SALT LAKE CITY – How do you give a lion a COVID-19 test? Very, very carefully.
When the pride of lions at Utah’s Hogle Zoo contracted COVID-19 last year, the zoo took a number of precautions to test and treat them.
“A long swab like you get when you take your test,” said Dr. Erika Crook, director of animal health at Hogle Zoo in Utah. “We did it with long-handled tweezers. We did it behind a barrier and we did it while feeding them their meat. We used a full PPE and a meat stick and luckily the animals really have a great relationship with the keepers and we made it very safe.”
Most of the lion pride has been diagnosed. Only one lioness refused a nasal swab, even when her keepers lured her with a stick of meat. dr Crook described this as “grumpy”.
Now the zoo is introducing vaccines for some of its animals. The vaccine, which was developed specifically for animals by a division of Pfizer, is still in the experimental stage. So far, the zoo has vaccinated three snow leopards, five amur leopards, two tigers and one gorilla. Additional monkeys will be vaccinated as doses become available. dr Crook said they share data with the vaccine manufacturer and so far no animal has had an adverse reaction.
Utah’s Hogle Zoo is first rolling out the vaccine to its big cats because they are highly susceptible to COVID-19 and some are endangered species. Snow leopards have been removed from public view because they are most endangered (some have died from the virus in other zoos).
“Once they are fully vaccinated, we can’t wait to put them back on display for our guests to come and enjoy,” said Dr. Crook.
Video of a vaccination shared with FOX 13 News shows zookeeper Jerica Tull seducing Sasha, an Amur tiger, with a stick with meat on it. Then keeper Melanie Kuse stabs Sasha in the hip with a long pole with a syringe at the end. Sasha looks back briefly, but isn’t otherwise distracted by the jab.
“I never had to pull out my dart gun,” said Dr. Crook. “Everything was done very positively and they were vaccinated. We vaccinated over 10 animals in just over an hour.”
The Utah Department of Health & Human Services is also involved in research on COVID-19 and its impact on animals. dr Willy Lanier, the state public health veterinarian, is involved in studies into the virus and has collected samples from zoo animals.
“We know that the risk of the virus crossing from animals to humans is really quite low. There’s a much greater chance it’ll go the other way,” he told FOX 13 News. “But there are many unanswered questions about the virus in animals. Which species are susceptible? How do you get it? How do they pass it to each other in an animal population and how might the virus change in an animal population?”
Those studies are still ongoing, said Dr. Lanier, but it’s hoped the research will provide more data on how COVID affects animals and humans.
“Animal, human and environmental health are all interconnected,” he said. “So if animals have a disease problem, it can potentially have different implications for other species, including humans. So we want to learn as much as we can about it.”