On the evening of January 24th, in the social media chat room, IFAW China office staff were sending each other red packets to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
“Beijing residents are advised to stay indoors.” This sobering note reminded everyone that Wuhan had been in locked down. The whole country was bracing for the coronavirus outbreak.
“What is the supply situation at BRRC?” asked Jeff He, IFAW’s China Country Director, who is already thinking ahead for a crisis management plan for the Beijing Raptor Rescue Center. “We need to have enough food, drugs, and supplies that can last for the next three months.”
BRRC is the only hospital in Beijing specialized in rehabilitating birds of prey. On that day, 26 raptors were in care at BRRC. Four of them had recovered from their injuries and were ready to return to the wild.
Just like a hospital for people, keeping BRRC open saves lives. Like doctors, IFAW’s rehabilitators need to tend to their patients, especially in an emergency. To mitigate the risk of virus transmission and protect staff safety, 4 rehabilitators are divided into two 2-person teams. Each team works a 7-day on and 7-day off shift, so they don’t cross each other’s paths. One of the rehabilitators recently became a new mother. For her safety, the other four staff volunteered to assign her only on-call duty.
All of a sudden, routines in the past became challenges.
Vendors that previously supplied BRRC with animal feed—dead mice or quails—are closed for business. To ensure a balanced diet for the raptors in our care, the rehabilitators had to buy chicken and beef to mix with the birds’ usual food.
The fact that the novel coronavirus epidemic originated from a market where wild animals were sold illegally made people suspicious of wildlife. Do these birds also carry the virus?
Even before this crisis staff followed internationally recognized best practices to avoid potential disease transmission. All new birds coming into the center are quarantined. All of the birds in care have been tested for H1N1 and Influenza B by a national lab. We know that the risks of avian-human disease transmission are well managed inside the center. To overcome people’s irrational fears, BRRC stopped taking in new patients and closed our doors to the public. On the center’s exterior wall, we posted a notice outlining BRRC’s epidemic prevention safety protocol to reassure the public.
BRRC is located on the campus of Beijing Normal University (BNU) in the middle of the city. Surrounded by buildings that house classrooms, student dorms, and faculty residences, BRRC has lived in a quiet corner rent free for 18 years.
On February 10th, another crisis erupted. When two rehabilitators arrived for work, they were stopped at the university entrance. Two confirmed cases of COVID19 were identified on campus the day before!
Fortunately, a letter from BRRC Director, Professor Wenhong Deng of College of Life Science, eased the fear of the university guards. They allowed the “bird doctors” to attend to their patients at the hospital. The permit came in the nick of time, avoiding us having to implement a contingency plan to move the birds outside of Beijing.
Ten weeks on, Beijing is still at high risk response. Thanks to the dedication of this all female team of wildlife experts—Lei Zhou, Chang Dai, Zhisai Li and Xinyue Lu—IFAW continues to save the lives of animals and people, even during an epidemic.
-Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director of Asia
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