When Dr. Mike Murray’s needle was ready, the scene gave a new definition to “vaccine reluctance.” There was muttering and shivering, even with four assistants wearing thick, bite-proof gloves, and carrying the patient onto a mat with a duffel bag full of foam.
“He saw Buzz in a fur coat,” joked Murray after he shot a patch of thick fur.
Done in 10 seconds, no selfies, stickers or lollipops. The newest recipient of the 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 pollinating sea otters, a species still on the endangered list, in an effort to reduce the risk of a devastating outbreak among the mysterious mascots beloved on California’s central coast.
The programme, believed to be the first in the country to pollinate sea otters, is being closely monitored by other aquariums and zoos, who are likely to follow suit.
“There is a lot of evidence that this family of animals – ferrets, mink, otters – is vulnerable,” said Murray, the aquarium’s chief veterinarian. “We have an obligation to protect the health of animals.”
Since August, the aquarium has vaccinated eight sea otters, and ended the group this week. Four – Ivy, Abby, Kit, and Selka – live in the aquarium and frolic in a large gallery tank while visitors take pictures.
The other four are wild otters that came to the aquarium as part of a rescue and rehabilitation program. When young otters are stranded on beaches, after being separated from their mothers, they are sometimes brought to an aquarium where they are restored to health, raised by surrogate otter mothers and then released back into the wild.
Each otter was given two doses, three weeks apart, of a vaccine produced by Zoetis, a New Jersey company that is the world’s leading seller of animal medicines.
So far, Murray said, they haven’t had any negative reactions.
“It seems they never miss a moment,” he said.
So far, no aquarium otters or other animals there have tested positive for COVID-19.
But in April, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta announced that several 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 that the otters became infected from a staff member who was asymptomatic.
These otters survived. But the disease has killed thousands of mink, which are relatives of otters, on fur farms in Utah and Wisconsin. In Denmark, 17 million euthanized minks were killed after an outbreak and viral mutations have been reported on more than 200 fur farms.
Other animals 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 live. But in June 2021, two lions died in a zoo in Chennai, India, after they tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
As a result, dozens of zoos across the United States pollinate a wide variety of mammals, including monkeys, lions, and giraffes. This summer, the Auckland Zoo has pollinated tigers, black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions, ferrets, chimpanzees, fruit bats and pigs.
Murray fears that if an otter catches COVID-19 from a person in the aquarium and is released into the wild, it could spread the disease to wild otter populations — like a biological oil spill. This may lead to huge losses.
In the ocean, sea otters dive to a depth of 70 feet to find oysters, crabs, hedgehogs, abalone and other foods on the sea floor. They eat up to 25% of their body weight each day.
“The virus infects the respiratory system,” Murray said. “The sea otter in the wild is a first-class athlete. If they can’t touch the bottom, they will starve to death. They must be able to breathe effectively in order to be able to fish.”
Historically there have been about 16,000 sea otters from the Oregon-California border to Baja, Mexico. But they were hunted relentlessly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by Russian, British and American fur traders for their hides, which are denser and softer than mink fur.
California otters were feared extinct until the 1930s, when about 50 otters were discovered in remote Sur Bay. Protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1977, it has begun a slow return. Today there are nearly 3,000 species, but they are still on the endangered species list.
Among the biggest threats are disease and attacks from great white sharks, which have limited their range north of the Pigeon Point Lighthouse in San Mateo County to its historic habitat. This has led to increased research and interest from some scientists and ecologists to consider moving some otters away from the California coast, perhaps to Tomales Bay, San Francisco Bay, Humboldt Bay, or elsewhere. But fishing interests are cautious and government approval may take years.
Murray said there is no risk of aquarium visitors contracting COVID-19 from animals. He noted that fish do not get COVID-19, and there are other animals behind the glass. Also, the aquarium recently instituted a policy that all visitors, who are already required to wear masks, must show evidence of vaccination or a negative test within the past 72 hours in order to be accepted.
Other marine experts said they approve of the otter vaccination program, which has been granted approval by 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. It is an essential preventive medicine. It’s about them receiving the best possible care.”
Dr. Kara Field, medical director of the Marine Mammal Center in Marin County, said she supports the vaccination program. She said her organization does not vaccinate otters, seals, seal lions and other animals it treats, but has tested more than 500 and may consider a vaccine program if cases of COVID-19 begin to appear in the wild animals they see.
She said the best way to protect animals, including dogs and cats, which have also been infected from humans with the COVID-19 virus, is to vaccinate people.
“These animals can get infected,” she said. “We are their lot. It is up to us to protect them.”