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Body Snatcher

Alvin Jones is on the West Nile war path.


The city has been on alert for the presence of the virus since outbreaks started spreading throughout the eastern United States. When birds die from the virus, they can infect mosquitoes, which then pass it to humans. For most healthy adults, the virus causes flulike symptoms. But for people with weak immune systems, it can be deadly. The city has been on a war against mosquitoes, and officials have asked residents to report dead birds to the Richmond Health Department.

The calls have poured in. And workers like Jones are answering.

Jones wears a navy shirt and cargo pants, and his heavy-duty belt is outfitted with handcuffs, his badge and a baton-type tool he can use to ward off dogs. Jones has been in the job since December 1997, often assisting the police department with building raids and the impounding of rabid animals.

Today he's been assigned to pick up 22 dead birds. He is headed for a crow at 310 S. Blvd. when he hits the intersection of Grace Street and the Boulevard. Somehow, he has spotted a pigeon that looks suspicious.

"Somebody told me I had eyes in every part of my head," Jones says. No pigeons have been confirmed as carrying the virus — only hawks, blue jays and crows so far. But this pigeon looks strange. It flaps its wings but doesn't leave the ground.

"Normally when they're infected they don't fly away," he explains. Out of his truck, with traffic stopped, he begins the chase. The pigeon hobbles for cover under the truck, between the tires and slips past Jones' pole.

"He might have smacked a building too, so it's hard to tell," he says. He crouches under the truck and grabs for the pigeon.

After catching the gray bird with his thick, black rubber gloves, Jones gently places it in one of six caged compartments in the back of his truck. He gets back in, flips off the hazard lights and is off to get the crow.

He reaches for his CB radio. He calls animal-control headquarters to report the pigeon. Then he calls a veterinarian.

"Hi, is there anyone there that can look at a pigeon and see what's wrong with him?" Jones says into the phone. "He's sick with something and wouldn't fly." While he waits, he puts down the phone and scribbles on a "West Nile Virus Surveillance Animal Reporting Form."

Simultaneously, a voice on his police-band radio tries to get his attention. But he's talking to the vet's office. "Is there somebody who can put him to sleep?" he asks. "I want to have him tested. Tell somebody!" A pause. "All I need is for somebody to look at him." He hangs up. "It's like pulling teeth," he says, shaking his head.

Jones stops at a red light, and a woman on the sidewalk spots the words "Animal Control" on the side of his truck. Holding a cigarette in one hand and a McDonald's bag in the other, she rushes up and knocks on the window. "There's a dead bird in front of my apartment," she says. "It's a blue jay. Been there since this morning. Do you know who I call?"

"I'm the one to call," he answers, and takes the address.

When he arrives at the apartment complex on the Boulevard, he scans the area. He picks up snake tongs — a pole resembling long pliers, more commonly used for grabbing snakes. From 10 feet away he spots the blue jay lying under a tree. "I think the ants may have did him in," he says, worried that the blue jay is too decomposed to be tested.

With the snake tongs he pushes the bird into a small white plastic bag and throws it in a back compartment of the truck. Then he takes off for the crow.

After he picks it up, Jones heads for the Boulevard Animal Hospital. Past gawking nurses and barking dogs, he carries the pigeon into a small room. Dr. Ellen Huth, a veterinarian who sees a lot of birds, quickly enters. "Is he sick?" she asks. The bird is walking around on a small plastic table, flapping its wings but unable to fly, despite Jones' and Huth's pushes.

"He's thin," Huth says, diagnosing. "He has some kind of disease." But she doesn't think it's West Nile. "West Nile birds drop dead from the sky," she says. "They don't hang around to tell you the story." She pulls out a needle, injects the pigeon with a pink liquid called Euthasol. It dies. "He could have TB," Huth speculates. "It could be any number of things." Nurses place the bird in a thin black plastic bag and lay it in a brown cardboard box.

"It's still gonna be tested," Jones says. Huth had never seen a bird infected with West Nile before, and Jones wants to be careful. He heads to the lab, located in the offices of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at Main and 14th.

He shows his ID, and hands the box over to a scientist, who carries it downstairs and places it in a large refrigerator to be tested in the coming days.

"I still want to be a police officer," he says, grinning. The jobs are similar, he reasons, "dealing with people, investigating stuff. …This is a job that suffers a lot of burnout — a lot of mental and physical fatigue. This is the kind of job you cannot do if you don't enjoy it. It'd be impossible."

His next stop is North Side. He pulls up to a black, two-story home with a fenced-in yard. It is overflowing with ivy, trees and brush. He finds the owners, Garrett and Nikki Shifflett, in their backyard.

They've already put the dead blue jay in a Zip-Lock bag, wrapped it in a Wal-Mart bag, and thrown it away. But they retrieve it from the garbage and hand it over. Jones takes the package, wincing from the stench.

Jones heads back to the truck, bird in hand. It's 7:45 p.m., and there are eight stops left. Suddenly he slaps the back of his neck. It's a mosquito. S

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