When Dr Mike Murray’s needle was ready, the scene gave a new definition to ‘vaccine hesitant’. He squirmed and squirmed, even with four assistants wearing thick, bite-resistant gloves holding the patient on a mat with a gym bag filled with foam.
âBuzz saw in a fur coat,â Murray joked after administering the blow in a chunk of thick fur.
It was over in 10 seconds, with no selfies, stickers or lollipops. And California’s last COVID-19 vaccine recipient was set to return to the tank that serves as his temporary home at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The aquarium began vaccinating sea otters, a species still on the endangered list, in an effort to reduce the risk of a devastating epidemic among the hazy and beloved mascots of the coast. Central California.
The program, considered the first in the country to vaccinate sea otters, is closely watched by other aquariums and zoos, which are expected to follow suit.
“There is a lot of evidence that this family of animals – ferrets, mink, otters – is susceptible,” said Murray, the aquarium’s chief veterinarian. âWe have an obligation to protect the health of animals.
Since August, the aquarium has vaccinated eight sea otters, ending the group this week. Four – Ivy, Abby, Kit and Selka – live in the aquarium and frolic in a large exhibition tank while visitors take photos.
The other four are wild otters who came to the aquarium as part of its rescue and rehabilitation program. When otter puppies are washed up on beaches, after being separated from their mothers, they are sometimes brought to the aquarium where they regain their health, raised by otter surrogates and then released into the wild.
Each otter received two doses, three weeks apart, of a vaccine made by Zoetis, a New Jersey company that is the world’s largest seller of animal medicine.
So far, Murray said, they haven’t had any adverse reactions.
âThey don’t seem to miss a beat,â he said.
To date, none of the otters in the aquarium, or other animals, have tested positive for COVID-19.
But in April, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta announced that several of its Asian small-clawed otters had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Their symptoms included sneezing, runny nose, lethargy, and coughing. Georgia Aquarium officials suspected the otters had picked up the infection from a staff member who was not showing any symptoms.
These otters survived. But the disease has killed thousands of mink, close relatives of otters, on fur farms in Utah and Wisconsin. And in Denmark, 17 million mink have been euthanized after epidemics and viral mutations have been reported in more than 200 fur farms.
Other animals have tested positive in zoos: Lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo in April 2020. Snow leopards at the Louisville Zoo in December. Three gorillas at the San Diego Zoo in January. Most animals survive. But in June 2021, two lions died at a zoo in Chennai, India, after testing positive for COVID-19.
As a result, dozens of zoos in the United States vaccinate a wide variety of mammals, including monkeys, lions, and giraffes. This summer, the Oakland Zoo vaccinated tigers, black bears, grizzly bears, pumas, ferrets, chimpanzees, fruit bats and pigs.
Murray is concerned that if an otter caught COVID-19 from a person at the aquarium and released into the wild, it could spread the disease to the wild otter population – like a biological oil spill. And it could get expensive.
In the ocean, sea otters dive up to 70 feet deep to find clams, crabs, sea urchins, abalone, and other foods on the seabed. They eat up to 25% of their body weight each day.
âThe virus is respiratory,â Murray said. âA sea otter in the wild is an Olympic-class athlete. If they can’t hit rock bottom, they’ll starve to death. They must be able to breathe efficiently in order to be able to hunt.
Historically, there were approximately 16,000 sea otters from the Oregon-California border to Baja, Mexico. But they were relentlessly hunted in the late 1700s and early 1800s by Russian, British and American fur traders for their hides, which are denser and softer than mink fur.
California otters were feared for extinction until the 1930s, when around 50 were discovered in isolated coves of Big Sur. Protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1977, they started a slow comeback. Today, there are nearly 3,000, but they remain on the endangered species list.
Among their greatest threats are diseases and attacks from great white sharks, which have prevented them from expanding their range north of Pigeon Point Lighthouse in San Mateo County to their historic habitat. This has sparked growing research and interest from some scientists and conservationists to consider moving otters further along the California coast, possibly to Tomales Bay, San Francisco Bay, Humboldt Bay or another place. But the interests of the fishery are suspicious and government approval could take years.
Murray said there was no risk that visitors to the aquarium would receive COVID-19 from the animals. Fish don’t get COVID-19, he noted, and other animals are behind glass. Additionally, the aquarium recently implemented a policy that all visitors, already required to wear masks, must show proof of vaccination or a negative test within the past 72 hours to be admitted.
Other marine experts have said they approve of the otter vaccination program, which has received approval from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Andrew Johnson, California representative for Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group. âIt’s basic preventive medicine. It is for them to receive the best possible care.
Dr Cara Field, medical director of the Marine Mammal Center in Marin County, said she supports the vaccination program. Her organization does not vaccinate otters, seals, seal lions and other animals she treats, she said, but has tested more than 500 and may consider a vaccination program if there are cases of COVID. -19 were starting to appear in the wild animals they see.
She said the best way for people to protect animals, including dogs and cats, which have also been infected from humans with COVID-19, is to get vaccinated.
âThese animals can be infected,â she said. âWe infect them. It’s up to us to protect them.