The TikTok Emu Was Just Stressed

It appears TikTok’s favorite emu, Emmanuel Todd Lopez, is going to be OK after his farm’s recent brush with avian influenza that killed many of his fellow feathered mates. His owner’s reputation, however, might not be doing so well after Twitter users posted screenshots of old tweets they said were from her account.

Let’s walk through this week’s second-biggest online bird drama. (The first, of course, being the drama of Elon Musk buying a certain bird app for $44 billion.)

Emmanuel Todd Lopez is an emu. He is 5-foot-8 and lives on Knuckle Bump Farms, a small hobby farm in Florida. The farm’s TikTok account, run by Taylor Blake, has more than two million followers where people can watch videos featuring cows, emus and goats. (Oh my!)

Emmanuel has played a big part in the farm’s online following. Over the summer, Ms. Blake and Emmanuel went viral for Emmanuel’s habit of wandering into her videos and knocking Ms. Blake’s phone to the ground.

In one popular TikTok video, Ms. Blake is trying to record when Emmanuel appears in the frame, apparently intent on pecking Ms. Blake’s phone. “Emmanuel, don’t do it,” Ms. Blake said in the video, speaking like a parent addressing a misbehaving child.

It worked. Emmanuel didn’t peck the phone and, as a side benefit, he became an internet celebrity. The Washington Post interviewed him in July. (Ms. Blake answered questions via Zoom while Emmanuel looked on.) Ms. Blake appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” In a clip on YouTube titled, “Jimmy Don’t Do It,” Ms. Blake yells at Mr. Fallon as if he were her emu.

More recently, Knuckle Bump Farms had a second, darker viral moment when Ms. Blake announced on Twitter that her flock had been struck with what appeared to be avian influenza, or bird flu. “Our farm was heavily impacted by wild geese bringing in AI, and we lost 99% of the birds on our farm,” Ms. Blake tweeted on Oct. 15. “We lost every single chicken and duck on our farm. We lost all of our geese. We lost our 2 female black swans. We lost both of our turkeys,” she added in another tweet.

There are two types of avian influenza: low pathogenic and highly pathogenic, which describes how severe the virus is in poultry. A highly pathogenic strain known as H5N1, which is highly contagious and often fatal to poultry, has spread rapidly through the United States this year. (Although the virus currently poses little risk to the general public, it can infect people who are in close contact with birds.) Cases in birds spiked last spring, but settled down over the summer.

“Now that fall migration has begun, with our migratory birds coming back from all points, north down into the lower 48 and actually all the way to South America, now it’s very clear that migratory waterfowl have brought more of this virus back with them,” said Bryan Richards, the emerging disease coordinator at the National Wildlife Health Center, which is part of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The numbers of farmed birds affected this year are on track with those from 2015, the last time the United States was hit hard by avian influenza. In 2015, the number of farmed birds affected was 50 million. The current count for 2022 is 48 million, Mr. Richards said.

But this year’s outbreak has taken an unusually high toll on wild birds, which can introduce the virus to farms as they migrate. The virus is transmitted orally and through feces, Mr. Richards said. Once a bird is sick, “they’re shedding virus literally out both ends inside of a water system,” he said.

Ms. Blake also tweeted that Emmanuel “unexpectedly went down” on Oct. 12 and she and her team had been treating him around the clock in an attempt to save his life. More than 50,000 people liked the tweet, and thousands more have liked and shared Ms. Blake’s other tweets about the situation.

Ms. Blake’s tweets, in which she appears very close to the bird without a mask, also drew criticism. Ms. Blake tweeted she did not wear a mask with Emmanuel because it caused the bird to “freak out.”

Avian influenza is a zoonotic disease, meaning that like monkeypox or Covid-19, it can travel from animals to humans. There’s only one reported case in the U.S., but Mr. Richards cautioned strongly that increased exposure can only lead to increased risk of infection and should be avoided — which is a more professional way of saying please, please do not kiss your sick birds.

Things once again got worse for Ms. Blake. As her tweets about the farm circulated online, other Twitter users began surfacing screenshots of years-old tweets that appeared to also be from Ms. Blake’s account and include racial slurs. (The New York Times has not been able to verify that Ms. Blake wrote the tweets.)

Previous online antics also cropped up, including a video in which she filmed herself asking a Taco Bell employee to come over for a sleepover, and a series of videos in which she played a Karen character.

An article for BuzzFeed News about Emmanuel and Ms. Blake reported: “People have accused Blake of ‘rebranding’ as a ‘farm girl’ to distract from the allegations.”

On Twitter, a beloved person or thing that is later revealed to be problematic in some way is known colloquially as a “milkshake duck.” A designation that plenty of people were quick to assign Ms. Blake. (The jokes here — duck, problematic bird farmer, sick emu — write themselves.)

Ms. Blake has not responded to accusations that she posted racist tweets, instead regularly posting updates about Emmanuel’s health, which appears to be improving. On Twitter, Ms. Blake described the various measures Knuckle Bump Farms was taking to control the situation. In a tweet on Oct. 22, Ms. Blake wrote that state officials had come to the farm to depopulate, or euthanize, the infected birds.

“We’ve had no deaths or symptoms since the state depopulated our flock. Both of our neighbors have chickens on either side, & they’ve experienced zero loss & no sick birds,” Ms. Blake wrote in a tweet on Oct. 22. “I know we made the right choice in allowing the state to depopulate our poultry & ducks, as hard as it was.”

It is unclear how many birds died of the disease before the farm was officially depopulated or why Emmanuel was spared. Ms. Blake did not respond to a request for comment.

“Our Division of Animal Industry has been in contact with the Florida Department of Health and with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ensure that Emmanuel the Emu’s owner is being provided current guidance on reducing the risk of spread of the HPAI virus to people or other animals,” Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services wrote in a statement provided by email.

The statement also said that Emmanuel’s home farm is under state quarantine to ensure the safety of its animals.

In later updates, Ms. Blake declared Emmanuel’s ultimate diagnosis was … stress. Which is, honestly, the most relatable part of this entire mess.

It Happened Online is a column in which we explain very particular bits of news enabled and amplified by social media.

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