly poultry within the state on smaller planes, but cannot bring it in from outside the state, Schmitt said.

Poultry user groups have not taken the recent developments lightly and formed Bird Shippers of America in August.

The group successfully passed a bill through both the Senate and the House of Representatives that would require the airlines to accept shipment of live animals as mail for a surcharge yet to be agreed upon, Lubbers said.

Before the bill passed through the House, it appeared committee members were relenting to pressure from groups such as People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, Lubbers said.

But when the anthrax scare delayed enactment of the bill, Bird Shippers members moved in and gave key members on the committee their side of the story, he said.

Passage of the bill and implementation of a surcharge will only bring temporary relief to the shipping problems.

The bill is good only through June 30 of next year, but Bird Shippers is already working on a more permanent replacement.

Meanwhile, all of Hardy's chicks arrived through the mail healthy and ready for their first meal. The Cornish-cross chicks are growing nicely and will be ready for butchering in six to eight weeks, she said.

What does one do with 100 fryers?

''By the time the kids all get some, it thins them out,'' Hardy said.

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