Bird Flu Puts An Element Of Peril Into Buddhist Rite

A peddler sells birds at the Preah Ang Dang Ker shrine in Phnom Penh. Buddhists in Cambodia and elsewhere in Asia release birds from cages in a ritual to seek blessings for this life and the next.
A peddler sells birds at the Preah Ang Dang Ker shrine in Phnom Penh. Buddhists in Cambodia and elsewhere in Asia release birds from cages in a ritual to seek blessings for this life and the next. (By Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post)

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By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 16, 2006

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Over the centuries, Buddhists in Cambodia and elsewhere in Asia have released the sorrows born of sickness, hunger and war through the simple, cathartic act of buying caged birds and setting them free, sometimes with a kiss.

In front of the shimmering gold pagoda of Wat Phnom, built on the grassy hill that lent the capital its name, Cambodians reach inside the metal and wire mesh cages, draw out sparrows, swallows, munias and weavers, often in pairs, then raise them in cupped palms to their lips. The devotees mumble a prayer and then set them free into the warm, still air.

But the tradition, in which devotees seek blessings for this life and the next, could now prove to be a curse. Animal health experts warn that the practice of capturing wild birds, holding them in confined quarters and then turning them over to human hands could spread avian flu among birds, across species and on to people.

So far, avian influenza has not been diagnosed in any of the birds released at the temples of Buddhist Asia, from Thailand to Taiwan. But that is only because so few have been tested, according to Martin Gilbert, a field veterinarian with the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society. The virus, which has killed people in at least seven countries, including Cambodia, and infected birds on three continents, has been discovered in some of the same species that are sold in front of Buddhist shrines.

Gilbert said that the threat is comparable to the danger posed by live poultry markets blamed for several Asian outbreaks of the highly lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu, including one in Phnom Penh this month.

"H5N1 is out there and we have to be cognizant of the risks in acting this way," Gilbert cautioned.

On a recent morning, Kong Phalla, a young, slight woman wearing a red knit cap, stood under a tree at the base of Wat Phnom, clasping lotus stems in one hand and a metal cage crammed with scores of birds in the other. She said that the birds had been shipped into the city overnight by boat and that she had sold nearly three dozen to worshipers by the morning.

"They want to free their depression, free their sadness and illness with the birds," Kong Phalla, 23, explained, resting the cage beside a table of incense sticks.

She flashed a thin smile, saying she had brought five cages to the temple and was confident that nearly all 1,000 birds would be gone by nightfall. Bird flu was of no concern, she continued, patting the cage. It is only the foreign tourists who fret, often paying her to release the birds herself so they do not have to touch them.

"Bird flu has never happened to me," Kong Phalla boasted reassuringly.

Spotting a Cambodian man approaching the temple, she abandoned her thought and gave chase, following him up the long brick staircase, past the statues of lions and balustrades of mythical serpents, beseeching him at each step to purchase a few of her birds.

At another pagoda in the Cambodian capital, Khy Sovanratana sat cross-legged on a thin cushion, his orange monk's robe draped over his left shoulder. He recounted the legend of how the Buddha, before attaining enlightenment, had found a swan wounded by an arrow, nursed the creature back to health then set it free.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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