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Emmanuel the emu’s owner should keep a safe distance, bird flu experts warn

The caretaker of the TikTok-famous emu shared that he has avian influenza. In rare cases, handling infected birds can enable the virus to jump to people.

After TikTok user Taylor Blake shared photos of herself snuggling with Emmanuel the emu, who is sick with avian influenza, fans and bird flu experts alike warned of the dangers of touching infected animals.

Blake’s videos of Emmanuel went viral this year, getting millions of views on TikTok and boosting the emu's celebrity. But Blake announced Saturday that Emmanuel had fallen ill after a flock of wild Egyptian geese visited Knuckle Bump Farms, the hobby farm in South Florida where the emu lives.

Geese and other types of waterfowl are carriers of avian influenza and can pass the virus through saliva, mucus and droppings.

Blake said on Twitter that the virus killed 99% of the birds on her farm, including chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, female black swans and other emus popular with its TikTok followers. Her recent photos show her hand-feeding Emmanuel, giving him fluids and kissing him on the head.

The images and updates prompted some followers to point out that although Emmanuel’s illness is worrisome, it’s also alarming to see the emu and his caretaker cuddling, given the dangers of the virus. 

"Look we all love Emmanuel the Emu but he has avian flu. It’s transmissible to humans and other animals," a Twitter user wrote. "And it’s deadly. The absolute last thing his owners, with other birds and animals in their care, should be doing is kissing his face."

Avian flu experts, too, said touching an infected emu isn't advisable, given that the virus can jump from animals to humans in rare cases.

"Keeping [Emmanuel] away from humans and other birds or mammals would be probably the most responsible behavior," said Nichola Hill, an ecologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Blake didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. She told her followers Sunday that her farm is in a 150-day quarantine, with strict sanitation procedures, including hand- and foot-washing before and after contact with the animals.

She said that Emmanuel is "completely isolated" but that she doesn't wear a mask around him because he "freaks out" and she doesn't want to add more stress.

The farm has "been fully compliant with the state," she wrote.

H5N1, the bird flu strain currently spreading, is highly contagious among birds, and it can be deadly to them. It's also spreading to more places and affecting a greater diversity of species than past outbreaks.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 47 million poultry birds and nearly 3,000 wild birds have been infected across 46 states since January. Cases have also been recorded in red foxes, bobcats, otters, skunks and a dolphin.

"It’s spilling over in all kinds of different species, including mammals, which gives me a little pause for humans," said Maurice Pitesky, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. "Once an avian virus can move to mammals, now we’re in the realm of 'Yeah, we better be careful.'"

Experts said that the risk of a caretaker's getting avian influenza from a single animal is low but that the virus regularly mutates and that it could evolve to get better at jumping to humans over time. Two recent cases of H5N1 have been documented in people: an asymptomatic person in England who raised birds and an inmate in Colorado who'd been culling poultry.

"Historically, we’ve actually never had a transmission directly from a wild bird to a human, so if it did actually shift or transmit from the emu to its owner, who's clearly very affectionate with it, that would be a first," Hill said.

Dr. Jim Wellehan, an associate professor at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, has pet emus of his own. He said some evidence suggests H5N1 is spreading more through feces than through respiratory droplets. But even so, Wellehan said, "that’s not to suggest that it’s ever a good idea to go snuggle up with a bird with a virus."

If people must have contact with infected animals, he added, they should wear personal protective equipment, like masks and gloves.

Pitesky recommended that everyone working closely with poultry get their flu shots, as well.

All three experts said scientists are watching this bird flu closely even though the risk to humans is low.

"There’s eyes on this virus because it’s considered a pandemic risk, which means that if it could ever gain the ability to transmit from human to human, we’d be in trouble," Hill said.