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Lions and tigers and cares: Hogle Zoo taking coronavirus precautions with big cats

Pet owners need not worry, veterinary association notes

Cila, a 17-year-old Amur tiger, watches her keepers from her enclosure at Utah’s Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 6, 2020. Keepers at the zoo are wearing new protective gear after it was discovered a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York tested positive for COVID-19.
Cila, a 17-year-old Amur tiger, watches her keepers from her enclosure at Utah’s Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 6, 2020. Keepers at the zoo are wearing new protective gear after it was discovered a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York tested positive for COVID-19.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Hogle Zoo is taking extra precautions with its big cats and other animals after a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York City came down with the coronavirus over the weekend.

Keepers are having their temperatures taken and donning masks and gloves before interacting with the Amur tigers, Amur leopards, Pallas’ cats, snow leopards and Siberian lynx housed in the zoo’s Asian Highlands exhibit as well as the African lions in the African Savanna exhibit. The zoo also has a number of small cats.

“Naturally, up here at the zoo, we’re not going to take any chances so we have altered the way we take care of our big cats on a day-to-day basis,” said Erica Hansen, community relations coordinator. “Anybody who isn’t a part of the animal care team won’t be going into the area.”

The zoo also has suspended training and up-close work with cats, she said.

The case at the Bronx Zoo is the first instance of a tiger being infected with COVID-19, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Samples from the tiger were taken and tested after several lions and tigers at the zoo showed symptoms of respiratory illness. All of them are expected to recover.

Public health officials believe the large cats became sick after being exposed to a zoo employee who was actively shedding the virus. Animals in other areas of the zoo are not showing symptoms.

Zoo veterinarian Erika Crook said that given the number of COVID-19 cases in New York, she wasn’t surprised an animal became infected.

“I just didn’t know quickly we would see an exotic zoo-based cat with it,” she said.

Hogle Zoo had already compiled a list of possibly susceptible species starting with primates such as monkeys, gorillas and orangutans, Crook said.

“There has been no proof that any of those primates have got COVID-19, but we just wanted to be safe, so we’d already put into practice taking temperatures of our keeper staff working with those animals,” she said, adding the zoo “quickly ramped it up” to include big and small cats after learning the tiger in the Bronx tested positive.

The zoo is also using the same measure for keepers who work with ferrets and red foxes — the foxes because of reports that two dogs in Hong Kong were infected with COVID-19, Crook said.

The zoo has a limited supply of personal protective equipment, which keepers are using judiciously but that will eventually run out, she said.

“Just like every medical facility across the country, we’re trying to find it wherever we can and we’re kind of not finding it,” Crook said, adding zoo volunteers are making masks at home.

Hogle Zoo closed to the public March 17 but holds regular Facebook field trips. Even though no revenue from admissions is coming in, the expense of caring for the animals — about $40,000 day — doesn’t go away. Most animals are fed once or twice a day.

And now the novel coronavirus has invaded a zoo.

“Obviously, like everybody else, we’re getting information thrown at us at 200 miles an hour. I’ve looked long and hard and there doesn’t seem to be an instruction manual on how to get through this,” said Steve Burns, Hogle Zoo CEO.

Also, like others, he said, the zoo will develop a plan and have to change it hours later because of more information.

Naturally, pet and livestock owners now might be wondering how prone their animals are to the novel coronavirus.

There have been no reports of pets or livestock becoming ill with COVID-19 in the United States, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. There is also no evidence at this time that domestic animals, including pets and livestock, can spread the disease to people.

“Stay at home and keep your pet at home, that’s the main thing that we are reinforcing,” said Deann Shepherd, Humane Society of Utah director of marketing and communications. “Don’t panic that you’re going to get sick from your pet and come drop your animal at the shelter.”

Though some have claimed people are dumping pets at shelters — which is illegal — the humane society hasn’t seen that happening, she said.

People who are not ill with the virus can interact with their animals as they normally would, including feeding and otherwise caring for them, while continuing to practice good hygiene during those interactions, the association says.

For those who have COVID-19, the veterinary association suggests restricting contact with pets and other animals out of an abundance of caution and until more is known about the virus. When possible, have another member of the household or business feed and care for any animals.

If infected people do bring in their pets to the humane society, vets are wearing reusable protective gowns and putting the animal in quarantine as a precaution against the potential for transmission, Shepherd said.

The humane society is recommending that pet owners have an emergency plan, including a two-week supply of food, medication and other items, for a family member or friend to care for their animal should they get sick and are unable to care for it.

Two dogs in Hong Kong and a two cats, one in Belgium and one in Hong Kong, living with people diagnosed with COVID-19 have been reported to have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, but other dogs and cats also living with infected people remain did not get sick, according to the veterinary medical association.