In another example of the risk COVID-19 poses to big cats, three snow leopards died of complications related to the disease at a zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The Lincoln Children’s Zoo announced the deaths in a Facebook post on Friday.
“Our leopards, Ranney, Everest, and Makalu, were beloved by our entire community inside and outside of the zoo,” the zoo said. “This loss is truly heartbreaking, and we are all grieving together.”
The three snow leopards first tested positive for the new coronavirus on October 13 along with the zoo’s Sumatran tigers, the zoo announced at the time. The felines were treated with steroids and antibiotics to prevent secondary infections. The treatment did seem to work for the infected Sumatran tigers, named Axl and Kumar, who appear to have made a full recovery.
In its October announcement, the zoo said it did not know how the felines contracted the illness.
“The Zoo has conducted a thorough investigation of all staff that were in close proximity to the felids,” the zoo wrote. “There is no evidence to pinpoint the source of the infection. It is possible that the infection can be spread by an asymptomatic carrier. However, it has been standard practice for all animal care staff to wear masks in all indoor facilities.”
The zoo also said that there was no risk to the public because of the distance between animals and visitors. After the deaths, the zoo remains open to the public.
“We will continue following the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (AAZV) and CDC guidelines to ensure the safety of our animals, staff, and community,” the zoo wrote.
This is not the first time that large cats at zoos have contracted the coronavirus. A tiger at the Bronx Zoo became the first U.S. animal to test positive for the virus in April 2020. Since then, three snow leopards at the Louisville Zoo were infected last December, and another snow leopard tested positively at the San Diego Zoo in July, CNN reported.
In general, the risk of animals spreading the virus that causes COVID-19 to humans is considered low by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, there is a risk of humans spreading the virus to animals after close contact. Animals that have tested positive include domesticated animals like cats, dogs and ferrets; zoo animals including large cats, otters and primates; farmed minks; and wild white-tailed deer.
An animal COVID vaccine developed by Zoetis has been authorized for experimental, case-by-case use by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as NBC News reported. So far, the company has donated more than 11,000 doses to zoos and other types of sanctuaries and organizations in 27 states.
Some animal rights advocates say the instances of COVID-19 in zoos highlight a broader problem with raising animals in captivity.
“One of the main reasons that zoos can be hotbeds for deadly disease transmission — which threatens elephants, tigers and other captive animals as well as human beings — is that captive animals can suffer from compromised immune systems due to the confines of captivity, rendering them more susceptible to illness,” In Defense of Animals president Marilyn Kroplick wrote last year. “In many facilities, tigers and elephants are often held in cramped enclosures that bear little resemblance to their natural wild habitats. They can be forced to perform or interact with the public on a daily basis or endure living in solitary confinement.”
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