Shamu Flu?

“Dammit, this trainer’s runny nose is getting all over me.”

Maybe the world–forced into social-distancing lockdown and economic pain–is finally waking up to the many dangers of zoonotic viruses that can pass back and forth between humans and animals, and how close contact between humans and animals in factory farming, the bushmeat economy, and the wildlife trade and its “wet markets,” sharply elevates the risks.

And we have also seen how zoo animals, like a tiger at the Bronx zoo, can “catch” a virus from a human. Now the Voice Of San Diego notes that Sea World’s Shamu, and two other killer whales, were also likely infected by a flu virus passed from a trainer:

SeaWorld’s founding veterinarian was named Dr. David Kenney, a young man in the 1960s “who took credit for naming Shamu … and then figured out how to fly her to Sea World from Seattle,” according to his 2012 obituary in the Wall Street Journal.

In January 1969, Kenney noticed that Shamu and two other killer whales named Ramu and Kilroy seemed out of sorts. According to The San Diego Union, they had “bad cases of the sniffles, poor appetite, weakness and that all-over aching feeling.” Shamu, the paper reported, had been “moaning all day” and was “lethargic and irritable.”

The killer whales got a lighter schedule (although they apparently didn’t get to sit around and do nothing), and Kenney wondered whether they’d come down with the human flu. “We can’t be certain that they have human influenza,” he told the paper, “but the symptomology correlates, and blood tests indicate their infection is viral in nature.”

That killer whales in captivity can be victim to viruses they likely would not pick up in the wild, has already been established. And now Ingrid Visser and 20 scientists have published a detailed review of novel viruses in captive marine mammals and issued a call for killer whales and other marine mammals to be added to a permanent ban on the import of wildlife into China. They note that dozens of captive orcas have died from respiratory infections over the years, but that we don’t really know the extent of the problem because so many necropsies are kept confidential. It’s an eye-opening review, and you can read it here (and below):

Factory farms and wildlife markets are no doubt the most worrisome vectors for zoonotic viruses. But the fact that captive marine mammals and other zoo animals have also been infected by viruses that likely were passed from humans, and could themselves be the source of viruses that pass to humans, is just one more urgent reminder that humanity needs to dramatically change its relationship with animals–especially the degree to which they are commoditized and industrialized, and brought into the human economy.

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