The condemned birds of Alexandria were given a temporary stay of execution yesterday, allowing them to perch for one more day in a glaring media spotlight.
"This is a circus," fumed an exasperated Roy Hand, a veterinarian for the Department of Agriculture which ordered the 1,000 exotic birds, now under quarantine at an Alexandria warehouse, put to death. "I guess you can't stop the press," said Hand.
About two dozen media representatives, from national television crews to community newspaper reporters ignored Hand's warnings and marched into the rear of Smith's Exotic Aviaries Inc. to view the birds which Agriculture officials say have been exposed to exotic Newcastle disease. Officials say they fear spread of that disease could devastate America's poultry industry, as it did in 1971 when 12 million chickens died after an outbreak of Newcastle disease in California.
"As far as I am concerned there's no danger to anything from these birds," said Kevin Smith, the 19-year-old president of the Alexandria aviary, during one of half a dozen interviews yesterday against a multicolored backdrop of macaws, cockatiels and African finches. "All the USDA is worried about is poultry."
The 50 species of birds at Smith's aviary, the largest wholesaler of exotic birds in the mid-Atlantic states, were exposed to the Newcastle disease from a shipment of yellow-naped Amazon parrots, according to Agriculture officials.Those parrots were purchased from an importer who was under investigation by Agriculture and, after Smith's purchase, was arrested on charges of smuggling Amazon parrots into the United States.
Smith said yesterday that he had no way of knowing the importer was being investigated. He held up a list of 96 "quarantine stations," approved by Agriculture to sell imported birds -- a group which indicated his Los Angeles dealer.
"The USDA never sent any warning out that this guy was suspected of doing something illegal," said Smith, who started his bird business four years ago while attending Herndon High School. "If the USDA had been stringent enough to warn us about this guy, this never would have happened."
An Agriculture spokesman said yesterday that the Los Angeles importer's name was on the agency's approved list but maintained that the dealer had been closed last year.
Agriculture officials and Smith yesterday were negotiating what price the government must pay Smith for his feathered stock. Smith claims the birds would be valued at approximately $100,000 in a pet store. Agriculture officials decline to place a value on the stock.
Once the bureaucrats and Smith agree on a price, all of the birds in the Alexandria warehouse at 4548 Eisenhower Avenue will be, as the agency puts it, "depopulated." Smaller birds, said officials, will be gassed and larger ones will be given lethal injections. The officials said yesterday they don't know when that will be.
The reporters who entered the warehouse escaped any Agriculture action. "How can I call the sheriff, it's not my facility?" complained Hand, as he chatted by telephone with his boss at a nearby motel command post. After he hung up, Hand shook his head and sighed, "He's about to flip over this."
Reporters were not the only ones interested in the birds. Smith said he received a number of calls from individuals who offered to hide birds in their homes for him.
A tribe of Pueblo Indians from New Mexico called to ask for the dead birds' feathers for headdresses they sell to tourists.
And an electrician who works beside the aviary took an extended lunch break to see what the commotion was all about. "I think it's kind of funky what the USDA is doing," said Bill Bahre after trekking through the aviary in his work boots. "But I guess they've got their reasons."