(MARS Wildlife Rescue Centre)

Avian flu has made its way to Vancouver Island, prompting a local wildlife rescue centre to close to the public to slow the spread of the virus.

Merville-based Mountainaire Avian Rescue Centre (MARS) is temporarily closing its visitors centre and gift shop starting Monday, following a confirmed case of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus in the Comox Valley.

MARS’ manager of wildlife rehabilitation, Gyl Andersen, says it was a tough decision that comes amid staff keeping the well-being of resident birds, including eagles, owls and crows, as well as wildlife patients, top of mind.

“We hope that this additional precautionary measure will help reduce the risk of on-site transmission of the virus,” wrote Andersen in a statement.

Last Wednesday, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed that a small poultry flock in the Valley tested positive for avian flu.

That brought the total number of small or backyard flocks in BC to contract the virus up to seven, presumably through contact with infected wild migrating birds.

Since April, flocks have tested positive for avian influenza in Kelowna, Richmond, Armstrong and the central Kootenays.

But the closure at MARS means the centre is missing out on much-needed donations from the public, according to Andersen.

“The wildlife hospital remains open, but the temporary closure of our visitor centre will drastically reduce our funds at a time when they are most needed,” she said.

“It is baby season at MARS, and the influx of injured and orphaned baby birds, raccoon kits, and other small mammals has begun.”

Andersen says MARS’ biggest expenses are food and nursery supplies this time of year, but with avian flu now in the mix, extra personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies are also a must.

“We hope to be able to open our visitor centre to the public soon, but in the meantime, we are calling on our supporters for help!” added Andersen.

MARS staff ask anyone who can donate to the centre’s animal care fund to visit its website, noting any contribution is “very much appreciated.”

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