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You’ve heard of the tiger who tested positive for COVID-19. In 1969, a flu pandemic might have infected three killer whales here.
The weekend brought news that a tiger at the Bronx Zoo has tested positive for the new coronavirus, and officials think a zookeeper may have accidentally infected her. It might not be the first time a human pandemic has sickened a mammal in captivity.
The deadly Hong Kong Flu outbreak in the late 1960s killed tens of thousands of Americans and sickened millions more, including many in San Diego. In 1968, it may have infected the original Shamu and two counterparts too – possibly yet another sign of the viral ties between animals and humans.
The killer whales became ill at the original SeaWorld. The first of a national chain of aquatic parks, it opened in San Diego in 1964 and quickly turned the original Shamu into a performance star.
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.”
Could a human in the lives of the killer whales – a trainer, perhaps – have inadvertently infected them? It seems possible. If so, the Hong Kong Flu is a likely suspect. It was an Influenza A virus, a strain known as H3N2, and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention says “Influenza A viruses that typically infect and transmit among one animal species sometimes can cross over and cause illness in another species.”
Researchers think the H3N2 strain, which is still around, had its origin in birds and later spread to people. Influenza can go the other way too: In 1998, the CDC says, “H3N2 viruses from humans were introduced into the pig population and caused widespread disease among pigs.”
Current theories suggest that the new coronavirus could have roots in bats and anteaters known as pangolins.
Kenney treated the killer whale trio of Shamu, Ramu and Kilroy with big guns: lots and lots of antibiotics. They received daily doses of 375 tetracycline antibiotic pills each to stave off bacterial pneumonia, Kenney told the Union. The pills were stuffed into dead mackerel and bonito fish. (Feeding pills to a killer whale is easier, it seems, than feeding them to a cat.)
The killer whales survived their brush with the flu in 1969, but the Shamu would not perform for much longer. Shamu retired in 1971 after she attacked and severely injured a secretary who was recruited to ride her. “This was the first killer whale attack on a human in history,” author David Kirby told me in 2012.
Shamu died shortly after the attack, and new Shamu killer whales have replaced her over the years. In recent years, SeaWorld has phased out killer whale performances amid the controversy following the devastating “Blackfish” documentary.
Kenney, the SeaWorld veterinarian, himself left the park in 1971 when he disagreed with its refusal to invest more in science, the Wall Street Journal reports.
But he had still managed to make a difference. Upon his death, the Union-Tribune reported that he’d “diagnosed the first case of diabetes in a dolphin, and cared for the first gray whale in captivity, Gigi, for whom he concocted a fortifying diet of ground-up squid, clams and heavy cream.”
The Wall Street Journal also reported that he once treated Shamu for a cold by spraying a decongestant through her blow hole, injected a diabetic dolphin with insulin and performed dental work on sea lions.