When Dr. Mike Murray’s needle was ready, the scene gave a new definition to “vaccine hesitant.” There was wriggling and squirming, even with four assistants wearing thick, bite-proof gloves holding the patient on a mat with a duffel bag filled with foam.

“Buzz saw in a fur coat,” Murray joked after administering the shot into a patch of thick fur.

It was over in 10 seconds, with no selfies, stickers or lollipops. And California’s latest COVID-19 vaccine recipient was ready to head back into the tank that serves as her temporary home at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The aquarium has begun vaccinating sea otters, a species that is still on the endangered list, in an effort to reduce the risk of a devastating outbreak among the fuzzy, beloved mascots of California’s central coast.

The program, believed to the first in the nation to vaccinate sea otters, is being closely watched by other aquariums and zoos, which are likely to follow suit.

“There’s a lot of evidence that this family of animals — ferrets, mink, otters — are susceptible,” said Murray, the aquarium’s chief veterinarian. “We have an obligation to protect the animals’ health.”


Since August, the aquarium has vaccinated eight sea otters, finishing the group this week. Four — Ivy, Abby, Kit and Selka — live in the aquarium and frolic in a big exhibit tank while visitors take photos.

The other four are wild otters that came to the aquarium as part of its rescue-and-rehabilitation program. When otter pups are stranded on beaches, having been separated from their mothers, they are sometimes brought to the 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 made by Zoetis, a New Jersey company that is the leading seller of animal drugs in the world.

So far, Murray said, they have had no adverse reactions.

“They don’t seem to miss a beat,” he said.

To date, none of the otters at the aquarium, or other animals there, has tested positive for COVID-19.

But in April, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta announced that several of its Asian small-clawed otters tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Their symptoms included sneezing, runny noses, lethargy and coughing. Georgia Aquarium officials suspected the otters caught the infection from a staff member who was not showing symptoms.

Those 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 were euthanized after outbreaks and viral mutations were reported at more than 200 fur farms.


Other animals have 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 around the United States are vaccinating a wide variety of mammals, including apes, lions and giraffes. This summer, the Oakland Zoo vaccinated tigers, black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions, ferrets, chimpanzees, fruit bats and pigs.

Murray worries that if an otter caught COVID-19 from a person at the aquarium and was released into the wild, it could spread the disease to the wild otter population — like a biological oil spill. And that could take a big toll.

In the ocean, sea otters dive up to 70 feet deep to find clams, crabs, urchins, abalone and other food on the sea floor. They eat up to 25% of their body weight every day.

“The virus is respiratory,” Murray said. “A sea otter in the wild is an Olympic-class athlete. If they can’t touch the bottom, they will starve. They’ve got to be able to breathe effectively so they can hunt.”

Historically there were about 16,000 sea otters from the Oregon-California border to Baja, Mexico. But they were hunted relentlessly in the late 1700s and early 1800s by Russian, British and American fur traders for their pelts, which are denser and softer than mink fur.


California otters were feared extinct until the 1930s, when about 50 were discovered in remote Big Sur coves. Protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1977, they began a slow comeback. Today there are nearly 3,000, but they remain on the endangered species list.

Among their biggest threats are diseases and attacks from great white sharks, which have limited them from expanding their range north of Pigeon Point Lighthouse in San Mateo County back to their historic habitat. That has prompted increasing research and interest from some scientists and environmentalists to consider moving some otters farther up the California coast, possibly to Tomales Bay, San Francisco Bay, Humboldt Bay or another location. But fishing interests are wary and government approval could take years.

Murray said there is no risk of visitors to the aquarium getting COVID-19 from the animals. Fish don’t get COVID-19, he noted, and other animals are behind glass. Also, the aquarium recently put in place a policy that all visitors, already required to wear masks, must show proof of vaccination or a negative test within the past 72 hours to be admitted.

Other marine experts said they approve of the otter vaccination program, which was given the OK by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Andrew Johnson, California representative with Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group. “It’s basic preventative medicine. It’s about them receiving the best possible care.”

Dr. Cara Field, medical director for the Marine Mammal Center in Marin County, said that she supports the vaccination program. Her organization is not vaccinating otters, seals, seal lions and other animals it treats, she said, but has tested more than 500 and might consider a vaccine program if COVID-19 cases began emerging in wild animals they see.

She said the best way for people to protect animals, including dogs and cats, which also have become infected from humans with COVID-19, is for people to be vaccinated.

“These animals can get infected,” she said. “We are infecting them. It’s up to us to protect them.”