When Dr. Mike Murray’s needle was ready, a new definition of vaccine hesitant emerged in this scene. It squirmed and writhed, even as four assistants in thick, impenetrable gloves held the patient on a mat with a gym bag filled with foam.
“Buzz was a saw in a fur coat,” Murray joked after firing at a patch of thick fur.
It was all over in 10 seconds, no selfies, stickers or lollipops. And the recipient of the latest COVID-19 vaccine in California was ready to return to the tank that serves as her temporary home at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The aquarium has begun vaccinating sea otters – a species still on the endangered species list – in an effort to reduce the risk of a devastating outbreak among the furry favorite mascots of the California Central Coast.
The program, which is considered the country’s first vaccine for sea otters, is under scrutiny from other aquariums and zoos, which are likely to follow suit.
“There is a lot of evidence that this family of animals – ferrets, minks, otters – is susceptible,” said Murray, the aquarium’s chief veterinarian. “We have a responsibility to protect animal health.”
Eight sea otters have been vaccinated in the aquarium since August and the group ended this week. Four — Ivy, Abby, Keith, and Selka — live in the aquarium and frolic in the large exhibition aquarium while visitors take pictures.
The other four are wild otters trapped in the aquarium as part of its rescue and rehabilitation program. When baby otters find themselves on the beach, separated from their mothers, they are sometimes brought into an aquarium where they are restored to health, raised as surrogate otters, and then released back into the wild.
Each otter, three weeks apart, was given two doses of the vaccine manufactured by Zoetis, a New Jersey-based company that is the world’s leading marketer of animal drugs.
So far, Murray said, they have had no adverse reactions.
“They don’t seem to miss a second,” 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 Asian low-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 contracted the infection from a staff member who had no symptoms.
These otters survived. But the disease has killed thousands of minks, close relatives of otters, at fur farms in Utah and Wisconsin. And in Denmark, 17 million minks have been euthanized after disease outbreaks, and viral mutations have been reported in more than 200 fur farms.
Other animals tested positive at 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 are vaccinating a wide variety of mammals, including monkeys, lions, and giraffes. This summer, Auckland Zoo vaccinated tigers, black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions, ferrets, chimpanzees, bats and pigs.
Murray fears that if an otter becomes infected with COVID-19 from a person in an aquarium and is released into the wild, it could spread the disease to the wild otter population – like a bio-oil spill. And this can lead to large losses.
In the ocean, sea otters dive to depths of 70 feet to find shellfish, crabs, urchins, abalone and other food on the seabed. They eat up to 25% of their weight every day.
“The virus is respiratory,” Murray said. “The sea otter in the wild is an Olympic-class athlete. If they cannot touch the bottom, they will starve. In order for them to hunt, they must be able to breathe effectively. “
Historically, about 16,000 sea otters have lived from the Oregon-California border to Baja, Mexico. But in the late 1700s and early 1800s, they were tirelessly hunted by Russian, British and American fur traders to obtain their skins, which are denser and softer than mink fur.
The extinct California otters feared extinction until the 1930s, when about 50 individuals were found in the remote coves of Big Sur. Protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1977, they began a slow return. Today there are about 3,000 of them, but they remain on the list of endangered species.
Among their biggest threats are disease and attacks by 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 ecologists to consider moving some otters further along the California coast, perhaps to Tomales Bay, San Francisco Bay, Humboldt Bay, or elsewhere. But fishing interests are wary, and government approval could take years.
Murray said there is no risk that visitors to the aquarium will contract COVID-19 from animals. He noted that the fish are not infected with COVID-19, while other animals are behind glass. In addition, the aquarium recently put in place a policy that all visitors who are already required to wear masks must show proof of vaccination or test negative within the last 72 hours to be admitted.
Other marine experts said they endorse the otter vaccination program approved by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
“I think this is a good idea,” said Andrew Johnson, a spokesman for the California Wildlife Conservation Group. “This is the main preventive medicine. It’s about getting them the best possible care. ”
Dr. Kara Field, medical director of the Marine Mammal Center in Marin County, said she supports the vaccination program. Her organization does not vaccinate otters, seals, seals and other animals it treats, she said, but has conducted more than 500 trials and may consider a vaccination program if cases of COVID-19 begin to appear in wildlife they see.
The best way to protect animals, including dogs and cats, who have also contracted COVID-19 from humans, is to get vaccinated, she said.
“These animals can get infected,” she said. “We infect them. Our task is to protect them. “