Over a year ago, a young sea otter named Mishka (Russian for "little bear") made her home at the Seattle Aquarium. She'd originally been found caught in a fishing net, and the initial plan was to bring her to the aquarium to recover and rehabilitate before being released back into the wild. When they found that Mishka lacked critical survival skills because she was so young when she was rescued, the aquarium became her new home. Like any sea otter, she was playful and took to her new habitat immediately, exploring toys and piles of ice. However, when the smoke from the 2015 wildfires in eastern Washington floated down the Cascade Range Mountains to the aquarium, she was suddenly acting lethargic and not eating as much. The next day, she had a full-blown asthma attack.
Asthma is a lung condition where swollen or inflamed airways are sensitive to certain irritants or "triggers," such as dust, cold weather, or smoke. Exposure to a trigger causes airways to tighten and create extra mucus and swell even more, making it hard to breathe. You might assume that asthma is a human condition, but animals can have asthma, too. In fact, it's fairly common in cats and horses. Marine animals with asthma, on the other hand, are a lot less common. Mishka is the first known sea otter to be diagnosed with asthma.
It's not exactly known how Mishka came to develop asthma, but scientists at the aquarium have a couple of ideas. For one thing, native Washington sea otters went extinct in the 1900's because of an intensive harvest for their pelts, and the genetic variety for them has now been vastly reduced, since the area had to be repopulated with otters from Alaska. It is believed that currently the otters around Washington could be descended from as few as 10 animals. This lack of genetic diversity can seriously impact their immune system and make it harder to fight off disease, or in this case, wildfire smoke damage.
While the diagnosis of asthma isn't great news for Mishka, she is actually teaching humans a lot of things, from how to train a sea otter to use an inhaler to a greater understanding of how our actions can affect the health of all species on our planet, a crucial lesson as we battle climate change. By having a human-like condition such as asthma, Mishka can help us raise awareness of public health threats like the increasing wildfires from climate change and remind us that these threaten humans, animals and the environment.