Washington’s wildfires gave this sea otter asthma.
Now she’s learning to use an inhaler.
Washington’s wildfires gave this sea otter asthma. Now she’s learning to use an inhaler.
By Sarah Kaplan September 18
One-year-old Mishka has spent nearly all her life in the water. But fires burning miles away are threatening her health.
The young sea otter, a resident of the Seattle Aquarium, was diagnosed with asthma after inhaling smoke from this summer’s vicious wildfires, according to the aquarium.
Like many people in Washington State and across the west, she has been having trouble breathing the air that’s suddenly full of dust and soot. So, like people, she’ll need to learn to use an inhaler.
Feel free to “aww” now. We’ll wait.
Mishka’s trainer at the aquarium, Sara Perry, has been teaching her how to use the device through games and treats. She tucks food into the mouthpiece of the inhaler, so that the otter will open her mouth and breathe in. Then Perry can send in a puff of asthma medicine — the same kind of medicine that humans use.
“We want to make this as fun as possible,” Perry told local TV station KING-5 News.
Aquarium staff wrote in a blog post that Mishka is the first sea otter known to have asthma, and they’re still not sure why she developed it. The likely explanation may involves some combination of environmental factors and genetics. Seattle’s sea otter population lacks genetic diversity, since it was hunted to extinction in 1910 and only reintroduced a few decades ago by bringing about five-dozen otters down from Alaska. It’s believed that most of those didn’t survive, and that the state’s entire otter population descends from as few as 10 animals. This hurts the otters’ genetic diversity, compromising their immune system and making them more vulnerable to disease.
All that, combined with the choking smoke from the fires burning in the east, probably caused Mishka’s asthma.
And she’s hardly the only one whose lungs are suffering. States don’t yet have health data on how this year’s fires have affected people with asthma and other breathing difficulties. But anecdotally, things don’t look good.
“What the fire and particles do is like sunburn in their lungs, putting the smoke right down in their lungs,” Dr. Vipul Jain, a pulmonologist who runs a chronic lung disease program in Fresno, Calif., told the New York Times. “We see a whole bunch of people get exacerbated and getting hospitalized, no matter what we do.”
Peter Rabinowitz, a professor in the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, says that cases like Mishka’s are a warning signal, a reminder that we’re not immune to the environmental changes that affect animals.
“More and more there starts to be this concept of what we’re calling ‘One Health,’ which really is that there’s a connection between health of people and the health other species,” he told told KING-5. “Sometimes those species can tell us there is a problem in the environment that could be important for human health as well.”
Sarah Kaplan is a reporter for Morning Mix.