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Bird flu outbreak forces SF pigeon activists to halt efforts to heal their feathered friends

Carla Cabral, Organizer for Direct Action Anywhere, and avid animal rights activist feeds the large flock of pigeons that reside above the Civic Center UN Plaza in San Francisco, Calif. on Wednesday, August 3, 2022. Cabral throws bird seed to the pigeon to get them closer she she can inspect them for medical needs. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Catching a pigeon requires patience, quick hands and a lot of bird seed. 

“It’s like catching a fly,” Carla Cabral explained. Make one wrong move and “they’re totally on to you.”

Cabral, who lives in the East Bay, has learned a lot about earning the trust of her winged neighbors in recent years. As a self-described pigeon activist and organizer for the radical animal rights nonprofit Direct Action Everywhere, she regularly participates in pigeon first aid events in the city—untangling string from their claws that could lead to the loss of a toe or a potentially fatal infection.

But recently, Cabral and her fellow activists have been forced to stop helping the birds as a deadly wave of avian flu sweeps the country. Several cases of bird flu in Sonoma County have halted the efforts of the group, which has met monthly in the Tenderloin neighborhood since 2017. 

The fatal strain has so far claimed the lives of at least 1,500 wild birds in the U.S. since January, with over 2,000 cases detected. Bird flu poses an overall low risk to humans and there are no detected cases in the city, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Still, Direct Action Everywhere canceled an August pigeon destringing event to ensure that they don’t spread the disease among the city’s pigeon population. 

“It’s been very scary,” Cabral said.

‘The Rats of the Sky’

Though some pigeons fly at speeds upwards of 100 miles per hour, Cabral says she and other members of the group have become quite adept at safely snaring them.

Cabral’s method of coaxing the birds—feeding them a mixture of sunflower seeds, corn, millet and fruits—is technically against city law, but Cabral is no stranger to controversy. She made the news in April for gluing her hand to a table during a state assembly meeting, while other members of her group have been charged with felonies for acts such as stealing pigs from a farm.

“Laws are oftentimes put into place without actually thinking all the way through the consequences of that law,” Cabral said, explaining why she is willing to put herself at odds with the government on certain animal rights issues. “I absolutely understand why they are in place…There just needs to be more nuance.”

Cabral worked in a veterinary hospital for 11 years before she found her calling as an activist, a realization that she says came to her either by watching Dominion, a film documenting unethical practices in U.S agriculture, or hearing a speech by vegan thought leader Gary Yourofsky—she can’t remember which. 

“It just hit me like a bat across my forehead,” Cabral said. “I transitioned to being a vegan pretty much the next day.” 

Though some refer to pigeons as “rats of the sky” to demean the birds, Cabral sees the nickname as something of an honorific. She first operated on a pigeon in the emergency room and rats were her first love. 

“I loved pigeons simply because they were called the rats of the sky,” Cabral said. “Everywhere you go, you see pigeons and they are so beautiful and loving. You never see pigeons attacking people or doing anything harmful.” 

‘Beautiful, Beautiful Birds’

In a round about way, Christopher Lepczyk, a professor on invasive species at Auburn University, said he gets it on an animal-to-animal level. Though pigeons aren’t native to the city, he said, there likely isn’t any harm in helping them out once in a while.

“Suffering is profoundly hard to watch,” Lepczyk said. “Do we need pigeons to be rescued? The answer is probably no. But it makes people feel good.” 

But for Cabral its about more than just feeling good.

“It's this wonderful way that we can give back to these beautiful, beautiful birds,” Cabral said.

David Sjostedt can be reached at