Emmanuel, TikTok-famous emu, fights for life amid deadly bird flu crisis

Emmanuel the emu — who went viral on TikTok for hilariously pecking his owner’s phone as she filmed educational videos about farming — is fighting for his life amid a deadly outbreak of avian influenza that has killed most of the birds on the farm where he lives, his owner said.

Emmanuel is experiencing nerve damage in his right leg and can’t eat or drink on his own after contracting the disease on Wednesday, content creator and hobby farmer Taylor Blake shared late Saturday on social media. Blake, whose family owns Knuckle Bump Farms in South Florida, said the farm lost more than 50 birds in three days — all but Emmanuel and Rico the swan.

Emmanuel — the roughly 5-foot-8, 120-pound emu, whom The Washington Post interviewed in July — faces “a long road ahead” to recovery, Blake said. But he is a “fighter,” she added.

The United States is in the midst of a months-long avian influenza outbreak that experts have said is the most severe since 2015, when a “highly pathogenic” strain of the disease affected more than 49 million birds. The Department of Agriculture called it “the most costly animal health emergency” in its history.

Blake said she suspects the outbreak of avian influenza at the farm was spread by throngs of wild Egyptian geese, a type of aquatic bird known as waterfowl, who routinely fly in “under the cover of darkness.” She said she believes they spread the disease among the domesticated birds there.

“The virus hit them extremely hard and very quickly,” Blake wrote on Twitter as she described the extent of her family farm’s loss: “Every single” chicken, duck, goose, female black swan and turkey at the farm died in just three days.

Emmanuel’s videos have reached millions of people on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter. Blake and a puppet of Emmanuel were featured on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon in July, and Knuckle Bump Farms began to sell merchandise with the emu’s face on it.

Now, Blake wants to use what happened to her farm to raise awareness about the disease. She said she is “dedicated” to ensuring that Emmanuel survives it — describing a sling she and girlfriend Kristian Haggerty built so the emu could “start physical therapy.”

We put our brains together and built Emmanuel a sling so that we can start physical therapy with him, in the hopes that he will regain function of his right foot/leg. We have been tweaking and perfecting it over the last 48hrs. pic.twitter.com/rnltpoyzAE

— eco sister (@hiitaylorblake) October 15, 2022

In a video posted late Saturday, Emmanuel appeared alert, at one point looking straight into the camera as Blake showered kisses on his head.

I love you so much, Emmanuel😭 pic.twitter.com/MK3uDQUhTZ

— eco sister (@hiitaylorblake) October 16, 2022

Avian influenza is a viral disease that typically spreads from wild birds to domesticated birds through bodily fluids, including saliva and feces. In its highly pathogenic form, it is extremely infectious and deadly and cannot be treated.

The virus affects birds differently: Some are simply found dead with no signs of illness, while in others, it can lead to neurological damage, including seizures, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

While experts say the risk of it spreading from birds to humans is low, it can happen and can cause severe illness or death. In April, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that a person in Colorado involved “in the culling (depopulating) of poultry with presumptive H5N1 bird flu” had tested positive for the virus, experienced symptoms and then recovered. It said the health risk to the general population remains low.

The current outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza began in January 2022 in Canada and is believed to have spread from Europe. Wild birds migrating to the United States are thought to have brought the virus to dozens of states — including, for the first time, Florida, where the outbreak has been “unprecedented,” the commission said.

Blake said Saturday that she had been in contact with Florida officials, who she said told her that standing water left behind by Hurricane Ian, which battered the state in late September, had “made the virus run rampant.”

Florida wildlife officials could not be immediately reached for comment early Sunday. Various studies have shown that the risk of highly pathogenic avian influenza spreading increases with proximity to contaminated bodies of water.

In a previous interview with The Post, Blake described how she began posting videos with the animals at Knuckle Bump Farms in 2018 to entertain and educate people about farm life. The first time Emmanuel interrupted her as she was filming a video on the farm, Blake was irritated and didn’t post it. About a month later, she was re-watching the video on her phone and thought the interruption was funny.

“I just posted it, not thinking anything of it,” she said at the time. It “completely spiraled from there.”

Blake said Emmanuel has a genuine “obsession with the camera” — and with her. “No matter where I am … he always has to be right next to me.”

Soon after Blake posted about Emmanuel’s condition on Twitter, messages of support began to pour in from well-wishers who have grown to love Emmanuel and his relentless pursuit of his owner’s cellphone.

“DONT YOU DARE DO IT Emmanuel Todd Lopez. You are the king of birds and YOU WILL SURVIVE!!!,” one said, using Emmanuel’s full name and echoing Blake’s standard rebuke for the rebel bird.

“We love you Emmanuel! You were put on this earth to bring joy to the world,” one wrote. “Keep fighting!!!”

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