Sunset Zoo has updated its animal care protocols after a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York City recently tested positive for COVID-19.
Zoo Director Scott Shoemaker said animal care staff have been wearing gloves and masks when working around animals, especially its two Malayan tigers, Hakim and Malik, and each other. They also have been practicing social distancing while working.
After learning of the Bronx Zoo case, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums asked its affiliates, which includes Sunset Zoo, to review and update their protocols.
Melissa Kirkwood, marketing and development officer of the zoo, said zookeepers already had been wearing some sort of protective gear and keeping distance between themselves and the animals, but now they have increased that distance and only one keeper can work in an enclosure at a time. Other zookeepers have to be in the general vicinity for safety reasons, but it is from at least a least six-foot distance.
“We know the tigers are in question, but we’re now practicing social distancing with all of the animals,” Kirkwood said.
Staff have been wearing cloth masks with filters since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended their usage to prevent spread of the virus, though the zoo has some of its own types of masks (not N95) as well.
Employees also regularly disinfected zoo facilities as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the cleaning methods have changed a bit to prevent aerosolizing the virus if it is present. Instead of spraying animal areas, staffers wash them with water and push it out with brooms. However, Kirkwood said staffers do spray out animal areas if there are no animals present at all.
Other hygiene precautions staff are taking include continuing to utilize foot baths when entering and leaving the tiger den, and storing cleaning materials and utensils separately to prevent cross contamination.
Kirkwood said the zoo has access to resources to test the animals for the virus if staff feel there is a need, but the test is not the same as the one used for humans. Kirkwood said they have not noticed any abnormal activity from their animals so far.
“Thankfully being (near) Kansas State University, one of the best vet schools in the nation, we have access to some of the greatest vet care possible,” Kirkwood said. “... Any incident, whether it’s COVID — which we hope never happens to one of our animals — or another illness like the flu, we monitor the symptoms of animals daily and that is relayed to our vet staff.”
A veterinarian at the Bronx Zoo said its positive test incident is, to their knowledge, the first time a wild animal has gotten sick from COVID-19 from a person. Meanwhile, some domestic animals around the world have tested positive.
Officials said the Malayan tiger likely contracted the virus from an infected asymptomatic zookeeper. Six other big cats at the zoo also exhibited symptoms consistent with the illness. They were not tested, but they are being treated for the symptoms.
Both wild and domestic cats are susceptible to feline coronavirus, but it was unknown whether they could contract the new coronavirus. Scientists are still trying to determine what other species could be infected and how the virus may progress in animals.