After a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus, local zoo officials at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium said they’ll continue to follow protocols already in place to prevent the spread of the disease to both their staff and the 10,000 animals in their care.
The top animal health official at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium says its daily operations will change little, if at all, after a tiger tested positive for the new coronavirus this weekend at the Bronx Zoo.
That’s because the zoo has had protocols in place for weeks, limiting contact among staff members and animals, to help keep both groups healthy as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread in Ohio.
Veterinarians and animal keepers have divided into small teams that stagger work on site to prevent an entire crew of specialized caregivers from becoming infected. They’re also wearing masks and other protective gear to reduce the likelihood of spreading disease to the zoo’s 10,000 animals.
“We do a lot of telemedicine, phone calls, video conferences — keepers sending us pictures of things, instead of us always going out to see them,” said Randy Junge, the zoo’s vice president of animal health, who is now on zoo grounds just twice weekly.
“There are just a few people on zoo grounds, and when they’re out, everyone is wearing a mask, waving at each other from 6 feet apart.”
That has been the situation since the zoo indefinitely shuttered its doors to the public on March 16, three weeks ago.
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The recently confirmed case of COVID-19 at the Bronx Zoo was in a 4-year-old female Malayan tiger. Three other tigers and three African lions had developed similar mild symptoms such as a dry cough and loss of appetite but were not tested because it would have required anesthetizing the animals. All are expected to recover.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Services Laboratory, based in Iowa, confirmed the case, a first for the species and for any animal in the U.S.
The department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which regulates zoos, suspects an employee who was “actively shedding virus” infected the tiger, according to a statement issued Sunday.
Some people don’t experience symptoms until up to 14 days after being infected, experts say.
The Bronx Zoo, like most nationwide, had been closed to the public since mid-March.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit group of more than 230 accredited institutions in the U.S. and abroad, including the Columbus Zoo, has advised big cat keepers to wear protective equipment, limit close interactions and use foot baths when entering or leaving a cat area.
The Columbus Zoo has had pandemic response plans for at least 20 years, said Doug Warmolts, its vice president of animal care.
“We were prepared for this, in a sense, but not to this magnitude,” he said. “Like the (COVID-19) virus in general, unfortunately a lot is still unknown.”
Though zoonotic diseases, transmitted between animals and people, may seem otherworldly to the public, for those who work in zoos, it’s a constant threat that must be prevented, Junge said.
It’s estimated that more than 60% of known infectious diseases in people can spread from animals, and that 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Examples of such diseases include rabies, salmonella, West Nile virus, Lyme disease and the H1N1 “swine flu” and H5N1 “bird flu” strains.
This has led to an approach among health professionals called “One Health” — recognizing that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment.
Coronaviruses are known to infect mammals and birds. It’s believed that this coronavirus pandemic started with an infected horseshoe bat in China, then jumped from another species to humans at a wildlife food market, researchers say.
Early research has indicated that cats and ferrets are susceptible, Junge said, citing a preliminary study out of China, where researchers forced high concentrations of the virus into the animals. Other animals, such as dogs, were not considered at risk.
It’s always assumed that primates can catch human diseases because they share a similar genetic makeup, Junge said. During flu season, their keepers always wear masks and protective gear.
“That’s why they get their flu shots in the fall, just like us,” Junge explained.
The recent developments shouldn’t be a cause for panic among cat and ferret owners, experts say.
There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in U.S. pets, and there is no evidence that any humans have been infected by animals beyond the initial cases in China, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nevertheless, the department and the American Veterinary Medical Association are advising people with COVID-19 infections to avoid contact with animals, including pets, out of “an abundance of caution.”
Owners who suspect their pets may be infected should talk to their veterinarians.
If a cat has no exposure to the outdoors, you’re more likely to infect it, not the other way around, Junge said.
Those who work in animal welfare say they’re already concerned about pets being surrendered or dumped as families struggle with the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Rachel Finney, CEO of Columbus Humane, said the Northwest Side shelter hasn’t experienced an influx of people surrendering their pets, but it is a concern. The nonprofit agency has plans ready to distribute food and supplies to owners in need.
“The very best thing people can do is keep their pets with them at home,” Finney said.
She also advised owners to plan in advance for their pets’ care in the event they are no longer able to look after them, such as during an extended hospitalization.