Wildfires, smoke and air quality are top of mind for many of us in the western U.S., and our hearts go out to those who have been directly impacted by the fires. All is safe at the Seattle Aquarium but, due to very poor air quality in our region, we were closed to the public for most of last week to help protect the health of our guests, staff and volunteers.
How might poor air quality affect the animals in our care? It depends on the species as well as individual underlying health conditions, if any. "Fish and many aquatic invertebrates do their gas exchange across gills—and last week's smoke and ash didn't have any direct impact on the quality of our water, although the low light intensity may have had some impacts," explains Senior Veterinarian Dr. Caitlin Hadfield.
Birds and marine mammals are a different story. “They have similar eyes, lungs and airways to humans—although bird respiratory tracts are much more efficient than ours—so they could have felt impacts from the poor air quality,” she continues. “Until the smoke cleared, we continued to monitor them all very closely, along with the air quality index. We had contingency plans in place and were prepared to provide assistance, but the animals all did well.”
Now that Seattle's air quality is back in the "good" zone and the Aquarium is open again, we can all breathe a big sigh of relief (if you'll pardon the pun). But last week's smoky conditions provided another great reminder of the value of training our animals to participate in their own health care: it allows us to monitor them without causing any stress.
Speaking of air quality and animals participating in their own health care… longtime readers of our blog may remember that our youngest sea otter, Mishka, was diagnosed with asthma in 2015, when wildfire smoke was also an issue in our area. Just like humans with asthma learn to use inhalers to manage their symptoms, Mishka learned to use one to manage hers—through training with our expert animal care staff. (Fast fact: Mishka’s medications were the same as those used by humans with asthma!)
Animal Care Specialists Sara Perry and Caroline Hempstead used food to reward Mishka for pushing her nose on the inhaler and taking a breath. “We try to make it as fun as possible,” Sara said at the time. “Anytime you’re training a medical behavior, you want to make it nice and positive.” Mishka responded well to the training—she’s a quick study, especially when food is involved!
And, while she hasn’t needed an inhaler in the last few years, “We continue to practice the behavior with her—without medication— just in case she ever needs it,” says Dr. Hadfield.
How did Mishka weather last week's smoky conditions? “She continued to do well,” says Dr. Hadfield. “She didn't show any symptoms and hasn't had issues with wildfire smoke over the last few summers, although last week was particularly severe. Our animal care and veterinary staff continue to monitor her respiratory health closely,” she adds.
Interested in seeing how Mishka is doing for yourself? Check out our live webcams, and plan an in-person visit to the Seattle Aquarium. The severity of the wildfires this year is a strong reminder of the importance of caring for the Earth and the one world ocean we all depend on, and the Seattle Aquarium is the perfect place to learn what each of us can do to protect our fragile environment. We hope to see you here soon!