Exactly a week after announcing that her beloved emu, Emmanuel, had come down with a dangerous case of bird flu, owner Taylor Blake revealed he never had the virus.
“Emmanuel Todd Lopez tested negative for Avian Influenza at 2 separate labs, swab, fecal and blood. He does not have the virus, and is not actively shedding the virus,” Blake tweeted on Saturday, Oct. 22. She said he also tested negative for Eastern equine encephalitis virus, West Nile virus, chlamydia, and salmonella.
Instead, Emmanuel’s symptoms, which included “apparent nerve damage” in his right foot, fatigue, lack of appetite, weakness, and a twisted neck, were a result of stress, Blake said.
More than 50 birds in Blake’s Florida farm died in just three days following what she believes was the introduction of avian influenza via wild Egyptian geese; any remaining birds in her flock were euthanized by the state, according to her recent tweets. However, it’s unclear whether those birds were ever confirmed to have avian influenza.
“Emus are highly susceptible to stress. He was incredibly overwhelmed by the state coming in and euthanizing our flock. (Although it was necessary, it was still very stressful on him). He stopped eating the day they depopulated,” Blake wrote. “Something in my gut just told me that this wasn’t the end for him. So I kept fighting for him, and I don’t regret it. He never once had a single symptom of AI, other than not eating, which is often caused by stress in emus. It was just very coincidental timing.”
The news of what could have been the demise of one of TikTok’s favorite birds took the internet by storm. Photos of Blake kissing and cuddling Emmanuel without proper protection concerned virologists and animal handlers who immediately tried to warn the public that those behaviors can not only lead to Blake getting seriously ill, but also give rise to another pandemic.
People can contract avian influenza by touching their mouth, eyes, or nose after prolonged, close, and unprotected contact with infected birds’ saliva, feces, or bodily fluids. When a virus jumps from birds to humans, the germ could undergo genetic changes and spread more easily from person to person.
Not everyone who gets infected experiences symptoms, but those who do may feel mild illness, such as sore throat, eye redness, runny nose, body aches, headaches, and fatigue. More serious conditions that could require hospitalization, like pneumonia, are possible. Other less common symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, or seizures.
After Blake announced Emmanuel’s illness on Oct. 15, people began to accuse her of using the sick bird for attention. Multiple creators pointed out that Blake has attempted to go viral several times over the past 10 years: for playing a “Karen” character in several videos, for keeping a journal of sweet memories to ask out her crush, for a viral video in which she asked a Taco Bell employee to come over for a sleepover, and for appearing on a YouTuber reality show called Reality House.
Once clout-chasing allegations surfaced, so did accusations of racism, which were also brought up last time Blake went viral. In 2020, Twitter user @RihIsJamaican shared a thread accusing Blake of downplaying racism by saying it can “only be combated with love.” Recently, others have shared screenshots of racist tweets from 2011, 2012, and 2015 that appeared to be from Blake’s account.
People have accused Blake of “rebranding” as a “farm girl” to distract from the allegations. One Twitter user said she felt “duped” by Blake’s pivot to emu content. Blake has continued to provide updates about Emmanuel but has not addressed her past.
Blake has not responded to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.
The timeline of when Emmanuel’s symptoms appeared and when he was tested for bird flu, as well as what tests he received, are also a bit murky.
According to Blake’s tweets, Emmanuel “went down” on Oct. 12 following the loss of the majority of her flock over three days. On Oct. 17, Blake’s avian specialist visited her farm to test him for bird flu. Five days later, Blake announced he was negative.
Initial avian influenza screening tests can be conducted at any one of the more than 45 laboratories in the National Animal Health Laboratory Network approved by the US Department of Agriculture. In most cases, results will be ready the same day a lab receives a sample.
If a test comes back positive for bird flu, samples are sent to the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Iowa — the only lab in the US that can determine the specific strain of the virus. Results typically take about one to two days to come back, but sometimes longer, the USDA says.
This is important because bird flu is separated into two categories: low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI), which causes little to no symptoms in birds, and highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) — strains that are extremely contagious and deadly to birds, which are likely responsible for the losses at Blake’s farm.
HPAI has been spreading in Europe for about a year and recently made its way to Canada. It was detected for the first time in Florida in January and has since been found in several other states, including Kentucky, New York, Virginia, Delaware, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, and Nebraska.