This week: Bird flu It is wet season again in sub-tropical Hong Kong, and I just love sitting on the roof, and looking at rainstorms and lightning over the sea. It is awe-inspiring and majestic. One of my favourite holiday memories was during a backpacking trip to Darwin, in the Northern Territory of Australia. It was the early 1980s and my travelling mate and I were on foot walking to a pier that is literally almost the northernmost pier of Australia. We were young, it was the start of a long holiday, we had just got off the plane and had more than a little to drink. These were the excuses I made for myself for singing Like a Virgin and La Bamba while strolling in an ever-intensifying tropical rainstorm. Darwin is situated next to the Timor Sea and has a tropical climate akin to Bangkok. We were sharing an umbrella that was becoming more and more inadequate as the raindrops coalesced to bucket size. Soon, we were soaked through to our underwear and we dispensed with the umbrella and just enjoyed being wet. We managed to hobble our way to the end of the pier and sat down drenched, and watched the most spectacular lightning display about 30km out to sea. It was a continual lightning storm with literally thousands of strikes per minute. The night sky was aglow and there was a strong smell of ozone. Being typhoon season again and with the severe rainstorms that have been occurring of late, there has been a spate of people bringing in small juvenile birds that have fallen out of nests after the storms. Unfortunately for these small wild birds, especially the common types such as the tailorbird, Japanese white-eye, magpie, bulbuls, spotted dove, robins and numerous others, their survival rate is rather poor and they are never able to fend for themselves again without their mother's upbringing. Even in the old days, before the fear of bird flu, it would have been inappropriate to try fostering these common birds for release as they would inevitably die prematurely in the wild. So my job back before the age of bird flu was to euthanise these common avian species. Occasionally, someone would bring in a heron, owl, kite or some rare species, and we would try to give them first aid and send these off to Kadoorie Farm for possible rehabilitation. This presented us with some unusual dangers. As vets we are trained to handle most commonly kept animals, but most vets have little training when it comes to wild animals. I remember walking in on a very odd scene once: I heard some rather painful screaming from the treatment room next door and ran to find out what was happening. I opened the door to find a vet and a nurse holding on to a black kite, or rather the black kite was holding on to the vet and the nurse. Apparently they had used a towel to cover the head of the kite to avoid being bitten while trying to get the bird out of the cage. Apparently the bird was deceptively docile and didn't struggle as it was being removed from the cage. Suddenly it came alive and used its claws to grab the hands of the vet and nurse when being lifted. It wasn't a pretty sight; the bird had dug its claws deep into their palms and had closed its claws tight. Both were bleeding profusely. To their credit they didn't want to harm the bird by pulling the bird off by force. It took a couple of minutes of careful manipulation to pry open the claws and I remember distinctly the feeling of claw scraping the vet's finger bones. It still sends a shiver down my spine. Both were fine within days after treatment. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you see it, I won't get many more opportunities to see these spectacular wild birds again, as we citizens and vets are required to forward these cases to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department to handle in the wake of bird flu. Bird flu has caused many unforeseen situations for me as a vet. I remember a particularly sad case about two years ago. The government had just imposed a licensing system that prevented the casual keeping of certain edible fowl, including pigeons. I was in my consultation room when I heard my front door crash open and suddenly I heard a woman crying her lungs out. I rushed out to the waiting room to find three towel-covered metal cages on the floor with a woman crying next to them. I thought it was odd that there could be so many animals from the same owner to have an emergency at the same time. When I lifted the towels I found six beautiful white pigeons, and I mean beautiful. They were well conditioned, pristine white, beautifully kept and obviously very healthy. Then it dawned on me that the lady had brought these birds in for euthanasia. Apparently someone had complained about them and it was the legal thing to do. For me it is always heart-wrenching to euthanise any animal that is healthy. Damn you, bird flu, damn you.